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Stephen Lewis’s Labor Posters

by Sean Lundergan, Boyle Fellow

Stephen Lewis is used to telling the story: he started his collection “by accident,” driven not by some deep desire to hoard posters, but by a passion for organized labor and for the causes championed by unions around the world. That passion has netted him a trove of more than 8,000 posters from six continents, and he continues to amass them by the hundreds—his most recent hauls came from Amsterdam and Australia.

The thousands of pieces don’t sit around collecting dust; when our Summer Fellow Will and I spoke with Steve in July, he rattled off a list of current and upcoming exhibitions in the Boston area, a list that went on long enough that some of the locations took a few beats to come to him. A collection decades in the making, the posters populate local libraries, city halls, and colleges on a regular basis, and Steve is always eager to share them with the public.

Steve joined SEIU Local 509 four decades ago as a state-employed mental health worker. A supporter of workers even before he joined a union, he quickly became a steward, and went on to chair the local’s Committee on Political Education and sit on the executive board of the Greater Boston Labor Council; later, he was elected Treasurer of 509. It was with these groups that he began to travel to national and international labor events, and in his visits to cities around the world he found himself coming home with posters from labor movements and other political causes. As time went on, he discovered he’d accumulated a substantial collection in his attic. He decided the pieces weren’t doing a lot of good hidden from view, and with the help of local unions and the collaboration of public libraries, he opened his first exhibitions.

On display now are three international poster exhibits—Human Rights/Labor Rights, Worker’s Struggles, and Green Politics. I visited the Worker’s Struggles exhibit at the Newbury Town Library in Byfield, where pieces were on display from four continents and over a century.

It’s immediately clear when you enter the exhibit that it’s an international collection. I counted nine languages—English, Danish, Arabic, Japanese, French, Russian, Spanish, Persian, and French—and it’s possible I missed one or two. Many of the posters were specifically international calls for solidarity, including a Russian poster supporting Nicaraguan workers and a Danish advertisement for a protest in support of British coal miners, both from the mid-80s. One recent poster came from Morocco, a 2013 call for a “Union of unions to achieve dignity, freedom, justice, socialism,” in Arabic script over a photo of a crowd of workers. Another reads, “Long live the heroic fight of the studious workers of the homeland. Right to strike. Increase wages. Etc.” in Persian, over a photo of assembled Iranian workers. An older poster, from 1930 Belgium, reads, in French, “Worker! The machine must liberate you and not enslave you.”

The exhibit includes pieces from the United States as well, with dates ranging from 1911 to 2011, and which impel viewers to respect a picket line, or oppose child labor, or support LGBT workers, among others. The placement of posters from different countries and eras underscores the universality of labor’s demands, and the connection between workers across borders and centuries.

To Steve, there are three traits that can make a poster noteworthy: its artistic value, its historical context, and the message it conveys. That’s the power and the charm of the exhibits: there’s something for everyone, from labor advocates to history nerds to people who just appreciate good graphic design. Most of the pieces in the Worker’s Struggles exhibit boast all three of these traits.

The International Labor Exhibit in Byfield runs through November 29, as do Steve’s exhibits in Haverhill and Georgetown. Full addresses are below.

Human Rights/Labor Rights

Haverhill Public Library, 99 Main St. Haverhill, MA

Mon/Tue/Thu 9am–9pm

Wed/Fri/Sat 9am–5pm

Sun 1pm–5pm

Worker’s Struggles

Newbury Town Library, 0 Lunt St. Byfield, MA

Tue/Thu 12pm–7pm

Wed/Fri 10am–5pm

Sat 10am–2pm

Green Politics

Georgetown Peabody Library, 2 Maple St. Georgetown, MA

Mon/Wed 2pm–8pm

Tue 10am–8pm

Fri 10am–5pm

Sat 9am–1pm

Steve takes his collections all around the Boston area, so if these aren’t convenient for you, one will probably come by some time soon! We’ll post about new exhibits when we find out about them. A few of the posters from this exhibit:

(I know these pictures aren’t of the best quality—get off my case, I’m not a photographer. I guess you’ll have to go see them yourself!)

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