Direct Action Gets the Goods and 1919 by the Graphic History Collective provide an illustrated history of workers strikes in Canada that add to a culture of activist art that will inspire new generations of activists to organize, fight and win. Where Direct Action provides a broad overview of strikes from 1800 to the present day, 1919 digs deep into the 1919 Winnipeg General strike to discuss the organizing strategies necessary for a general strike, and highlight the role of the state and employers in dividing workers.
These graphic histories argue that strikes are the most effective weapon workers have. First, strikes hit at the core of capitalism, the ability employers to make profits. In 2019, with Canadian workers often seeing strikes as action of last resort, these graphic histories reminds us that withholding your labour is a proven tactic in winning better working conditions.
Second, strikes not only address disputes between workers and their employers, but result in broader economic and political gains. For example, CUPW postal workers went on strike in 1981 which helped secure maternity leave for workers across Canada. Further, in the 1990’s, general strikes in Ontario mobilized workers in “Days of Action” that protested the austerity agenda of Progressive Conservative Premier Mike Harris. The Days of Action strikes and protests showcased the power of workers, and the inability of these strikes to topple Harris, was the result of labour leadership pulling the plug on the strikes too soon.
Third, each strike yields important lessons and legacies regardless whether the strike results in victory. One lesson highlighted is the importance of solidarity as a critical precondition for an effective strike. That is, solidarity must be built with non-union workers, and across gender, immigration status and with indigenous peoples. And when done effectively, strikes politicize and mobilize a generation of workers, helping to contribute to the success of future direct actions for decades.
While emphasizing that building solidarity is important, I hoped these graphic histories offered more to address how to protect and empower marginalized workers who are greater risk during a strike. Specifically, racialized, indigenous, immigrant and other marginalized workers are disproportionately victims of state and police violence. To their credit, these books are unafraid to emphasize that Canadian governments routinely use policy and police to suppress workers on strike. For example in 1919, David Lester’s brutal illustrations of Bloody Saturday highlight the violence that occured when the Royal Northwest Mounted Police charged demonstrators. In the aftermath, two protestors were killed, while many others were wounded, arrested, imprisoned and deported. Given Canada’s current polarized political landscape, I wish the graphic histories went deeper in how we can support each other collectively if the graphic histories wish for strikes to occur more often.
I appreciate the effort to transform working class history into a comic format. Attractive illustrations and shorter blocks of text help make learning about labour strikes in Canada more accessible and enjoyable for a wider audience. I also appreciate that the time taken to research the facts and provide a bibliography for further reading.
Nonetheless, my favourite panels are those where illustrators took creatively liberties with the source material. While some panels may be historically accurate as they were inspired by photographs, I enjoyed the drawings in which the artists had creative interpretations of the scene. For example, Lester’s vivid illustration of Bloody Saturday in 1919 helped show the violence of the day. And I loved the all different artists takes on Sabo-Cat and spotting the cat slink and stalk throughout each frame was great.
I also wished these graphic histories delved deeper into individual characters. While many individuals are named, we rarely learn about their personalities. Were there workers who were afraid to strike? In the introduction of 1919, the authors suggest it takes hard work to raise awareness of class struggle. What were these conversations to raise class consciousness? If the goal is to inspire readers to consider going on strike, further exploring the doubts of workers and how organizers overcome these challenges would be worthwhile.
Furthermore, I understand interpretations of history is political and historical storytelling is not value-neutral, but it would be interesting to see a portrayal of workers and the state in less black-and-white terms. Admittedly, there are some good examples of this in the books. In 1919, there is a panel where workers recognized police as workers too and the police in turn showed their support of the demonstrators. And in Direct Action, there is example where workers went on strike to limit competition from American, Japanese and indigenous fishermen. But otherwise workers are shown as uniformly determined to go on strike and all members of the politicians and the police want to crush them.
Nonetheless, both these graphic histories were enjoyable reads and I look forward to see what the Graphic History Collective is up to next.
Direct Action Gets the Goods: A Graphic History of the Strike in Canada by the Graphic History Collective and 1919: A Graphic History of the Winnipeg General Strike Graphic History Collective and David Lester are available from Between the Lines.