By Steven Weiner for Unions Matter
I am a labor activist who loves unions, and was proud to be a Local 2627, DC 37, AFSCME Executive Board member and Shop Steward. My union fought for the benefits we now enjoy from the New York City Department of Education, which now include for me, a measure of economic security in retirement that never would have been otherwise.
As I study Aesthetic Realism, the education founded by the great American philosopher and critic, Eli Siegel, I’ve been learning about the tremendous meaning of unions and how much they have done for the American worker. It was Mr. Siegel who explained with compelling evidence: “Labor is the only source of wealth; there is no other source except land, the raw material.” I love this statement, and have seen its truth and its value! I’ve also learned that because of the success of unions over decades, enabling workers to earn increased pay and benefits, there has been a determined effort by corporate America and some state governments to weaken unions and even crush them. The reason: Every additional dollar earned by a union man or woman is that much less in the pockets of shareholders.
My studies include learning about individual men and women who had to do with the rise of the union movement. One such person is Ralph Fasanella (1914-1997), union organizer and painter, whom I admire very much. He fought for economic justice and depicted the struggle of working people in his paintings. He was called “Friend of the Worker, Artist of the People.” In a public seminar titled “A Man’s Dissatisfaction: What Makes It Right or Wrong?” presented at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York, I spoke about the meaning of his life and what he did. His deep-seated dissatisfaction with the conditions under which people were forced to work is part of the true meaning of Labor Day. That holiday recognizes the sacrifices millions of men and women made—some with their very lives—to have unions succeed.
Ralph Fasanella was born to Italian immigrant parents who had to work very hard to support their large family. Witnessing their valiant efforts to survive on meager wages and under brutal working conditions, he became keenly aware of what all workers had to endure. After returning from fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War, he became part of the American labor movement because, as he said, unions were:
“the beginning of the working man getting a break in this country. For the first time he had a right. He had a right to a holiday, forty-hour week. Vacations with pay. Pension plans. Job security.”
As a United Electrical Workers union representative in the early 1940s, Ralph Fasanella spoke passionately to firefighters, elevator operators, and hospital workers; and he led successful organizing drives at General Electric, Sperry Gyroscope, and AT&T. His life was rich and useful, and I’m glad to have learned about him.
I think Ralph Fasanella would have cared for and benefitted from what Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, has shown about the tremendous importance of unions. For instance, in No. 1348 of The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, titled “Unions and Beauty,” she quotes this central principle of Aesthetic Realism, as stated by Mr. Siegel: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Continuing, she writes:
“There are millions of people in America grateful to unions, and many more should be. And there are persons, including in government, who have been trying to destroy unions. But Aesthetic Realism is that which shows that a union, a true union, is aesthetic: like a concerto, a novel, a painting, it is a oneness of opposites. And its aesthetics is its power.”
And about opposites crucial in every labor union—oneness and manyness—she explains that in a union:
“many people become powerful by working as one, in behalf of justice…. A union is based on each single person saying, My well-being depends on trying to have all these other people get what they deserve. It’s based on all people saying, Together we’ll try to have each individual get what he or she deserves.”
I believe oneness and manyness are opposites that Fasanella put together well in much of his work. For instance, here is a detail from one of his numerous paintings about the textile workers strike of 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
We can see how the artist took multiple elements: buildings, churches, smokestacks, railroad cars, many and varied windows, striking workers, and so much more, and arranged them into a coherent, stirring composition. There are many people showing they have power, working together for one proud purpose: to have their strike succeed!
To read the entire issue of Unions and Beauty: