Monday, 27 January 2020

Book Review - The Trade Union Badge (2002)

Paul Martin, The Trade Union badge - material culture in action (Ashgate, 2002)
Written By: Joe Fleming
Date: September 2002
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 16: Autumn 2002 

With such a title, and a price of £30 (for a small - 200pp - hardback) this is hardly going to be in the autumn best seller list!

However, it is worth a read (or a purchase?) if you get a chance. I presume it will only be seen in University reference libraries - perhaps filed under “design” or “culture/sociology”. That is a shame, as I know of no other book about the subject, and these badges do reveal a lot about working class history. There have been a few passing mentions, on TU badges, for example in John Gorman's "Images of Labour", or some wider circulation books on related subjects (TU banners, posters and certificates). But - as this book points out - TU badges have been taken, largely, for granted. Perhaps familiarity bred a form of contempt?

Not many people wear them now, to identify themselves as union members. Given the current uninspiring names of unions (Amicus, Unison etc) with perhaps a tiny splodge of colour (the New Labour design school) hardly a surprise.

But there was a time when badges were a major recruitment tool, a focus for organising - and a reason to be sacked!

This book gives a history of TU badges from the earliest (1870?) through their first peak (1910/12) and on through the second (1984/89). The first coincided with union growth, and the need for identity by "new unionism", and the second is linked with defeat. Paul Martin considers the “whys” of this, and how recent badge designs reflect back to more confident times. He places this discussion into an historical and political context. He also wonders why our class has been so poor at retaining and passing on such history.

Here I will declare an “interest” - some of the photos in the book are of badges I have at home, and I love them dearly. I think if you “read” badges carefully - thinking of who wore them, and their circumstances - they can bring history to life - you can hold history, and wear it (okay, I have lost some like that…). In this book I might have liked more about the designers of the images, recognition that working class people were producing wonderful designs - when perhaps official art historians just mention a miners painting school, in passing. To see a Ship Constructors badge, beautifully enamelled - with a ship ready to launch, red flags flying and the name “Unity” on the bow - and “we are as one” written around it - must move you.

So this is a book that starts to open our eyes about something that has been "everyday" to some, or unknown to others. I say “start”, because I would love to see more built on this - far more research, and to have someone write with more of an E. P. Thompson feel, to bring it all to life! Unfortunately, as Paul Martin found, there is so little written material that this may be all that is ever possible.

No comments:

Post a comment