“Solidarity” Mural Teaches Labor History Through Art

May 15, 2024

Thus the central question to ask regarding a mural is how does it affect the people’s lives—does it advance human dignity? The best murals are allies of the people, giving strength in realizing their fullest human potential…Murals are strong when they promote human dignity; when they combat racism and the exploitation of women within the context of whatever specific issue they’re dealing with; when they show and celebrate human understanding.

—Tim Drescher, in Mural Manual: How to Paint Murals for the Classroom, Community Center, and Street Corner (1975)

When you walked into UE Hall in Chicago you were greeted by an image of hands clasped together in solidarity with the UE logo in the background. Painted on the underside of the main staircase, the multi-racial hands reflect UE’s long history of uniting all workers regardless of race, nationality, or sex. The “Solidarity” mural that graced the walls of UE Hall on Ashland Avenue in Chicago was dedicated by its lead artists, John Pitman Weber and Jose Guerrero, “To the Builders of the Future, the Men and Women who Work in the Mines, Mills, and Factories.” Above this dedication were the 1857 words of Frederick Douglass reminding visitors that “If there is no struggle there is no progress.”

After a recent visit to the UE Hall, graduate worker and art historian at UE Local 1122 David Jones reflected that “Walking alongside the UE murals throughout the building, one gets a sense of the collective echoes of the union’s past, and its enduring commitment to organizing for workers rights. The mural effectively blurs the lines between the work that happens outside and the inner workings of the union.” 

Rebecca Zorach, Mary Jane Crowe Professor of Art and Art History at Northwestern University, who assisted with the winter 2024 efforts to preserve the mural, said the historic mural is “[a] visual narrative of solidarity and resilience — one that took shape in the context of a progressive, multiracial union of women and men,” and that it is an “extremely important artwork for Chicago history and for national and international labor history and American art history.” 

History of the Labor Movement through Murals

The “Solidarity” mural that spanned the staircase of the UE Hall tells the story of industrial unionism and the history of UE. The mural opens with UE union leaders facing off against a gold-hoarding, cigar-smoking Boss, visually representing the UE ethos of Them and US Unionism. While the Boss depicted here may be a generic stand-in, the UE union leaders are not. Standing their ground against the Boss is Ernie DeMaio, one of the first UE organizers on UE staff and major leader of the Chicago labor movement, and UE Local 1114 Assistant Business Manager, Jack Burch, a key UE organizer in the mid-20th century who in the 1970s became the first African-American to run for national office of UE. DeMaio was famously dragged in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the 1952 UE-FE International Harvester strike. The striking workers were having none of this and picketed outside the Chicago courthouse with signs that read “Investigate Police Brutality against Negro People” demanding the committee of elected representatives reassess their priorities and goals. Progressing through the mural are many of the female organizers who led UE in the 20th century including Florence Criley, longtime Chicago UE organizer who helped convene the first meeting of Coalition of Labor Union Women 50 years ago.

As visitors walked up the stairs they were met with a factory scene of workers melting metal in an open forge. Weber and Guerrero visited the AmForge plant, where workers were members of UE Local 174, to create this central tableau. Progressing through the mural are workers organizing and fighting “the enemies of the workers” such as police, the KKK, the national guard, and of course The Boss. Painted in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War protests, and campus uprisings, the mural reminds us that oppression takes many forms.

The Painters of the Murals aka Many Hands Make Light Work

John Pitman Weber is the founder of The Chicago Mural Group, now known as the Chicago Public Art Group. The Chicago Mural Movement began with William Walker’s now-demolished Wall of Respect (1967), which highlighted prominent African American cultural and political figures such as the Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks and revolutionary Malcolm X. Weber and Walker collaborated on numerous murals around Chicago in the late 1960s and 70s, and Walker assisted with the creation of the “Solidarity” mural. The other lead muralist on the “Solidarity” mural was Jose Guerrero, who moved to Chicago in the mid-1960s and worked at the Sunbeam factory. Guerrero and John Pitman Weber met in 1973 while Guerrero was working on his first mural, Si Se Puede, which paid homage to the struggle of the United Farm Workers back in Guerrero’s home state of California. After meeting, the pair worked for the next year on the UE murals with each worker painting around their non-artistic jobs — Guerrero continued working at the factory and Weber taught courses at Elmhurst College.

In his introduction to Mural Manual: How to Paint Murals for the Classroom, Community Center, and Street Corner (1975), co-written by Marie Burton, Holly Highfill, and Mark Rogovin, a leader of the Chicago-based Public Art Workshop, folk and labor singer Pete Seeger wrote:

In the crisis facing the inhabitants of this land, murals can fill a need for honest communication between all people on a non-verbal level…We can communicate with each other through color, line, and form. And as independent human beings, our content is going to be different from what is ground out on the drawing boards of commerce: we are going to build a new world. We are going to unite for peace, freedom, jobs for all, and a clean, unpolluted world to share. How will this come about? The murals will tell the story. You don’t believe me? Keep your eyes open.

Murals like those at UE Hall visually convey messages of collective struggle against multiple forms of oppression. They differ from other sorts of paintings in that they are public and are for the broader possible audience, not just the elite who can afford to buy a painting. Murals are art for and by the people. 

Solidarity Across Borders

The UE Hall was used for organizing meetings of all kinds over the decades. Organizers at the Chicago Teachers Union along with many other Chicago-based unions, groups, and organizations made use of the space. In tours of the hall, UE General President Carl Rosen, who served for over a decade as president of the UE district and then region headquartered there, mentions that meetings around ending South African apartheid also took place there. Recently Tech Workers for Palestine Chicago, a “group of workers, employed in or adjacent to tech industries, who stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people as they face genocide and systematic ethnic cleansing by Israel,” held a vigil for Gaza at the hall attended by community members including UE members. UE Local 1122 Co-Chair (2023-24) Kavi Chintam reflected that “it felt grounded and right to be honoring lives lost, and to be promising to continue to fight for the people surviving in Gaza, in a building where countless others have fought for the dignity and rights of workers. The genocide in Gaza and the labor movement intersect in significant ways; something not lost on anyone in the room. That made the experience that much more powerful.”

An exterior mural entitled “Hands of Solidarity,” painted by Mexican muralist Daniel Manrique in 1999, was a later addition to the building. UE’s sister union in Mexico, Frente Auténtico del Trabajo (FAT), features a corresponding mural by U.S. muralist Mike Alewitz called “Sindicalismo Sin Fronteras / Unions Without Borders.” These murals along with the murals inside UE Hall reflect UE’s commitment to international solidarity and forging connections across borders and geographies. The 2024 efforts to preserve the Solidarity mural even received coverage by a member of the CSN (Quebec), one of our other North American international union allies.

The Future of Labor and the Future of These Murals

In November 2023, during a tour of the building for UE graduate workers, President Rosen pointed to the scene of union leaders negotiating a contract and said, “that is going to be you guys soon.” Reflecting on the tour, Althea Bock-Hughes, general secretary of GSU-UE Local 1103 at the University of Chicago, said that, “Getting a tour of the UE murals was a really moving experience for me. The murals themselves tell the story of UE and what it stands for, but they also contain the history of all the people who made painting them in that building possible. I am very new to the labor movement, and it was honestly inspirational to hear Carl Rosen give what was basically an off-the-cuff lecture on labor history in America and UE’s place in it, while using the murals as a reference and visual guide. I left the tour wanting to learn so much more about American labor history, and a lot prouder of my small place in it.” (To get a taste of Carl’s mural tour and extensive knowledge check out the Labor Express podcast.)

More and more workers are unionizing and joining the labor movement. They are doing the hard work of building coalitions and building strength among workers. The preamble of the UE constitution, adopted in 1936 and painted on the walls of the hall, reads, “We form an organization which unites all workers on an industrial basis, and rank and file control, regardless of craft, age, sex, nationality, race, creed or political beliefs, and pursue at all times a policy of aggressive struggle to improve our conditions.” While the murals have now been removed from UE Hall, the work visualized in the murals continues. As Jones reflected, “with the mural now headed to its new home at the Chicago Teachers Union building, I'm encouraged to think about its activation in a new space, and what new doors and conversations the work will lead to.”


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