A Comparison

This somewhat underwhelming result can be placed in some perspective by undertaking a brief comparative analysis of the image of labour on British, Australian, French, and American postage stamps. In each case the gaze of assertion confirms the presence of organized labour to a greater extent than in the Canadian case.

In Britain the presence of organized labour was confirmed in May 1968, with the issue of a stamp to mark the centenary of the Trades Union Congress; this one features the faces of early union leaders (#564). The gaze of history was also directed at organized labour in 1976, at the time of the 50th anniversary of the General Strike, when a series of four stamps paid tribute to 19th-century industrial and social reformers. The most notable here is the recognition of an early northern coal miners' leader, Thomas Hepburn, who is represented by the working hands of a miner holding a pick. The others in this group included Robert Owen, Lord Shaftesbury, and Elizabeth Fry, represented in turn by a child's hands working in a textile mill, a boy's hands sweeping a chimney, a woman's hands holding prison bars (#781-784). As in Canada, the ILO was celebrated in 1969 (#586). Beyond this British workers have appeared on a variety of other occasions, most notably in a 1981 series devoted to the fishing industry (#956-959).23

United Kingdom Scott 781: "Social Reformers, Thomas Hepburn," 1976
Reproduced courtesy of Royal Mail.
Stamp: United Kingdom Scott 781

Similarly, Australia acknowledged the 50th anniversary of the Australian Council of Trades Unions (#668) in 1977. In 1947 there were scenes of workers pouring steel and loading coal (#208-209). The ILO (#461) received recognition in 1969. In 1986, on the centennial of the Amalgamated Shearers' Union, the work of rural workers was shown in a strip of five stamps entitled "Click Go the Shears" (#987a). More recently (1993) a handsome set of stamps based on union banners has shown images of 19th-century trades and labour under the title "Working Life in the 1890s" (#1320-1323). 24

Stamp: Australia Scott 1321 Australia Scott 1321
"Working Life in the 1890s: Stevedores and Seamstresses," 1993
National Philatelic Collection, Australia Post
(© Australia Post. Alteration of this image in any way is forbidden.)

In France we find unambiguous representations of the working class presence, and the following examples refer to only a few instances of representation. The coal miners appeared, on the march, as early as 1938 (#343). As elsewhere, the ILO was commemorated in 1969 (#1247). The legalization of unions in 1884 was marked a century later on a stamp honouring Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau (#1907). The 100th anniversary of the international workers' holiday, May Day, was celebrated in 1990 (#2221). Other stamps paid tribute to a variety of workers' crafts and occupations and to political figures such as Louise Michel and Jean Jaurès.25

France Scott 343 (YT 390): "Mineurs" (2 francs, 15 centimes), 1938. Stamp issued to commemorate the miners of the Nord, a region characterized by a heavy industry and mining economy.
Reproduced courtesy of La Poste, République française.
Stamp: France Scott 343

Somewhat surprisingly, it is in the United States that the gaze of history has been most extended in focusing on the presence of organized labour. It begins, perhaps, with a 1933 stamp (#732) marking the National Recovery Act and the "common determination" to get the country back to work under the New Deal. Certainly it is visible on a 1950 stamp issued on the centenary of the birth of Samuel Gompers, the founder and long-time president of the American Federation of Labor (#988). In 1956 a Labor Day stamp (#1082) featured a detail from the mosaic at the headquarters of the newly established AFL-CIO. Workmen's compensation was given special recognition in 1961, on the 50th anniversary of the enactment of compensation laws in Wisconsin; this stamp (#1186) showed the scales of justice balancing factory, worker, and family. The inauguration of industrial legality in the form of statutory protection for collective bargaining was commemorated most specifically in 1975, on the 40th anniversary of the Wagner Act (#1558); the stated theme was one of reconciliation - "out of conflict accord." In 1989 a second labour leader was honoured on a stamp, again on the centenary of his birth, in the person of A. Phillip Randolph (#2402), America's most important black labour leader. He was followed in 1994 by a third labour leader, George Meany (#2848). Other representations of workers on American stamps can also be noted, ranging from the post horse and rider of 1869 (#113) to celebrations of various occupational groups and industries, postal employees again, as in most countries, being over-represented. Two interesting bicentennial series, one in 1972 (#1456-1459) and another in 1977 (#1717-1720), featured "Colonial Craftsmen" (glassmaker, silversmith, wigmaker, and hatter) and "Skilled Hands for Independence" (seamstress, blacksmith, wheelwright, and leatherworker).26

United States of America Scott 3085 : "John Henry ", 1996
Stamp design © 1995, United States Postal Service
Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved
Stamp: United States of America Scott 3085
Stamp: United States of America Scott 1082 United States of America Scott 1082: "Labor Day," 1956
Stamp design © 1956, United States Postal Service
Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved

This comparison suggests that, despite the variety of evidence that workers can be found in incidental and subordinate positions in a good deal of the Canadian postal issue, Canadian labour has been relatively slow to gain admission to the public imagery contained in postage stamps. Unlike several of the capitalist democracies, Canada has no stamps marking the establishment of unions, the enactment of labour laws, or the celebration of labour days, and only one stamp commemorating an individual union leader.

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