The Story of May Day as the celebration of International Workers Day, and specifically the organisation of the Glasgow May Day festivities over the last few years, is told by artist and political cartoonist Lorna Miller in a wonderful insight into her work in creation of posters for Glasgow Trades Council.
May Day is known throughout the world as International Workers’ Day. It is celebrated in over one hundred countries to highlight workers’ struggles and triumphs. Organised workers are still severely repressed in many countries in the world and even though the movement celebrating May Day originated in the US it is not a recognised holiday there. May Day commemorates the May 1st, 1886 nationwide protest for the eight-hour day when 60,000 workers went on strike in Chicago and in memory of four labour organisers who were hanged by the state. This was a pivotal event in the history of workers’ and anarchist movements. A number of Trades Councils throughout Scotland hold events on or around 1st May. The festival in Glasgow has always been well attended and has a long tradition going back to the days when heavy industry provided much of the work for working class people in the city: dangerous, hard labour that was low paid and conditions in which workers were routinely exploited. May Day was a day to dress up smart, spend time with family, friends and fellow workers, highlight problems in the workplace and be inspired and emboldened by guest speakers from around the world as well as trade union representatives. Educate, agitate, organise and have fun!
In 2014 I was asked to design the Glasgow May Day poster and I’ve been doing it most years since. Every year has had a theme linked to local and international, past and present trade union activism and I now have a body of work that is a historical record in itself. The very first poster I designed was based on an old, silent film of American bass-baritone concert artist, stage and film actor, athlete and activist Paul Robeson, who led the May Day march in 1960. I was touched by how he kept doffing his cap to the huge crowd who were cheering him on: he had an enthusiastic welcome from 10,000 people. “There can be no question that we, the people, in the deepest sense, create the wealth”, he told the audience. “We are building a world in which we can live a rich and decent life, and we and our children should enjoy it”. He sang to the crowd: the old favourites Water Boy and Old Man River as well as a song of peace. The following day he led a miners’ gala day parade in Edinburgh. I was asked to create an image that linked this wonderful moment in history with the theme that year of the impact of austerity policies on the majority of citizens. Columnist and author Owen Jones was the keynote speaker, known for speaking out for those most disadvantaged by the Westminster government and their friends in the media, and for his acclaimed non-fiction work Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. I enjoyed walking at the head of the march with Owen and Kerry Fleck, a trade unionist from Belfast. We chatted and laughed about all sorts, including Owen’s beloved pet cats and the funny things they do.
The 2015 poster also linked past and present international protest. The “we are not rats” slogan is from an iconic speech by Glaswegian Jimmy Reid: “The rat race is for rats. We are not rats,” he proclaimed. His speech was reprinted in full by the New York Times and projected the Clydeside shop steward to a new level of popularity. He was voicing the feelings of many who felt slave to their lives within monopoly capitalism. The theme for the 2015 May Day Festival was young people who face the brunt of this unjust capitalist system of austerity, enduring insecure low paid employment and zero-hour contracts. The placards in the background were inspired by the Memphis sanitation strike in 1968 during the Civil Rights Movement. The “I am a man” slogans displayed en mass above the heads of the 25,000 civil right activists, is a powerful, lasting image that appeals to the heart in a direct way. It represents peaceful dignity and self-worth in the face of discrimination and violent state attack. Historically, the term “boy” was used as a demeaning, racist insult towards men of colour and slaves. In response, “Am I not a man and a brother?” became a catchphrase used by British and American abolitionists. The “I am a man” slogan developed from this. The strike was a strong movement with local high school and college students, nearly a quarter of them white, participating alongside sanitation workers in daily marches supported by Martin Luther King and other national civil rights leaders. King praised the group’s unity saying, “You are demonstrating that we can stick together. You are demonstrating that we are all tied in a single garment of destiny, and that if one black person suffers, if one black person is down, we are all down”. A few weeks later he was brutally assassinated. At the May Day festival there was a live link with the US Fast Food Forward Movement, which is a movement of New York City fast food workers campaigning to raise wages and gain rights at work including union representation. The main character in the poster design and the slogans in the megaphone represent this movement. The Fight for $15 minimum wage campaign continued and acted as a springboard for other movements, including Black Lives Matter. Since their first strike in 2011, they have won wage increases for 22 million Americans, including tens of thousands in New York State.
In 2016 I created a version of the May Day maypole, a tradition associated with European folk festivals. May Day is also the ancient celebration of spring and rebirth – the traditional time for planting new seeds in old ground. I wanted to bring a spirit of joy and optimism during a time when the introduction of the Trade Union Bill represented the biggest assault on working people’s rights in living memory. It was a deliberate attack on public sector trade unions and shifted the balance of power in workplaces towards the advantage of employers and away from workers. In spite of this, a united movement was created which resulted in heavy blows to the Conservative government’s plans. At the top of the maypole there is a garland of flowers decorating the statement, “the TU Bill threatens the basic right to strike”. The white ribbons hanging down from this have various slogans representing some of the benefits of workers’ activism. They are: “equal rights for all”, “a living wage”, “paid holidays”, “workplace pensions”, “paid maternity leave”, “workplace safety” and “defends public services”. I wanted to pay tribute to some of the young women activists who were involved in various political campaigns at this time and have depicted them wearing bright colours, with flower crowns, holding the ribbons and dancing. A movement spearheaded by young people is Better than Zero, formed by precarious workers in 2015. In 2016 100,000 workers were on zero-hour contracts in Scotland. In this same year, Better than Zero took on the GI group, a £45 million empire of restaurants, pubs and nightclubs that failed to pay the minimum wage to thousands of its zero-hours workers. Workers took them to tribunal and won.
The theme of the 2017 poster was the heartbreaking Ken Loach film, I Daniel Blake; the screenwriter Paul Laverty was the May Day festival guest speaker that year. The film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2016 and is described as one of Loach’s finest films. This is my favourite poster, not least because I have a photo of Ken Loach proudly holding it. The film stars Dave Johns as Daniel Blake, a middle-aged man who is refused employment and support allowance because he can walk 50 metres and “raise either arm as if to put something in your top pocket”, even though his doctor has instructed him to rest having suffered a heart attack at work. He befriends a young single mum who is facing her own struggles within a cruel, humiliating system that pushes anyone unfortunate enough to need support to breaking point. She is sanctioned for arriving late to her Jobcentre appointment. They are pulled together amidst horrifying circumstances outwith their control and with biting humour and the will to survive and thrive they struggle on. “My name is Daniel Blake. I am a man, not a dog. As such, I demand my rights. I demand you treat me with respect. I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen, nothing more and nothing less. Thank you.”We had to ask permission to use the iconic image of Daniel with his fist defiantly raised, which was well known from the film’s promotional material. I drew a graphite pencil version of it. In the background, I drew Kelvingrove bandstand as it would look on the day of the festival, filled with people. It was a triumphant victory of community activism that the bandstand could be used at all. The determined people of Glasgow had brought it back to its former glory after many years of committed campaign work. The iconic clamshell amphitheatre surrounding the cast iron bandstand, constructed by architect James Miller, was opened in 1924. Situated in Kelvingrove Park, with a dense foliage backdrop of glorious mature trees, Scotland’s first open air concert venue had fallen into a sorry state of disrepair and dilapidation by the 90s. Devoted locals saved the much loved bandstand from demolition and proceeded to fight for proposed restoration works, setting up the campaign group Friends of Kelvingrove Park. Thanks to their successful fundraising efforts and many community organised family fun days, in 2000 the bandstand received listed building status by Historic Scotland and the restoration process could begin. It opened in May 2014 to everyone’s delight.
My 2018 poster brings together Glaswegian female activists from different decades that fought for equality through the trade union movement. Mary Macarthur, (1880-1921) on the left, was a suffragette who had rebelled against her Tory family to become Chair of the Ayr branch of the Shop Assistants’ Union then became Secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League when she moved to London in 1903. In 1906 she formed the all-female National Federation of Women Workers to support women who worked in some of the worst paid jobs in the country. She gave them a voice to make sure that their wages were higher and conditions were better. She led women in the chainmakers strike of Cradley Heath in 1910 in their fight for better pay. Macarthur stated, “Women are unorganised because they are badly paid, and poorly paid because they are unorganised.” The ten-week strike ended in victory with the employers agreeing to pay the minimum wage. Her life was cut short at the age of 40 due to cancer but she achieved more than most people would in twice that time.
To the right of Mary is Agnes McLean (1918-1994). She was a trade union activist for workers’ rights and a Councillor from Glasgow. Born in Ibrox, she came from a family of committed socialists and attended Socialist Sunday School as a child. She began working as a bookbinder at Collins publishing house at the age of fourteen and became a Union activist from the start. She successfully argued for the bookbinders to receive a pay raise. “It’s a case of fat profits and wage packets suffering from malnutrition,” she said. During the Second World War, she worked for Rolls-Royce on the shop floor, in engineering component manufacturing with 10,000 other women. She led them on a successful strike for equal pay in 1943, supported by male workers. In the 1960s she was awarded the Gold Badge of the Trades Union Congress.
Next to Agnes is Denise Phillips, a UNISON activist and homecarer. Denise marched with hundreds of women from Glasgow Green to George Square, dressed as Suffragettes as part of UNISON’s equal pay campaign in 2018. She is wearing a bonnet decorated with the distinctive purple, white and green Suffragette colours that I used as the main colour scheme for the poster. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, the co-editor of Votes for Women magazine, devised the concept of the Suffragette colours in the 1900s. Purple stood for loyalty and dignity, white for purity and green for hope. The 12-year dispute over equal pay for care, catering, cleaning, caretaking, administrative and educational support roles for Glasgow City Council (mainly by women) was said to be the biggest strike by workers over equal pay since the 1960s and the biggest-ever equal pay strike in the UK. Agreement was reached in 2019. GMB organiser Rhea Wolfson stated, “The strike succeeded in its aim of making the council take these claims seriously. It was also a spectacular event that put equal pay for low-paid women on the national agenda.”
I started working on my next poster during lockdown 2020 when a new and deadly virus incarcerated the whole world. Everyone had to suddenly adjust to this and I was feeling terribly ill. There was no community testing available at this time but it was clear I had caught Covid-19. My GP told me to visit one of the treatment centres that had been set up, then she changed her mind. The reason was because my lips weren’t turning blue and I could breathe. I was on my own, a single mum and my worst fear was that my son would find me dead. I had never experienced an illness like this ever before in my life. I carried on as best as I could with waves of nausea and dizziness and other distressing symptoms, forcing myself to my desk, glad to have some artwork to focus on. I had no idea that it was the beginning of two years of chronic illness and fighting for treatment and support with thousands of others, many of whom I was celebrating in the poster. Many front line workers, who were clapped as heroes, were then left on their own to survive Long Covid, loss of work, financial difficulty, medical gaslighting, mental health strain, family problems and more. People reached out to each other on line, setting up support groups, which also became campaign groups. Trade union activism continued to be a force against state dereliction and inefficiency. Sadly, the poster wasn’t printed and the May Day Festival took place on line.
By 2021 we were still trying to assimilate the fact that pandemic restrictions were an ongoing necessity of our lives. We had all been living with unprecidented fear, control and uncertainty and trying to process grief and loss on a devastating scale. Jokes about the perils of home working zoom meetings were wearing thin and joyful clapping for heroes was replaced by weary despair: everyone was just hoping the never-ending nightmare would to come to an end. The image of a mother and her child was chosen for this year’s poster to represent the resilience to carry on, the new life symbolising hope for better days. The image is based on a photograph of Debbie and her newborn baby from Anderston, Glasgow by documentary photographer Kirsty Mackay: “In Glasgow, as everywhere else a person’s place of birth has a huge bearing on their overall life chances. That first journey home from the hospital, depending on which area home is, will have an impact on health, well being and life expectancy”. Her project examining the ‘Glasgow Effect’, with life expectancy being shorter here than the UK average, is available as a book: The Fish That Never Swam. I used charcoal for the drawing, creating a softness that worked well with the serious, determined expression of the mum. The theme of this year’s May Day was the extension of universal protections: specifically free school meals and promotion of the campaign for free public transport. Universal protection of the NHS was recognised as being fundamental for recovery and by extending these protections, some of the inequalities and poverty in Glasgow could be tackled. The main speaker this year was Christina McAnea from UNISON who had just been elected to the position of UNISON General Secretary. I designed a new, stylised version of the well-known bird, fish, bell and tree that are a part of the Glasgow Coat of Arms and represent four miracles that Saint Mungo, the patron saint of the city, is said to have performed during his life.
I have just completed the 2022 May Day Festival poster. The theme this year is the cost of living crisis. This is another cruel blow for exhausted citizens, many of whom have had to deal with reduced income or loss of work due to the pandemic. I created a scene representative of Glasgow with apartment buildings, one with the slogan, “low rent”, an electricity pylon, the distinctive St Andrews in the Square tower, a petrol pump, a shop with the slogan “affordable food”, a broadband mast with the slogan, “broadband for all” and a bus that says “free buses” on the front. Free public transport was provided for COP 26 delegates and attendees in Glasgow in November 2021, which led to people calling for permanent free travel for all on the public transport network. Susan Aitken, leader of Glasgow City Council, was hoping to trial such a scheme but the transport minister (who has since stood down for health reasons) said this wouldn’t be possible: money was needed to keep public transport running, coping with reduced passenger numbers and staff shortages during the pandemic. Nevertheless, a motion passed by the council recognised work of campaign groups Get Glasgow Moving and Free Our City, who back free public transport and led to Susan Aitken requesting the trial. In November 2021 First Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed the introduction of free bus travel for anyone under the age of 22 in Scotland, making around 930,000 people eligible for the scheme. Earlier in the year legislation was laid in parliament to allow under-19s to travel free across the country.
Designing the posters has always been a wholly collaborative process with Glasgow Trades Council: special thanks to Chair Jennifer McCarey. It is always an ongoing learning process. The approach I take to the work is different from my other main form of creativity in the past ten years: editorial cartooning. It has been an opportunity to experiment with materials and style and for an artist this is always beneficial for growth. Earlier in my career I created comic art for children’s magazines, was a digital colourist and wrote, drew and designed my own comics. It was good practice for learning a variety of skills (most self-taught) that has enabled me to create the poster designs. I designed my first magazine cover for Scottish arts magazine Variant in 1999. The work of an artist, even a commercial one, is often shrouded in mystery.