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Forged Together: Collective Action at the Baltimore Museum of Industry

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You hear, 'You should just be grateful that you're working at an institution this prestigious. What you do is not a job, it is a calling.'  Well, my landlord is calling and I can't pay him in prestige.
Martin Yepes Trujillo, Graduate Worker, JHU, Teachers & Researchers United 

A timely new exhibition exploring the historic and contemporary organized labor movement in America, Collective Action: Labor Activism in 21st Century Baltimore, opened on May 1st at the Baltimore Museum of Industry (BMI).

It makes perfect sense that a show devoted to labor would be unveiled on this particular date. May 1st, also known as May Day or International Workers’ Day, is a globally recognized anniversary for workers, honoring laborers and their many contributions to the industrialized world. Without its workforce, how could a modern nation like the United States even exist? 

Not only was the opening to Collective Action well-timed, Baltimore is itself the perfect place for an exhibition focusing on the history of the US labor movement. For three centuries, “Charm City” has been central to American industrialism: from its early colonial days as a hub of maritime trade and shipbuilding in the eighteenth century; through the rise of the Industrial Revolution and the country’s first commercial railway in the nineteenth; to the erection of a multitude of downtown skyscrapers in the interwar period of the twentieth, Baltimore has been—and remains to be—the site of hard work and sustained progress.

So where does the city stand in terms of labor nearly a quarter-century into the new millennium? That’s exactly the question that Collective Action at the BMI seeks to answer. And answer it does. 

Photo by Aaron Curtis
Photo by Aaron Curtis
Photo by Aaron Curtis

The exhibition space is divided into several discrete sections devoted to different themes related to labor. Moving counter-clockwise through the gallery, they include the five facets Wages, Equity, Power, Safety, and Change, decided upon through a series of open listening sessions at the museum last September.

The BMI also held a session at Bmore Historic’s annual unconference,” and several in-person and Zoom meetings with members from the Maryland Defenders Union, UNITE HERE Local 7, United Workers, IBEW Local 24, Starbucks Workers United, Walters Workers United, Pratt Workers United, AppleCORE, the Baltimore Museum of Art Union, AFSCME Maryland Council 3, Metropolitan Baltimore AFL-CIO, the Baltimore Teachers Union, and JHU Teachers & Researchers United. In other words, in preparing for Collective Action, the BMI did its homework.

The overall aesthetic of Collective Action is as organized as its subject. Each section of the show is well-researched, clearly visible from a distance, and offers plenty of detail upon closer inspection. Black and white photographs of workers at union rallies, blown up to monumental scale, fill the gallery walls as backgrounds to each section. The show’s five themes appear in bold, sans-serif letters along the concrete floor. Picket signs lean against these murals, their placards illustrated with charts and graphs regarding labor statistics and the harsh realities of being a worker in the US.

Some of these signs include quotes by local workers. For example, one warns that: “No matter where you work, the employer is going to have the leverage.” Another reads: “We’re seeing all these companies talking about their profits—billion dollar profits—and I can barely keep a roof over my head and food in the refrigerator. Our labor is what produces these profits… we deserve a piece of this pie.” 

Photo by Aaron Curtis
Photo by Aaron Curtis
Photo by Aaron Curtis

The look of Collective Action is not too tight though, and this is to its credit. An overly polished show about labor unions would smack of corporate propaganda. By referencing the raw materials of labor and suggesting the humble backgrounds of workers, a somewhat unfinished look serves the exhibition well.

Vertical sheets of raw plywood affixed to the walls provide visual cues for where each section begins. The gallery wall texts explaining what viewers should expect in each area are found on these panels. Under the word “Wages,” for example, we learn that: For many working Baltimoreans, wages have remained stagnant despite high inflation and a rise in the cost of living. Workers are fighting for a livable wage to support not only themselves, but also their families and their communities.

Photo by Aaron Curtis

At the center of the space stands a long kiosk, also built of unvarnished wood, which displays ephemera from local union campaigns. T-shirts, signs, and posters from various organization effortssuch as those at Johns Hopkins, Starbucks, and the Walters Art Museumhang within this structure. It’s impressive (and even a little overwhelming) how many local unions are represented in one spot.

The sheer volume of this collection of union-related artifacts, with their bright colors and earnest slogans, helps to remind viewers of Collective Action just how many workers there are in Baltimore who are devoted to the struggle for better pay, improved safety, shorter hours, and a seat at the bargaining table. Though the display is silent, it seems to hum with the many voices it represents. 

In terms of scale, Collective Action is rather modest. The gallery is no bigger than a classroom. Yet, within its tight space, the show packs in a lot of information. A larger exhibition would feel redundant and potentially lose the immediate and intimate connection that Collective Action at the BMI succeeds at fostering. 
If there’s one element that might be missing, it would be the inclusion of some discussion about artificial intelligence (AI) and how that new technology threatens to displace human laborers in the new millennium. According to the show’s curator, Rachel Donaldson, AI never came up during the open listening sessions held at the BMI during the show’s development phase. Perhaps workers were thinking of more tangible issues.

Most of us are still having trouble wrapping our heads around the evasive yet all-encompassing phenomenon that is AI. However, a sixth theme devoted to technology would have certainly strengthened Collective Action, making a thorough exhibition even stronger. 

Photo by Aaron Curtis
Photo by Aaron Curtis

The American labor movement helped to ensure that the many workers who contributed to the country’s progress weren’t left out in the cold. It kept children out of factories, shortened the work week, and made working families feel proud of their part in building a great nation. From the creation of the clipper ship to the shipyards of Bethlehem Steel and beyond, Baltimore was central to that effort. 

There has been a decline in collectivization in recent decades, however, as many states have passed “right to work” laws, hindering the grassroots efforts of the earlier labor movement. Considering the many threats facing workers in the future—from automation to union-busting—it’s high time we reconsider the important role workers have played, and continue to play, in making this country strong.

Collective Action at the Baltimore Museum of Industry provides a space to reflect on labor’s past and ponder its future. 

Photo by Aaron Curtis
Photo by Aaron Curtis

About the Baltimore Museum of Industry: The BMI is located at 1415 Key Highway, on the site of the old Platt Oyster Cannery complex. It sits in an industrial part of town along the Patapsco River, just west of Locust Point, a historically working-class neighborhood. An antiquated crane painted bright green with the letters “BMI” painted across the side of its cab serves as a landmark for the Museum. Not too far away is the Domino Sugar refinery, whose giant iconic sign has graced the city’s harbor since 1951.

Further out into the port, south of Ft. McHenry, used to stand the Francis Scott Key Bridge, which collapsed in late March after a container ship lost power and crashed into one of its support piers. Sadly, six Latino immigrant laborers, part of a maintenance crew working on the bridge that night, were killed in the accident. This review is dedicated to the lives of those six workers:

Dorlian Ronial Castillo Cabrera
Alejandro Hernandez Fuentes
Miguel Angel Luna Gonzalez
and Carlos Hernandez
Jose Mynor Lopez
and
Maynor Yasir Suazo-Sandoval

You are not forgotten.

 

Collective Action: Labor Activism in 21st Century Baltimore opened at the BMI on Wednesday, May 1st, and will be on view through 2025. A series of related public programs will be held throughout the show’s run.

 

Photo by Aaron Curtis
Photo by Aaron Curtis
Photo by Aaron Curtis
Photo by Aaron Curtis
Photo by Aaron Curtis
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