Cartoon book depicts labors fighting spirit

The opinion cartoon on a newspaper’s editorial page has more impact than any block of copy. A cartoon quickly draws the reader in visually and can make a statement quickly. The drawing simplifies a subject, making it digestible for readers.

Today editorial cartoons have become the political version of comic strips. That wasn’t always the case. There was a time when the editorial cartoon attacked serious subjects with symbolic power that far exceeds today’s descendants. There is nothing wrong with using humor in editorial cartoons, but for serious subjects making too much fun diminishes the impact. A funny cartoon about George W. Bush negates his evil policies. The result is just another page decoration. Very seldom is real outrage elicited. No one today draws images with the power of the legendary Robert Minor or even Bill Mauldin.

Ben Yomen, called the “dean of American labor cartoonists,” comes from that older tradition, which relies less on jokes and more on symbolism. With a grease pencil, black ink, textured paper and a working-class sensibility, he lambasted the politicians and attitudes of the mid-20th century. Leafing through Yomen’s new book, “In Labor’s Corner,” is like taking a long stroll through labor history.

Born in 1911, Yomen’s family moved from Massachusetts to Detroit when he was four. His father, a union activist, helped organize the Machinists Union in Boston and was one of the first to join UAW Chrysler Local 7.

But Yomen’s involvement with art-for-labor began with a life-changing experience. In 1932, police arrested Yomen and two artist friends who were sketching the Ford Hunger March in Dearborn, Mich. When police saw the artists’ sketch pads, they arrested the three as “suspects.” The experience of the hunger march, in which five workers were killed by company guards, changed Yomen’s outlook on life. “From that time on, using cartoons as a weapon, I would target bosses who had no respect for workers,” he said.

From the 1930s through the 1990s, Yomen drew for many union and labor-oriented publications, including the UAW’s magazine Ammunition. “In Labor’s Corner” presents cartoons about labor’s role in World War II, including its battles with some U.S. capitalists’ fascist sympathies, for higher wages and against the Taft-Hartley law.

Also published are Yomen’s “The Filet of Soul” cartoons, which addressed issues of African American equality and integration in the late 1960s. The series appeared in the Detroit Free Press.

While working for the now defunct Federated Press, a labor news service, Yomen created a reactionary character called Congressman Dripp. Dripp represented the violently anti-labor and anti-FDR attitude of many in Congress. Dripp railed against unionizing, pensions and wages. With these cartoons, Yomen was able to use more humor to ridicule that element of the “bought and sold” representatives who marched lockstep with business interests. Times haven’t changed very much. Give Dripp a more modern look and he could easily represent the current Republican-controlled Congress.

Yomen’s editorial cartoons took on a more serious tone as he commented on the war effort against Nazi Germany, or the labor movement and Congress. Again, it is amazing how the politics of 60 years ago mirror our own. Taxes on the working class, job losses and attacks on economic rights were as prevalent then as they are now.

It should be the cartoonist’s job to stab his pen into the heart of these beasts. Sadly, today’s editorial cartoonists seldom side with labor or even concern themselves with issues of the working class in anything other than a superficial way. I suspect that this has more to do with the political motivations of the corporate owned newspapers than the abilities of cartoonists.

A copy of “In Labor’s Corner” can be ordered from Ben Yomen, 1073 Barton Dr., Apt. 102, Ann Arbor, MI 48105. It costs $20 plus $3 shipping.