The Labor Monument: Philadelphia’s Tribute to the American Worker (2010)

by John Kindness (1951 - )

Photo Caption: Photo Gregory Benson © 2010 for the Association for Public Art
Elmwood Park, 71st Street and Buist Avenue, Southwest Philadelphia
2010

  • Title

    The Labor Monument: Philadelphia’s Tribute to the American Worker

  • Artist

    John Kindness (1951 - )

  • Year

    2010

  • Medium

    Cast bronze; exposed aggregate concrete benches with reclaimed black locust wood slats; lithocrete, granite, and terracotta brick pavers

  • Dimensions

    Work Button Tables: height 2', width 3', depth 3'; Seating Elements: height 1'6″, width 1'7", depth 4'11"; Central Circular Seating Area: diameter 56′

Commissioned by the Fairmount Park Art Association (now the Association for Public Art)

Owned by the City of Philadelphia

At A Glance

Dedicated in 2010, The Labor Monument: Philadelphia’s Tribute to the American Worker by artist John Kindness was developed for Elmwood Park with the Friends of Elmwood Park in cooperation with the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Recreation as part of the Fairmount Park Art Association’s (now the Association for Public Art) New•Land•Marks program.

Workers of earlier generations often wore blue denim clothing…Blue paving and brick detailing around the seating elements suggest the denim and stitching on workers’ clothing.

The Labor Monument commemorates the contributions of organized labor nationwide and Philadelphia’s working class history. Celebrating Philadelphia’s pivotal and unique role in the American labor movement, the artwork transforms Elmwood Park into a community gathering space and an “outdoor history lesson.”

Workers of earlier generations often wore blue denim clothing, a common denominator regardless of trade or skill, with metal work buttons that bore a variety of images and slogans. Inspired by these buttons, the artist created seven large-scale Work Button Tables in bronze. Each bronze relief sculpture represents an important event in labor history. Located in the center of Elmwood Park, the Work Button Tables are situated in a circle surrounded by seven benches. Blue paving and brick detailing around the seating elements suggest the denim and stitching on workers’ clothing. Project supporters are identified and inscribed in a granite band around the perimeter of the artwork. A pathway connects the central seating area with a small circular court displaying the park’s flagpole.

People seated at John Kindness's Labor Monument in Elmwood Park
Photo Caitlin Martin © 2010 for the Association for Public Art

 

Elmwood Park

Elmwood Park is a 7-acre city park located on 71st and 72nd streets between Buist and Dicks Avenues in Philadelphia.

From the late nineteenth century through much of the twentieth, Southwest Philadelphia prided itself on its thriving working class neighborhoods. Many thousands of Philadelphians raised their families there. They worked for major industries such as the Hog Island Shipyard, Fels Naptha, General Electric, and Westinghouse.

Elmwood Park was originally developed as a centerpiece for the community, a gathering place where workers and their families could relax, socialize, and enjoy the park’s natural resources. Today, the park has been revitalized and is fitting site for The Labor Monument. The revitalization efforts were led by The Friends of Elmwood Park, a community organization chartered by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1995. The group supports efforts by community members to secure and beautify the park.

 

RESOURCES:

Artist John Kindness
Artist John Kindness. Photo © Association for Public Art.

John Kindness was born in Belfast, Ireland and currently lives and works in London, England. Kindness’ father worked in the shipyards of Belfast, and his working class roots were a source of inspiration as he worked with the Friends of Elmwood Park to create a unique tribute in Philadelphia to the American worker. Kindness has completed a number of public art projects in his native Ireland. He has exhibited extensively in Europe and the United States and his artworks are included in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Irish Museum of Modern Art, National Gallery of Ireland, and the Victoria & Albert Museum among others. In 1997, the artist was featured in a solo exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania and was artist-in-residence at Philadelphia’s Fleisher Art Memorial. The artist returned to Philadelphia in 2009 to collaborate with writer Wendy Steiner on The Loathly Lady, an animated opera performed at the University of Pennsylvania’s Irvine Auditorium, and featuring Kindness’ original artwork.

The bronze relief Work Table Buttons of The Labor Monument represent important events in labor history.

 

1. Eugene V. Debs. – Labor and a Campaign for Politics

In 1893, Eugene V. Debs organized the American Railway Union (ARU), the first industrial union in the United States. Debs, an activist for social justice, understood the need for the working class to be heard in the political arena. He was a leading campaigner for progressive social ideas, including women’s suffrage, restriction of child labor, worker safety, and the right of workers to form unions.
Eugene V. Debs Work Button Table

 

 

2. ¡Sí, Se Puede! – Farm Workers Organize

The United Farm Workers (UFW) formed in 1966, under the leadership of Cesar E. Chavez. With the rallying cry of “¡Sí, Se Puede!” (Yes, We Can!), the UFW organized thousands of immigrant farm workers to raise awareness of their poor working conditions. The symbol of the United Farm Workers is a stylized eagle with wings crafted at right angles, so it could be easily drawn and reproduced by farm workers (Black Aztec Eagle and ¡Sí, Se Puede! used with permission of the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO.)
Work Button Table

 

 

3. Child Labor Reform – Stealing the Playtime of Children

The struggle to reform child labor laws was fought over many decades by numerous crusaders, including Bill Haywood who said, “The worst thief is he who steals the playtime of children.” In 1903, labor leader Mother Jones led a march of children workers from Philadelphia to Theodore Roosevelt’s summer home on Long Island, New York, to protest the exploitation of underage workers. Finally, in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act was enacted, which ended child labor in factories and mines. Today, child labor remains a concern in the United States and abroad.
Work_Button_Table_4

 

 

4. I AM A MAN – Labor Joins the Civil Rights Movement

In February 1968, 1,300 African-American sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee went on strike carrying signs that read, “I AM A MAN.” The plea of the strikiing members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union resonated with workers and African Americans throughout the country seeking equality. The strike caught the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who went to Memphis in support of the workers. King delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” address to the striking workers the day before he was shot.
Work_Button_Table_2

 

 

5. The Wobblies – “Don’t Mourn, Organize!”

The Continental Congress of the Working Class convened in 1905 to establish an organization that would represent all working people. Thus, the Industrial Workers of the World—also known as I.W.W. or “The Wobblies”—was born. The I.W.W. used songs to spread their ideas. Folk hero and labor martyr Joe Hill became a symbol of the quest for economic and social justice for all workers. Hill’s slogan, “Don’t waste time mourning, organize!” is still a labor rallying cry today.
The Wobblies Work Button Table

 

 

6. Karen Silkwood – Worker and Occupational Safety

Karen Gay Silkwood was an employee at a nuclear fuel processing plant in Oklahoma when she discovered evidence of unexplained leaks and spills that posed threats to the workers’ health. She was killed in 1974 in a suspicious car accident on her way to discuss her findings with a reporter and an Atomic Energy Commission official. Silkwood’s courageous life and untimely death stimulated reforms for safety in the workplace and protection for whistleblowers.
Kare Silkwood Work Button table

 

 

7. Bread & Roses – Labor & the Women’s Rights Movement

In 1912, thousands of textile mill workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, went on strike after owners made substantial pay cuts. The workers, most of them women, linked arms and formed a human chain around the mills. Their slogan, “We want bread and roses, too,” symbolized their fight for economic security and a better quality of life. The campaign brought attention to the significance of the role of women in the work place and made labor another component in the struggle for women’s rights.
Bread and Roses Work Button Table

Museum Without Walls logo: a program of the Association for Public Art

 

Voices heard in the program:

John Kindness is an Irish artist who designed The Labor Monument.

Tom Pain Cronin is Director of the Comey Institute for Industrial Relations at St. Joseph’s University.

Cathy Brady is a Philadelphia native and the Lead Community Organizer of The Labor Monument: Philadelphia’s Tribute to the American Worker.

Segment Producer: Kerrie Hillman

The Labor Monument: Philadelphia’s Tribute to the American Worker was commissioned as part of the Fairmount Park Art Association’s program New•Land•Marks: public art, community, and the meaning of place, and upon completion was donated to the City of Philadelphia.

The project was made possible through the generous support of the Fairmount Park Art Association (now the Association for Public Art), William Penn Foundation, Claneil Foundation, Samuel S. Fels Fund, Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition, Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT-PATCH), Sheet Metal Workers International Association, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), USW in honor of Tony Mazzocchi, Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Local 8-149.

New•Land•Marks: public art, community, and the meaning of place was a program of the Fairmount Park Art Association (now the Association for Public Art) that brought together artists and community organizations to plan and create new works throughout Philadelphia.

Cover of New Land Marks book

New•Land•Marks proposals incorporated public art into ongoing community development, urban greening, public amenities, and other revitalization initiatives. These efforts celebrated community identity, commemorated “untold” histories, and offered visionary, yet reasonable, ways to invigorate public spaces.

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