‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,’ declares the Book of Genesis. Working to earn a crust has been a fact of life since the beginning, but it took until the nineteenth-century for the Trade Union Movement to be born. In the present day, union membership is the exception rather than the rule: around 6.4 million workers in the UK were trade union members in 2014, for example, compared with a membership peak of over 13 million in 1979. The data betrays the movement’s sudden diminuendo and sets the tone for Noel Bowler’s, the Irish-born photographer behind Union, project to uncover what trade unionism looks like today. The answer, it seems, is stacks of cold coffee mugs and sprawling conference tables adrift in empty rooms.
Like Canadian photographer Lynne Cohen’s images of institutional interiors from the 1970s, Bowler’s carefully considered shots of union headquarters, well-lit yet oddly lugubrious, are emptied of people. It’s a familiar photographic convention, to offer a glimpse inside the spaces, normally off-limits to the uninitiated, where decisions get taken and resolutions are made. We see, therefore, a personalised desk space featuring a mock-up of Marx doing the victory sign next to a pen with a ball of fluff on its top, but not the movers and shakers behind this discombobulated scene. Instead, it is the unseen figure of the photographer, stalking the office after hours, who’s left to fill the space.
With junior doctors voting to take repeat action against a bloodied Conservative government and, closer to home for those who inhabit the self-styled ‘progressive’ art world, the recent allegations of a union-busting management at the National Gallery, Bowler’s publication might seem to offer a timely meditation on the representation of industrial discontent. Now that the former sites of industry have been reimagined as luxury lofts inhabited by people who stare at screens for a living, the methods used by past artists to represent working people – Diego Rivera’s teeming murals of American industry, for instance – look desperately out-dated. Nevertheless, it is not without irony that Bowler has chosen to make images of the labour movement that are utterly still. The result is a collection of pictures that feel subdued at a time when perhaps noise is needed. Compared to the witty agitprop of the Hackney Flashers, for example, a women’s arts collective active between 1974 and 1980 who used photography to document issues faced by women in the workplace, Union’s empty rooms feel abandoned rather than full of latent energy.
Flesh-and-blood figures aren’t completely absent from Union, however, and po-faced portraits of union leaders are dotted throughout. The sober snow-white backdrop to the portraits recall the corporate world’s anaemic aesthetics, a nod, perhaps, to the fact that union members in Britain are now more likely to be skilled professionals than manual workers. On a more human level, all the sitters seem to share an anxiety over what to do with their hands, with most preferring to bury them in trouser pockets rather than raise clenched fists. One figure who does look sure of himself, however, is the late Bob Crow, the former RMT union general secretary. His arms are resolutely folded across a Fred Perry polo shirt the colour of the Northern line.
Bowler’s decision to restrict his project to the unions of Europe and North America feels out of step with the many world maps, like mascots for global solidarity, pinned to union office walls. The art that’s used to decorate individual offices, some drab, others gaudy, hints at the persistence of national identities, however. In the Parisian headquarters of the French Confederation of Management, for instance, there is a triptych of fashion illustration prints, including one by René Gruau; the lines of an empty hatstand in the left-hand corner of the image run parallel to a lit cigarette in the framed design. In contrast, the beleaguered labor movement of the United States is depicted in a comically incongruous social realist style. In the headquarters of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers we see an oil painting of three emblematic figures: a fallen comrade with cadaverous-green skin is held in the arms of a preternaturally calm woman wearing white; to the left, a John Doe with a tool belt around his waist points to the scene. A telegraph pole stands in for the crucifix.
Bowler’s photographs are bookmarked by scanned images of documents once belonging to union members. There are membership cards from the 1970s, for example, filled with rows of signatures, pen strokes scratched into coloured card tallying the monthly payments of union member ‘Albert Randle’. Who Albert is, or was, and how Bowler came by his personal effects is left untold. The cards’ unexplained inclusion adds to the sense that Union is performing a perfunctory post-mortem on the union movement: cause of death unknown. In an era of increasingly intangible job descriptions, and when employees are harried to be flexible ‘or else’, the project’s presentation, a heavy cotton-clothed hard-back feels reassuringly old-fashioned. It’s a stand, of sorts, against today’s adapt-or-die job market, but a hopelessly lumpen one.
– reviewed by Rebecca Sykes
 ‘Trade Union Membership Statistics 2014’, p. 5 [accessed 12 April 2016]