Look for the Union Label: A Celebration of Union Logos and Emblems
Look for the Union Label:
A Celebration of Union Logos and Emblems
An on-line exhibit assembled by
Jeff Rosen and Susan Parker Sherwood
Labor Archives and Research Center
San Francisco State University

A Brief History of Labor Symbols
by Susan Parker Sherwood

The use of emblems to denote workers in a particular craft predates the advent of the modern union label by many centuries.  Craft guilds, which had become widespread as a form of organization by the 1400s, often decorated their halls and seals with a visual symbol of either the tools or the product of their art - or both. The carpenters’ dividers or compasses that once graced the coat of arms of a craft guild now served as the mark of a labor union.

images of carpenter's logo

Many trade union logos of the 1800s and 1900s reflect this ancient use of a visual, along with other identifying information - generally the name of the union and the number of the local union.  Although primitive in form, this early typographer’s card,  shows some of the basic elements just noted, including an image of a printing press.  Missing at this stage is the local’s number, which indicates that the union existed prior to the birth of its International in 1855.  

The advance of modern printing technology in the 1800 and 1900s greatly expanded the universe of potential objects - labor membership cards, working buttons, badges, shop cards and union labels that could serve as a visual symbol of labor’s presence.  The best known use of this labor imagery comes to us in the form of the union label, an idea generated in the labor struggles of 19th century California.

image of typographer's card
The Union Label

The union label is an imprint or design fixed in plain view on any item, as evidence that is was produced by union labor.  The invention of the union label is credited to the Carpenter’s Eight-Hour League in San Francisco which adopted a stamp in 1869 for use on products produced by mills employing men on the eight (as opposed to ten) hour day.  Six years later in 1874 the cigar makers of that city created a “white labor” label as part on an ongoing campaign against a cheaper (and greatly exploited) non-unionized Chinese labor force which had come to dominate that industry in California.  The Cigar Makers International quickly recognized the potential support that working class consumers could provide in encouraging the production and sale of union products, especially as new technologies in cigar manufacture began pushing out skilled (unionized) labor.  The union adopted the first national union label in 1880.   Other unions rapidly followed suit in the next decade, including those representing typographers, garment workers, coopers, bakers and iron molders.  

image of cigar maker's labels
The Union Label Department

The Union Label Department, created by the American Federation of Labor in 1909, worked vigorously to spread the label’s use.  William Green, President of the AFL in 1939 noted that the label’s appearance on a product was “ emblematic of a high standard of living, of tolerable conditions of employment, of those conditions surrounding working men and women which makes for a higher and better standard of living.”  A modern “Look for the Union Label” campaign was launched by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in 1975 to build consumer awareness about the products we buy; an effort which the Union Label and Services Department of the AFL-CIO carries on today.   

AFL Union Label logo
Reading Union Labels

The evolution of a union logo may reflect changes in the structure of the organization itself; a simple preference for an up-to-date look; the need to convey a new or different message, or a combination of these factors.  As an example, the logo for the union, UNITE HERE!  shown at left reflects the merger of  two International unions in 2004: the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees.  The lack of a visual representation of tools or equipment, as is true for this emblem, often points to a union of service workers or an amalgamation of many different kinds of workers such as UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers) or SEIU (Service Employees International Union.)

Unite Here logo

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