“It bears repeating that the reason companies do not feel free to poison us, sell us spoiled meat, lock our daughters up in ninth-floor sweatshops with no fire escapes, employ our underage sons in coal mines, force us to work 13-hour shifts without overtime or a break, or call in private armies to fire rifles at those of us who dare strike for higher wages is not because companies experienced a moment of Zen and decided to evolve.
“No. They were forced into greater accountability and social concern by the legitimate actions of a democratic government. In other words, if we depend on goodwill, we are all screwed.”
Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-Connecticut, “The Least Among Us: Waging the Battle for the Vulnerable”
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Work. Work. It’s all about the work.
Don Hunsucker of Fresno has made work his life’s work. The work, the workers, the workplace, the working conditions, working it out, making it work, making work, doing what works. As a labor leader, he can conjugate the word any way you want.
Now he’s retired and working on a legacy project called the Union Park and Workers Memorial Foundation, which the organizers call “labor’s labor of love.” The foundation has a garden spot at the Fresno Fairgrounds created to honor workers who died on the job serving our community. It’s also designed to be a place to tell their story.
“Without workers nothing gets done,” says Hunsucker. “We want to educate, to tell the story of all the workers. How organized labor got together and changed laws, benefited other workers, got better contracts and the pay got better for everyone.”
“We want to keep telling our story.” Now, who could help the foundation do that?
Enter Fresno City College painting instructor Kevin Stewart-Magee, who is also all about the work. He was hustling night and day last spring, looking for summer employment opportunities for his art students. He was eager to show them the power of paint, to demonstrate that artists are visual problem solvers. He wants them to put away all those old notions of “starving artists” begging for scraps.
“Paint has taken really good care of me,” he said. “The students might not know all the things they can do with paint if they have a ‘can do’ and ‘will do’ attitude. I tell them in class, when you walk into any new situation say, ‘What can I do to help?’ That will take you far.”
It wasn’t long before Fresno’s electric network had the teacher and the labor leader in meetings together, creating work for the artists and a work of art for the workers foundation.
The solution was to be a spectacular 12 foot by 12 foot mural for the Fresno County Historical Museum at the Fresno Fairgrounds called “Honoring the Workers of the Valley.” Sounds simple, right? Not so much.
Even with Stewart-Magee’s vast experience with 100 murals to draw from, the task was at once inspiring and challenging.
Neil Vanderpool, dean of the Fine, Performing and Communication Arts Division at Fresno City College, explained it this way:
“After the initial planning process, the acrylic painting, made on canvas for portability, took about six weeks to complete. It shows 41 figures representing the many workers, trades, skills and unions who build, transport, feed, organize, protect, serve and care for the Central Valley community.
“A key figure within the streetscape is a teacher, showing her students – and by extension us – a busy morning scene in Fresno. Beyond their group, the action unfolds. We see a construction site, police, fire and utility personnel, health care workers, grocery, retail, and office workers, mail and delivery people, mechanics, Teamsters and farm workers. The models were members of the campus community, area workers, their families and members of the mural team.”
Tommy Duch, 21, a student, put it in young adult terms: “What a roller coaster!”
He found it to be a breathless learning experience during those six weeks, and he knows that he will never be the same – in a good way. He laughed when asked about how many hours he put in. About five hours a day at least for the six weeks, he estimated. “With breaks! We all took breaks. This was a union project, you know.”
There was an emotional moment as he watched the teacher slash the massive canvas into pieces in order to roll it up and take it to the museum for installation. He could barely watch it happen.
Duch described the mural project as “an honor.” He, like all those involved, felt a big responsibility to do justice to all the people and professions represented by this single tableau.
“It was a humbling experience to work on something that is so much about what makes Fresno Fresno.”
For Hunsucker, it is a big message that he delivers in person to workers regularly while doing business in his hometown. “Thank you for your service.”
The mural will be on display during the Big Fresno Fair next month and then remain in the museum, which is open year round.
Behind the scenes