This evening the Labor Heritage Foundation presents the Joe Hill Award to the most famous labor cartoonists in the United States — Gary Huck and Mike Konopacki. This is a lifetime achievement award and it is bears the name of Joe Hill – the labor movement’s most famous folk hero and martyr, well-known as a songwriter but not so well known as a cartoonist for his union, the Industrial Workers of the World. Yes, Joe Hill was a Wobbly cartoonist.
Mike Konopacki drew his first political cartoon in 1972 for a student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The next year he started driving a bus for Madison Metro — a job he would hold for the next 17 years. During this time he contributed cartoons as a freelancer and then, in 1977 Madison’s newspapers went on strike. They formed their own newspaper – the Madison Press Connection – as a challenge to the local corporate media and Mike joined the staff. He began drawing weekly cartoons for the strikers and that’s when he discovered himself as a labor activist and cartoonist for working people.Gary Huck’s artistic journey also began in the great state of Wisconsin. (Dislosure : there’s something about Wisconsin and cartoonists; it must be the cheese) Gary was doing commercial art in Milwaukee when, in 1977, he became active in support of striking teachers and support staff in Racine – it was a bitter 7-week strike. A daily strike publication was established and a cartoonist was needed. Soon Gary soon began drawing a weekly cartoon for the long-standing Racine Labor newspaper. The United Auto Workers and other union publications began reprinting his work.
At the time these two union brothers were launching their careers as profession illustrators and cartoonists there was only one full-time cartoonist on staff of a major national union. That was the great Fred Wright, a radical artist employed by the UE – the United Electrical and Machine Workers of America. The UE was a union born in the trenches of class struggle and Fred Wright illustrated the the union’s efforts to improve the lives of working people through organization. Fred Wright created artwork for the UE from 1949 to 1984 and he did not pull any punches. When you finished experiencing one of his cartoons, you definitely knew which side you were on.
The cartoon – So Long Partner! – has been seen around the world; it graced the wall of the union office (AFSCME 2910) at the Library of Congress for over 20 years.Fred Wright inspired Huck and Konopacki.
In 1983 Huck and Konopacki decided to further the cause of labor cartooning. They syndicated their operation and founded Huck-Konopacki Labor Cartoons. They would work together as a team. Each month they sent out cartoon packets to unions and other labor organizations in the US and Canada. Can you imagine how thrilled labor editors were to receive a monthly packet of cartoons? By featuring them in their publication, they were able to explain an issue directly and with clarity. They were also good attention-grabbers. “Our purpose.”Mike Konopacki said, was “to attack, to satirize, ridicule and poke fun at people, to poke fun at policies” and then he added, “including poking fun at ourselves. The Huck-Konopacki cartoon service operated from 1983 to 2020 (that was last year! Truly Amazing).
And so, to Gary Huck and Mike Konopacki, on behalf of the Board and the Staff of the Labor Heritage Foundation I am proud to present you with the 2021 Joe Hill Award.