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About The Button Project

Buttons come in many shapes and sizes and serve many purposes. They may have slogans, illustrations, or logos in various colours and styles. Their intention could be political or it could support an organization. They may show solidarity for a cause or just be purely for fun! Yet, buttons all have one common trait: they always share a message. You may not always understand the message or agree with it but it is there, speaking out from the lapel of a jacket. 

What do we mean when we say button, badge, or pin? These words are often used interchangeably to talk about small, wearable pieces that send a particular message through words or visuals. Throughout this exhibit, we will be using button, badge, and pin to refer to different things. 

Badge will be used as an all-encompassing word to describe a wearable emblem of any kind. Buttons will usually be used to talk about pin-back buttons, with their shiny plastic front and pin clasp metal backing. Enamel pins are small metal badges made with enamel. 

There are twenty-seven pin-back buttons and one enamel pin at the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources (IRHR) Library. These badges are intended to support causes (such as the boycott against the postal code), show solidarity for strikes (like the Eaton strike of the 1980s), or show general involvement in trade unions and labour organizations. The collection is Canadian and most of the buttons were union made. They come in all varieties and present fascinating insight into Canadian labour movements. 

The Button Project is an online exhibition that will explore labour history through buttons. We will focus on Canadian examples to explore protests and boycotts, unions, and movements through material culture. 

Buttons Past: A Short History

Badges have been worn for centuries to show authority, commemorate events, celebrate accomplishments, and support a person or cause. The pinback button is now the most popular type of badge. But in the past (and to some extent today), badges were made from various materials such as metal, textile and eventually plastic. The Knights of Labor in Canada, for example, gave their members metal badges. A badge at the Library and Archives Canada commemorates a demonstration in Oshawa in 1883. 

The beginning of pinback buttons goes back to the 1890s. This celluloid button with a tin backing and pin-back fastening was first created by the advertising company Whitehead & Hoag. In 1896, they patented the process of sealing paper under a layer of plastic (or celluloid). Shortly after, they began to produce buttons for political campaigns, trade unions, and advertising in great numbers. 

The pinback button made its way to Canada through travelling Whitehead & Hoag agents. Around half of buttons distributed in Canada prior to the 1930s were manufactured by the company (Harper, n.d.). They were used in political election campaigns and they became popular with trade unions. They were cheaper to produce than the enamel pin, particularly during World War II when metal was in short supply (Martin, 2002).

Unions and the Role of Buttons

Buttons and pins have a longstanding presence within trade unions. In the early days, they were used to indicate that members were up to date on the union books (Martin, 2002). Once a member paid their fees, they were given a little button. Today, they continue to be an important sign of membership more generally, showing the wearer’s union affiliation to fellow members, employers, and the public. For this reason, they are powerful in building solidarity and fostering a sense of community. 

During strikes, buttons are spread widely and worn proudly. The Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants for Scotland produced one of the earliest strike badges, which was designed to be hung from a watch chain. The strike fought for a ten-hour workday but was unsuccessful. Badges are important to these efforts as they foster curiosity, invite questions, and are highly effective in spreading awareness. They create solidarity by showing strength in numbers: a single person may feel powerless but an outward demonstration of support from a collective group can create confidence and build momentum for a cause. On the picket lines, buttons are useful in distinguishing strikers and creating a united image on the front. 

Buttons can also spread awareness of workplace issues at a time when there isn’t a strike as a form of job action. On July 14, 2010, union members at the Hôtel Hyatt Regency in Quebec wore buttons on their uniform that contained the message: “Hôtel Hyatt Regency – Staff cuts = Bad services” (Norton Rose Fulbright, 2016; Hyatt Regency Montréal et STT de l'Hôtel Méridien de Montréal (CSN)(74-2010), Re., (2015), 288 CQCTA (Laplante)).

The employer demanded that the buttons be removed and when the union refused, 80 employees were dismissed for the day without pay. The union filed a grievance, claiming that the employer violated their freedom of expression. The arbiter ruled that while the employer was within their rights to demand the removal of the buttons, they contravened the collective agreement by expelling the union representative who had refused to order employees to remove their buttons (Norton Rose Fulbright, 2016; Hyatt Regency Montréal et STT de l'Hôtel Méridien de Montréal (CSN)(74-2010), Re., (2015), 288 CQCTA (Laplante)).

Buttons are divisive, often intentionally so, arousing anger and even counter protests. Some employers in an attempt to eliminate union activity from the workplace, have tried to limit or ban buttons and other union paraphernalia. For instance, in 2012 “Stephen Harper Hates Me” buttons (distributed by the Public Service Alliance of Canada or PSAC) created a conflict when Canada Revenue Agency employees were told to remove them by their employer (Fitzpatrick, 2012). 

Management claimed that the buttons were “derogatory and damaging to the employer’s reputation” (Fitzpatrick, 2012). Annette Melanson of the Union of Taxation Employees (part of PSAC) defended the buttons, saying “We don’t see them as offensive. We see them as accurate” (Fitzpatrick, 2012).

Pressure from management may intimidate workers from showing their support, fearing the risk it may pose to their jobs. In a study by Gordon Lafer and Lola Loustaunau (2020), one worker explained how they lost the confidence to wear union paraphernalia when they “heard from another employee that in HR they had a list of people who were for the union…So I started laying low…I felt my job was at risk. We weren’t about to wear a button supporting the union”. These reactions to union buttons, both from employers and workers, demonstrates the powerful effect of these objects. 

The union badge is an important ideological symbol representing common ideas and a shared set of values of a group of people. It represents “a collective mind-set and attitude, a set of beliefs” (Martin, 2002, p. xviii). By “bringing together the cumulative effect of many grievances into an objectified image,” the union badge creates solidarity amongst workers and helps fuel action (Awad & Wagoner, 2020, p. 98). It has a long history of being a communication device, one that people can rally around or rally against, and it continues to play an important role in the trade union.