Hot button issue

Poking around the history of protest pins

On August 9, 1963, at the height of the civil rights movement, a piece appeared in TIME Magazine that discussed the development of “an obtrusive lapel button” that could be worn to show support. Citing orders by the thousands by national councils and committees for these buttons, as well as by President Kennedy and his cabinet, the article discussed the power of a single emblem in conveying collective support.

The power of buttons in delivering political and social statements has been proven time and time again: they have encompassed an incredible range of issues, from anti-war marches in Vietnam, to pro-choice movements, to political affiliation. Pins allow individuals to concisely express beliefs and demonstrate support, especially regarding controversial issues. And, in return, the visuals they provide shape our perception of those issues and events, both in the moment, and long after our memories have begun to warp and fade. After all, possibly the most famous symbol in the Western world, the peace symbol, was first featured on buttons during the anti-nuclear movement of the 1950s.

Protest buttons and political pins add a distinct visual flavour to an issue and the public’s perception of that issue. Take, for example, the MUNACA button. The bright green against a canvas backpack or wool sweater has become a familiar sight for students on campus. The strike – and the button – have become entwined, largely due to the proliferation of these buttons through campus. Student activism and political buttons are surely nothing new, but the widespread display of these buttons in solidarity with MUNACA, with respect to a highly sensitive issue for our University’s administration, has elicited some interesting reactions from University representatives.

Shyam Patel, SSMU VP Finance and Operations, told the McGill Daily of his personal experience at the Management Career Fair that resulted from wearing the green button. Stopped by an employee of Desaultels, he was told that wearing this pin would “not look good to other companies” and was “inappropriate”. “It was a situation where either I took it off and went in, or kept it on and went through the other door,” said Patel. So it is clear that the button is attracting attention, though perhaps not in the desired form.

So, what exactly are the MUNACA buttons doing? When they first appeared, they provided yet another route, in addition to the picket lines and rallies, for MUNACA to attract attention and support. At the time of their conception, the pins supplemented the strike’s more visible activities.

This is no longer the case.

Now with the injunction in place, MUNACA can no longer hold rallies for support or even encourage students to wear the pins. Yet, as Patel told the Daily, “I think the empowerment of the buttons is really significant because it shows the students are in support of the strike and the MUNACA workers.” With the picket lines forced into silence by the injunction, the buttons are the last vestige seen on campus indicating that a strike is in effect, and that students have not forgotten. Although strikers continue to march in small groups in areas close to campus, these buttons may now be more important than ever before.

“I feel that there has been a lot of support on campus for MUNACA workers. It’s not a specific group of students who support MUNACA; a lot of students understand. They realize how important these workers are,” added Patel. These green buttons may be just the way to keep that importance in sight and in mind. What will be interesting to see is whether their visual, as striking as it is, will last past the end of the labour talks, to make a lasting impact on McGill’s visual culture in the same way that so many iconic buttons have had a lasting impact in the past.