Fred Wright (1907-1984) was one of America’s most renowned labor cartoonists. His career lasted from 1939 until his death in 1984. He is best known for his work as a staff cartoonist for the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). In addition to his cartoons illustrating the union’s newspaper, the UE News, he designed leaflets, strike placards and animated organizing cartoons to contribute to the American Labor Movement.
Wright sold his first cartoon to the National Maritime Union (NMU) publication, The Pilot, in 1939. He continued to draw cartoons for the U.S. Army during World War II and was ultimately hired as a staff cartoonist for the UE in 1949. Throughout this time, his work was reprinted in labor and radical publications worldwide. In the spirit of the Labor movement, his cartoons criticized the Taft-Hartley Act, McCarthyism, and other government post-war attacks on labor unions.
Wright’s life experiences gave him a first-hand view of blue-collar struggles, both in America and abroad. As the child of a seamstress and a wheelwright in Derby, England, and the grandson of a founding member of the British Labour Party, he saw both the struggle of the working class and the political means to alleviate them. As a young man, he supported himself as a musician, playing in speakeasies and silent screen nickelodeons. It was while working as a saxophonist on Caribbean cruise ships that Wright saw the poverty of Central America. With input from the seamen onboard, members of the NMU, he gained the inspiration to begin drawing cartoons.
His grandfather also influenced him artistically, giving Wright his first drawing lesson at the age of five. He would later study at the Art Students League in New York City with John Sloan, an artist whose work focused mainly on poverty-stricken urban neighborhoods.
Contrary to the popular dark and realistic “ash can style” most cartoonists of the time relied on, Fred Wright was “one of the first cartoonists in America to introduce more of a cartoony style to political cartoons and place a big emphasis on humor, keeping in mind that none of the politics are diminished,” said Gary Huck, Wright’s successor as UE cartoonist. Wright was a working man and drew cartoons until he died in 1984. Even when he was too ill to come into the office he mailed his drawings to work.