After 37 years of syndicated solidarity, cartoonists draw service to a close

Since 1983, Gary Huck and Mike Konopacki have been supplying labor publications from coast to coast, including The Union Advocate, with cartoons drawn specifically for union members. But faced with dwindling subscription rates, the cartoonists are folding their syndication service, effective this month.

Huck and Konopacki won’t stop drawing. Fans will be able to view new work online at huckkonopackicartoons.com. Still, losing the cartoon syndicate is a sobering sign of the times for both the labor movement and print media.

Huck and Konopacki share Wisconsin roots. In the late 70s, Huck was working as the cartoonist for a labor weekly in Racine. Konopacki, fresh out of the University of Wisconsin, was drawing for a syndication service based on the East Coast, as well as a publication put out by striking newspaper workers in Madison.

Certain he wanted to make a career of cartooning but uncertain how to go about it, Konopacki drafted letters seeking advice from editorial cartoonists at several major newspapers. He got one response, from Tom Curtis of the Milwaukee Sentinel.

“He was a very conservative Nixonite,” Konopacki laughed. “But he was a very sweet guy. Maybe talking to a lefty cartoonist doing anti-war cartoons for the student newspaper was his Christian charity or something, but he became kind of a mentor.”

Huck, it turned out, had befriended Curtis, too, and in 1979 he introduced the two rabble rousers at a cartoonists’ convention in Phoenix.

“I remember it was about 300 degrees, and we were walking to the final dinner,” Huck said. “Mike didn’t have a sport coat on, and Tom Curtis got very upset, so Mike had to go back to his room to get one.”

Four years later, the two hatched a plan to syndicate their work together, launching Huck-Konopacki Cartoons with about 30 subscribers from the labor press.

Subscriptions grew steadily, peaking at about 120 publications, until the early 2000s. By then, Konopacki said, “not only was print dying out, but you had unions themselves merging or just dying out.”

Before closing this year, the syndication service counted five subscribing publications, including two from Minnesota. Of course, much has changed since 1983, when union members made up more than 20% of the U.S. workforce and newspapers employed hundreds of editorial cartoonists. Today, union members make up about 10% of the workforce, and about 25 editorial cartoonists remain at daily publications.

“It was a double whammy,” Konopacki said.

In some respects, it’s impressive the two cartoonists made a go of it as long as they did. Their cartoons are prickly and often political. Their wit comes with a healthy dose of righteous anger. And they haven’t shied away from making organized labor, its leaders or its friends in public office the target of their work.

“There’s a risk to using political cartoons in your union’s publication,” Huck said. “There’s a risk of blowback, and a lot of people in the labor movement prefer not to be confronted. Mike and I would hear it a lot: ‘We don’t need criticism from within, we get enough criticism from without.’”

Attacks from without have labor on the ropes now, but renewed interest in unions, particularly among younger Americans, offers hope for a revival of the movement’s fortunes. Will a vibrant labor press, whether in print or online, be reborn too?

“We’re certainly capable of doing the job,” Huck said. “There’s just no place for the job to be done. But I don’t doubt for a second that art will be part of whatever the labor movement becomes.”

Humor will, too, Konopacki added.

“You have to make fun of bosses,” he said. “They hate it, and it’s legally protected by the First Amendment. You have to use humor to try to take away some of their power.

“You can’t build a movement being grim all the time.”

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