The Rutgers AAUP-AFT logo at the top of this page—known around our office as the “pencil-fist”—has been adopted by other higher education unions and organizations around the country. But where did our logo first come from, and why did we choose it?
The first image of a raised fist holding a pencil used by our union was created by a member: grad worker and artist Jenna Brager, who designed it as a stamp for grads to put on graded papers during a “grade-in” outside the president’s office (at the time located in Old Queens) in December 2014. We also used this image on buttons reading “Educated by Union Labor,” which we distributed to students.
The image was so popular and compelling that we put a three-foot-high pencil-fist (in a new graphic version designed by staff artist Eric Ruder) on our big banner reading “An Injury to One Is an Injury to All.” Ever since, we’ve been using the logo on posters and placards, publications, websites and social media pages, beanies, coffee cups, clothing for pets, and anywhere else we can think of.
The raised fist has traditionally been a sign of solidarity and unity—five fingers working together as one—but also of militancy and radicalism. As a historic symbol of left-wing movements, it dates back to the French Revolution. The labor movement in particular adopted the image, with the fist often holding a tool.
In recent history, the raised fist was most associated with the Black Freedom Struggle. Two athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos (who our union toured to all three Rutgers campuses in 2016), made the Black Power salute famous around the world when they raised their fists in the air while standing on the victory podium at the 1968 Olympics.
We paid tribute to this long history when we began using our own version of the raised fist in the 2010s. But there was a more immediate context for the symbol. In 2014, after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the Black Lives Matter movement emerged around the United States, and the raised black fist was seen once again.
Our version of the raised fist was inspired by this living history, too—a symbol of our union’s commitment to social and racial justice. That commitment continues today with our union’s Freedom School, educational forums in the tradition of Ella Baker, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the 1960s civil rights movement; our call to action for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor; our participation in the nationwide #ScholarStrike in September 2020; and the many articles and speeches of our members advocating for unions to make racial justice central to their struggles.