Union Songs

The Music of Labor: From Movement to Culture

Article by Michael L. Richmond 

The music of labor unions in the first half of this century went well beyond revolutionary exhortation, and differed markedly in tone from similarly-themed popular music of the second half of the century.  The need for sheer numbers of union members to achieve the union goals of decent working conditions and living wages drove Joe Hill and then Woody Guthrie to write songs that would galvanize their listeners and create in them a common bond.  A dramatic disillusionment with the form organized labor had assumed by the middle of the century then found its way into music, and pushed the music to take different forms - both in the message the music provided, the audience which received the music, and in the very nature of the music itself.  The loss of jobs following the Second World War and the entry of women and minorities into the workplace in increasing numbers also served to create a different type of labor music in recent years. 

Working conditions at the turn of the twentieth century bordered on the appalling.  Whether in factory, mine, or mill, workers faced long hours, dangerous conditions, and unsanitary facilities.  Employers, luxuriating in the abundance of cheap and exploitable immigrant labor, saw their employees as little more than fungible goods.  "If you call in sick today, don't come to work tomorrow."  In 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire brought working conditions to public prominence.  Trying to escape from their factory, young women working long hours for minimal wages found fire escape doors locked by an employer concerned that they would slip away for brief breaks from the  toil which marked their working lives.  Having no other choice, the women ran to the windows only to find no fire escapes on the side of the building.  One hundred and forty-six women died, consumed by flames or leaping to their death on the ground below. 

The specter of these girls plummeting to the ground, captured by photographers and graphically described by the newspapers of the day, swayed public opinion so that over 120,000 people joined in a silent march to honor the dead.  The Women's Trade Union League and the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union organized the march. 
Unionism, which had begun to flourish in the United States in the late 1800s and which had firmly established itself by 1911, received a huge boost in the eyes of the public from the Triangle fire and other, equally significant but less publicized, workplace tragedies.   They provided unions a foot in the door to convince a large number of uncommitted workers to join in their efforts to gain decent wages and working conditions.  The issue for the unions became how best to use the foothold that management had given them - how to use the antagonism the bosses themselves had created to galvanize non-union workers to join the union ranks.  Music provided a powerful tool to recruit new members. 

The International Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies) used song more pervasively than any other labor group, and many IWW songs still echo in union halls to this day.  They "found that street corner meetings drew more attendance if a Salvation Army-type band was there to attract attention." They also learned that when people sing, they remember the message of the song. 

To this day, Wobbly songs continue to echo at folk festivals and campfires, and you'll find an IWW site on the Internet.  Such songwriters as Joe Hill and T-Bone Slim authored many songs which have found their way into the folk canon, such as "Rebel Girl" and "The Popular Wobbly."  "Popular Wobbly" shows how the Wobbly writers used both humor and melodies taken from other sources.  Based on a popular song of the time - "The Girls They Go Wild, Simply Wild Over Me," by Fred Fisher - T-Bone Slim's "Popular Wobbly" recounts the many people who "go wild" over the poor little Wobbly. 

Oh, the 'bull' he went wild over me, 
And he held his gun where everyone could see, 
He was breathing rather hard 
When he saw my union card; 
He went wild, simply wild over me. 

From the bull to the judge to the jailer, all go wild over the little Wobbly, until as he sits in his jail cell the bedbugs and fleas go wild over him as well and he wonders whether:  "When my soul and body part/ In the stillness of my heart/ Will the roses grow wild over me?" 

The most famous Wobbly song, still sung at union meetings, was "Solidarity Forever."  Urging unity and rejecting individual effort, set to the well-known melody of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," "Solidarity Forever" proved an immensely effective rallying tool. 

When the Union's inspiration through the workers' blood shall run, 
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun, 
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one? 
But the Union makes us strong.

Solidarity forever!  Solidarity forever! 
Solidarity forever!  For the Union makes us strong. 

But buried within "Solidarity Forever" we find the concepts which led to the downfall of the Wobblies as an effective voice of organized labor.  Some commentators believe the Wobbly message went too far towards Communist idealism for American rank-and-file laborers.  The final verse of "Solidarity Forever" reads: 

All the world that's owned by idle drones is ours and ours alone, 
We have laid the wide foundations, built it skyward stone by stone, 
It is ours not to slave in, but to master and to own, 
While the Union makes us strong. 

Other Wobbly songs carried the message in much sterner terms.  "Workingmen, Unite" by E. S. Nelson contains the unabashedly anti-capitalist sentiment: "Workingmen, Unite!/ We must put up a fight/ To make us free from slavery/ And capitalistic tyranny."  John F. Kendrick's "Christians at War" attacked the hypocrisy of Christians waging war on other Christians, but anti-labor forces readily interpreted it as a Communist anti-religion tract: "Onward, Christian soldiers!  Duty's way is plain/ Slay your Christian neighbors or by them be slain." 

But anti-Communist sentiment does not alone explain the IWW's loss of effectiveness.  Even before the beginning of World War I, the Federal government, fearful of the power the Socialist Party had demonstrated at the polls, had begun systematically cracking down on Communist and Socialist activity alike, culminating with the problematic imprisonment of the Socialist leader Eugene Debs for contempt and his later, even more questionable, imprisonment for violation of the Espionage Act during World War I.  The war itself  created an intense nationalistic fervor, and the message of the Wobblies, despite their genuine concern for bettering the lives of American workers and American society in general,  simply could not combat the combination of nationalistic sentiment and governmental propaganda.  At the same time, the Russian civil war engendered by the Bolshevik Revolution produced a markedly anti-Communist sentiment in the United States.  Internationally-based, doctrinaire unions like the Wobblies didn't have a chance. 

Yet low wages and poor working conditions persisted, and the need for unionization continued unabated.  Unions needed to attract membership, and getting people singing still afforded them a powerful way to bring workers into the movement.  The message, however, needed to attack the bosses without directly attacking the power structure of the government in which business functioned.  Revolution was itself purged, while reform took center stage. 

Whatever the political motivation of union leaders, union music took pains to distance itself from the Communist message of Wobbly songs.  Unions told potential members that whatever the bosses might claim, they were not under the control of foreign influences and wanted nothing from management except the right to earn a fair living.  By the Great Depression, the very right to exist was at stake, and unions needed members to enhance their position against management which saw a huge pool of unemployed workers as the opportunity to lower wages and repress workers. "I Am a Union Woman," by Aunt Molly Jackson, begins: 

I am a union woman, 
Just as brave as I can be, 
I do not like the bosses, 
And the bosses don't like me.

Join the CIO, come join the CIO.

I was raised in old Kentucky, 
In Kentucky borned and bred. 
But when I joined the union, 
They called me Rooshian Red.

 Similarly, Jim Garland suggested that "I don't want your millions, mister/ I don't want your diamond ring/ All I want is the right to live, mister/ Give me back my job again." 

The unions now had to fight not only management, but non-union labor seeking the same jobs held by union members.  Many of the union songs inveighed against these "scabs," who walked through picket lines and broke the will of union workers. 

Come all of you good workers, 
Good news to you I'll tell 
Of how the good old union 
Has come in here to dwell.

Which side are you on? 
Which side are you on? 

Don't scab for the bosses, 
Don't listen to their lies, 
Us poor folks haven't got a chance, 
Unless we organize. 

Which side are you on? 
Which side are you on?

The Almanac Singers "Talking Union" adapted the talking blues to union purposes, giving a virtual recipe for forming a union local.  Stressing unity and mutual assistance, the song begins with the problems facing workers and moves through organization, picket lines, and strikes.  It also notes in pointed language that outside forces can break a union not only at the picket line, but at the formation stage as well. 

Now, you know you're underpaid, but the boss says you ain't; 
He speeds up the work till you're about to faint. 
You may be down and out, but you ain't beaten 
You can pass out a leaflet and call a meetin' 
Talk it over - speak your mind - 
Decide to do something about it. 

'Course, the boss may persuade some poor damn fool 
To go to your meeting and act like a stool; 
But you can always tell a stool, though - that's a fact, 
He's got a rotten streak a-running down his back; 
He doesn't have to stool - he'll make a good living 
On what he takes out of blind men's cups. 

The unions had their heroes as well, and the songs celebrated them.  Real or fictional, the union heroes galvanized others into action, cheered them on picket lines, and taught them that personal sacrifice and struggle leads to victory.  Joe Hill, the Wobbly songwriter, died before a firing squad in Utah in 1915.  Convicted on questionable circumstantial evidence of the murder of a shopkeeper in Salt Lake City, Hill received the death sentence.  His will, a twelve line poem, ends: "Perhaps some fading flower then/ Would come to life and bloom again/ This is my last and final will./ Good luck to all of you."  Like the flower in his will, Joe Hill did indeed come to life again, in a song that has lasted from the dust bowl to the Woodstock Rock festival at Max Yazgur's farm and well beyond.  The song memorializing his life transcends the unionizing message it contains, and represents in song how a man's influence lasts long beyond his physical death. 

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night alive as you and me 
Says I, "But Joe, you're ten years dead," 
"I never died," says he.  "I never died," says he. 

"In Salt Lake, Joe, by God," says I, him standing by my bed, 
"They framed you on a murder charge." 
Says Joe, "But I ain't dead."  Says Joe, "But I ain't dead." 

"The copper bosses killed you, Joe.  They shot you, Joe," says I. 
"Takes more than guns to kill a man," 
Says Joe, "I didn't die."  Says Joe, "I didn't die." 

And standing there as big as life, and smiling with his eyes, 
Joe says, "What they forgot to kill 
Went on to organize, went on to organize." 

"Joe Hill ain't dead," he says to me, "Joe Hill ain't never died. 
Where working men are out on strike, 
Joe Hill is at their side.  Joe Hill is at their side." 

"From San Diego up to Maine, in every mine and mill, 
Where workers strike and organize," 
Says he, "You'll find Joe Hill."  Says he, "You'll find Joe Hill." 

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night alive as you and me 
Says I, "But Joe, you're ten years dead," 
"I never died," says he.  "I never died," says he.

The inspiration of Joe Hill's life moved potential union members just as did Woody Guthrie's fictional "Union Maid."  The melody for "Union Maid" came from a popular - very dirty - song titled "Pretty Redwing," which detailed the actions taken by a brave young maiden who found a cowboy creeping into her tent to rape her.  She whipped out her trusty Bowie knife, castrated him on the spot, and hung her prize up on the teepee wall (much like a matador who was awarded the ears and the tail).  The Wobbly song, "Workingmen, Unite!", was sung to the same tune.  It doesn't take a great deal of thought to come to the conclusion that the unions wanted to do to the bosses (at least figuratively) what Pretty Redwing did literally to the cowboy.  Significantly, the message of the song became far more moderate than the earlier Wobbly song, with its chorus: "Shall we still be slaves and work for wages?/ It is outrageous - has been for ages;/ This earth by right belongs to toilers,/ And not to spoilers of liberty." 

There once was a union maid 
Who never was afraid 
Of goons and ginks and company finks 
Or deputy sheriffs who made the raid. 
She went to the union hall 
When a meeting it was called, 
And when the company boys came ėround 
She always stood her ground. 

Oh, you can't scare me.  I'm sticking to the union, 
I'm sticking to the union, I'm sticking to the union, 
Oh, you can't scare me.  I'm sticking to the union, 
I'm sticking to the union, ėtill the day I die. 

This union maid was wise 
To the ways of company spies. 
She'd never be fooled by the company stools, 
She'd always organize the guys, 
She'd always get her way 
When she struck for higher pay, 
She'd show her card to the company guard, 
And this is what she'd say, 

This union maid had fought 
With Pinkertons and cops. 
She was hit on the head and called a Red, 
But she never ever thought to stop. 
She spent some time in jail, 
No one could go her bail, 
But when she was out she'd let out a shout 
And the bosses heard her wail: 

These songs, most performed by the Almanac Singers, encouraged people to sing and participate.  Building off the Wobbly pattern, they used popular melodies, simple choruses, and inspirational verses to create in their listeners a feeling of togetherness, warmth, and joining.46  Whether vestiges of the Communist and Socialist philosophy which had caused the downfall of the Wobblies remained mattered little.  The music carried a message of better living conditions, better pay, and a better future.  Returning to the Almanac Singers' "Talking Union," 

If you want higher wages, let me tell you what to do: 
You got to talk to the workers in the shop with you; 
You got to build you a union, got to make it strong, 
But if you all stick together, now, ėtwon't be long, 
You get shorter hours - Better working conditions - 
Vacations with pay.  Take the kids to the seashore. 

It ain't quite this simple, so I better explain 
Just why you got to ride on the union train; 
ėCause if you wait for the boss to raise your pay, 
We'll all be waiting till Judgment Day. 

We'll all be buried - gone to Heaven - 
Saint Peter'll be the straw boss then, folks. 

But, as "Talking Union" concludes, there's plenty of evidence that unions work and the hardest obstacles can be overcome: 

But out in Detroit here's what they found, 
And out in Frisco here's what they found, 
And out in Pittsburgh here's what they found, 
And down at Bethlehem here's what they found: 

That if you don't let Red-baiting break you up, 
If you don't let stool pigeons break you up, 
If you don't let vigilantes break you up, 
And if you don't let race hatred break you up - 
You'll win.  What I mean, take it easy - but take it.

 "The Great Depression of the thirties resulted in a profound change in the climate of social thought about the place of unions in contemporary society.  As a result, Congress and some state governments passed legislation to provide a more favorable legal structure for the operation of unionism."  The curbing of injunctions against strikes, combined with the substantial restriction of anti-trust prosecution of labor unions, which the Norris-LaGuardia act provided, allowed unions the freedom of action which led to an atmosphere conducive to collective bargaining.  The Wagner Act cemented collective bargaining into the national labor structure, while at the same time greatly restricting management from retaliatory activity against union leaders.  As a result, the advent of World War II found a nation gearing up for a wartime economy ready to accept labor unions as a legitimate partner in the war effort. 

The forties and early fifties, however, while allowing rapid development of unions, also saw the systematic purging - from both internal and external sources - of labor leaders with Communist backgrounds.  Some of the positive provisions of the Wagner Act fell by the wayside with the Taft-Hartley amendments, and unions lost some of their bargaining power.  The McClellan hearings of the late fifties and Robert Kennedy's investigations of the early sixties brought to public attention substantial corruption within union offices.  Ultimately, many viewed union leadership as little different from industrial management.  The jaundiced eye of Phil Ochs produced a song which expressed the disaffection of a great many people with organized labor as it had developed by the Civil Rights era of the sixties - "Links on the Chain."

And then in 1954, decisions finally made, 
The Black man was a-risin' fast and racin' from the shade, 
And your union took no stand and your union was betrayed, 
As you lost yourself a link on the chain. 

And then there came the boycotts and then the freedom rides, 
And forgetting what you stood for, you tried to block the tide, 
Oh, the automation bosses were laughin' on the side, 
As they watched you lose your link on the chain. 

You know when they block your truck, boys, by layin' on the road, 
All that they are doin' is all that you have showed, 
That you gotta strike, you gotta fight to get what you are owed, 
When you're building all your links on the chain. 

And the many who tries to tell you that they'll take your job away, 
He's the same man who was scabbin' hard just the other day, 
And your union's not a union ėtil he's thrown out of the way, 
And he's chokin' on your links of the chain. 

For now the times are tellin' you the times are rollin' on, 
And you're fighting for the same thing, the jobs that will be gone, 
Now it's only fair to ask you, boys, which side are you on 
As you're building all your links on the chain.

Links on the Chain shows the exceptional power of parody because it touches base so directly with traditional union music.  Certainly, the question in the concluding stanza ("Which side are you on?") hearkens directly back to one of the best-known organizing songs.  The text also uses the rhetoric of earlier songs: "took no stand," "automation bosses," and "you gotta strike, you gotta fight/ to get what you are owed."  The chorus itself prompts audience participation, repeating "on the chain" four times and then repeating the last line of the preceding verse.  Ochs embodied all the strengths of labor music in a song which attacked and mocked labor itself. 

From the sixties onward, the audience for union music shifted.  People continued to sing, but the broader classification of "folk music" subsumed union music.  Union songs echoed, but the message now stressed the togetherness of people not for unionization but for combating the more general problems of society - segregation, the conflict in Viet Nam, and women's rights. The singers of union songs turned their attention to other issues both because organized labor now seemed (as Ochs had noted) little more than another device to ensure the continuing social dominance of straight white males and because the larger issues seemed to occupy the entire horizon.
From the 1960's on, labor music did not seek to organize, but to raise the consciousness of the public at large.  One recurrent theme focuses on women and persons of color in the workforce - most likely stemming from the "borrowing" of union music by the civil rights movement.  Another theme, found repeatedly in music aimed at a broad audience attracted to rock and pop music, speaks to the dangers posed to working people by the closing of businesses.  With some exceptions, the music of workers now reaches farther afield.  Although generally the need to attract new members to unions no longer drives the music, the broader societal questions of lack of job opportunities and job security, together with a call for social parity have taken its place, resulting in a wider audience. 

The ease of adapting songs used by the unions to cross over to songs used by social movements appears plainly from the history of two of the best-known songs of the civil rights movement of the 1960's.  In the 1920's, striking African-American textile workers in North Carolina adapted a spiritual to serve union needs.  "We Shall Not Be Moved" in the 1960's became a staple of civil rights protestors at sit-ins and freedom marches.  Similarly, "We Shall Overcome", a standby for union organizers and civil rights marchers alike, began its life as the Baptist hymn "I'll Be All Right" and transmuted into a song used to unionize by tobacco workers in the 1940's.   A slight retailoring of the words of the songs allowed each movement to use them to foster unity and tie the bonds of common struggle. 

Of course, during the 1960's and later unions still need to organize.  Their songs, however, lack the burning persuasiveness of the IWW or the Almanacs.  Rather, they simply state universal harmony and togetherness. The informal anthem of Cesar Chavez' United Farm Workers, for example,  speaks not to unions or strikes or scabs - coming from a traditional Spanish song it carries a more universal message of the beauty that comes from a blending of many colors. 

De colores, de colores se visten los campos en la primavera. 
De colores, de colores son los pajaritos que vienen deafuera. 
De colores, de colores es el arco iris que vemos lucir. 
Y por eso los grandes amores de muchos colores me gustan a mi, 
Y por eso los grandes amores de muchos colores me gustan a mi.

Working women also have their songs.  Peggy Seeger, a contemporary English songsmith, wrote a well-known humorous commentary on a woman emerging from the traditional cocoon into a driving force in today's workplace. 

From the time she was a little girl, the singer wanted to be an engineer.  At each step, she heard only that her duty led her elsewhere.  Her mother said:  "Can't you be a lady?  Your duty is to make me the mother of a pearl."  At school, she was taught typing as a skill, "that every girl is sure to need to while away the extra time until the time to breed," because "an engineer could never have a baby!"  She became a typist, and the boss pinched her thigh, telling her, "You owe it to the job to be a lady, it's the duty of the staff for to give the boss a whirl."  She married Jimmy, who first told her, "it's the duty of my darling to love me all my life."  Once she put him through school and he got a job as an engineer, she had babies and Jimmy told her, "You owe it to the kids to be a lady, dainty as a dishrag, faithful as a chow."  But things finally changed. 

But now that times are harder and my Jimmy's got the sack, 
I went down to Vickers, they were glad to have me back; 
I'm a third-class citizen, my wages tell me that, 
But I'm a first-class engineer. 
The boss, he says, "I pay you as a lady; 
You only got the job 'cause I can't afford a man. 
With you I keep the profits as high as may be; 
You're just a cheaper pair of hands!" 

I listened to my mother and I joined the typing pool; 
I listened to my lover and I put him through his school; 
If I listen to the boss, I'm just a bloody fool - 
And an underpaid engineer. 
I been a sucker ever since I was a baby, 
As a daughter, as a lover, as a mother and a "dear," 
But I'll fight them as a woman, not a lady, 

I'll fight them as an engineer.

Only a year later, Peggy Seeger's smaller audience grew exponentially as Dolly Parton recorded the theme song of a remarkably popular movie depicting the problems facing women working in steno pools - "Nine to Five." 

Workin' nine to five, what a way to make a livin', 
Barely gettin' by, it's all takin' and no givin'. 
They just use your mind, and they never give you credit. 
It enough to drive you crazy if you let it. 

Nine to five for service and devotion, 
You would think that I would deserve a fair promotion; 
Want to move ahead, but the boss won't seem to let me, 
Sometimes I swear that man is out to get me.

 Lower wages, inferior jobs, lack of potential for advancement or even recognition - all these have plagued women in the American workforce for years, and continue to this day. 

With recessions and corporate consolidations, with less expensive foreign products and NAFTA72, United States business enterprises have closed shop, taken profits, and ru.  Left in their wake, unemployed workers find no replacement jobs.  Si Kahn, one of the hardy breed of those still finding audiences for "folk" concerts, wrote "Aragon Mill" in 1974. 

At the east end of town, at the foot of the hill, 
Stands a chimney so tall that says Aragon Mill. 
But there's no smoke at all coming out of the stack, 
For the mill has pulled out, and it ain't coming back. 

Now I'm too old to work and I'm too young to die, 
And there's no place to go for my old man and I. 
There's no children at all in the narrow, empty streets. 
Now the looms have all gone, it's so quiet, I can't sleep. 

Kahn's concerns, like those of Peggy Seeger, reached a far wider audience when they found echoes in the songs of several highly popular rock and pop musicians.  Billy Joel, in "Allentown," wrote: "Well, we're living here in Allentown,/ And they're closing all the factories down."  The workers could find no replacement jobs, and Joel concludes the song: 

And we're waiting here in Allentown 
But they've taken all the coal from the ground 
And the union people crawled away 
Every child had a pretty good shot 
To get at least as far as their old man got 
But something happened on the way to that place 
They threw an American flag in our face 
Well I'm living here in Allentown 
And it's hard to keep a good man down 
But it's getting very hard to stay 
And we're living here in Allentown.

Bruce Springsteen also sang of the loss of jobs.  In "Born in the USA," he has a young man return from the Viet Nam war to: "Come home to the refinery,/ Hiring man says, ėSon if it was up to me'/ Went to see my VA man/ He said, ėSon, don't you understand.'" Springsteen also painted a similarly bleak picture to that of Joel in "My Hometown."

Now Main Street's whitewashed windows and vacant stores 
Seems like there ain't nobody wants to come down here no more 
They're closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks 
Foreman says these jobs are going boys 
And they ain't coming back to your hometown, 
Your hometown, your hometown, your hometown. 
Last night me and Kate we laid in bed 
Talking about getting out 
Packing up our bags and heading south. 
I'm thirty-five, we got a boy of our own now 
Last night I sat him up behind the wheel and I said 
"Son take a good look around, 
This is your hometown."

In the last quarter of the century, workers have had to confront not merely the economic reality that many smaller companies can no longer turn a profit.  They have also lost jobs because one company wants the assets of another without having to worry about such minor concerns as continuing employment contracts.  Buying the assets, closing the plants, and consolidating operations to new locations means thousands of people out of work in locations with no extra jobs to go around.  "A new age is dawning/ On fewer than expected/ Business as usual," Don Henley sarcastically commented in "Little Tin God."  On the same album, he wrote "Gimme What You Got." 

Now it's take and take and takeover, takeover 
It's all take and never give 
All these trumped up towers 
They're just golden showers 
Where are people supposed to live? 
You can arm yourself, alarm yourself 
But there's nowhere you can run 
ėCause a man with a briefcase can steal more money 
Than any man can with a gun. . . . 

You got the price of admission - 
You don't have to ask permission 
To take somethin' from another man 
You cross a lawyer with the godfather, baby 
Make you an offer that you can't understand. 

The more complex new songs serve different ends - they persuade without participation.  They indoctrinate large segments of the population to problems which will not find solutions through union organizing.  They speak to problems which will require support from society as a whole for their solution.  People don't need to sing along - the message will reach them without their joining a group.

 *                    *                    * 

Labor music began out of the need to attract people to group meetings and then to get them to feel a part of the group.  The simple music often selected gospel melodies or melodies popular at the time - music people could hum and they would recall from the happier days of their youth.  The lyrics of the music allowed people to "pick them up" easily, and to sing along with the rest of the group.  Simple and often repetitive, they spoke to basic needs - decent conditions, fair wages, employment and family security.  They exhorted and instructed, they gave people larger-than-life heroes to emulate, and gave people the hope that enabled them to withstand imprisonment, beatings, and disappointment. 

The more complex problems presented by a multi-cultural society have in part caused a change in the music's message and delivery system.  The Occupational Safety and Health Act has gone far to remedying the disgraceful working conditions of 75 years ago.  The federally-imposed minimum wage has eased the outrageously low pay forced upon workers at the turn of the century.  Federal legislation has permitted unions to grow in an atmosphere conducive to collective bargaining and repressive to anti-union measures. While unions still face many problems, workers see far better employment conditions than did their grandparents and parents. 

Problems now seem to implicate society as a whole.  The glass ceiling keeps women and persons of color from meaningful advancement in the corporate structure.  Foreign competition makes the continuation of businesses unprofitable and forces the closing of factories at the same time as corporate takeovers consolidate operations and terminate thousands of jobs.  Unions, rather than providing outlets for workers to combat the loss of jobs, often seem little more than unreachable and corrupt beaurocracies themselves, often in league with management.  Much labor music is "no longer sung, for the unions have ceased to sing."  The songs of the workers of the thirties are now firmly cemented into our social consciousness, but as "folk" music.  At the same time, popular music has taken up the call. 

"People need work music.  People need music to march by and to fight with . . . . And rather than me to keep on scribbling here, it would be a whole lot better if we both always keep our eye peeled and our ear cocked to what all of us are trying to say - because all any kind of music is good for anyway is to make you and me know each other a little better.  That's the most modern thing in the world. "
Woody Guthrie: "Bound for Glory"


Many thanks to Professor Michael L. Richmond and Jim Elkins for permission to add this article to the Union Songs web site. The article first appeared in Legal Studies Forum edited by Jim Elkins at West Virginia Law School.

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