Union Songs

An Overture into the Future: The Music of Social Justice

By Joe Uehlein

Many thanks to New Labor Forum http://forbin.qc.edu/newlaborforum/ for permission to publish this article in Union Songs

It's 8 P.M. and two thousand pierced and tattooed young kids - and some middle-aged ones too - are shouting, "Let's Go Murphys, Let's Go Murphys" at The Nation, a popular alternative rock club in Washington, D.C. They're waiting restlessly to hear the Dropkick Murphys, a Boston-based Irish alternative punk-rock band. The opening acts have finished and everyone gets quiet when a tune blares over the sound system to signal that the curtain will open in a few minutes. The tune? Billy Bragg's "There Is Power In a Union." Once on stage, Dropkick Murphys launches into cuts from the band's newest CD, Sing Loud Sing Proud, and the fans begin body surfing the mosh pits to "Which Side Are You On." The band follows with originals that attest to their Boston working-class and immigrant roots like, "Boys On The Docks," in which they sing:

United we stand, divided we fall,
together we can be what we can't be alone,
we came to this country, we made it our home.

"If Woody Guthrie and Joe Hill were around today, they'd be Dropkick Murphys fans," noted AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. "This band is letting America's youth know that having a union means having a voice - they celebrate the solidarity that forms
the backbone of our movement and which challenges corporate power."

There's something happening here.

Rewind a month or so. Steve Earle played at the 9:30Club in Washington, D.C. The place was sold out, and during his two-hour show Earle spoke forcefully about the evils of the privatization of prisons system in the United States. After the show, he closed with the opening cut from his popular CD El Corazon, Christmas in Washington:

Come back Emma Goldman, rise up old Joe Hill,
the barricades are going up, they cannot break our will.
Come back to us Malcolm X and Martin Luther King,
we're marching into Selma as the bells of freedom ring.
So come back Woody Guthrie, come back to us now,
tear your eyes from paradise and rise again somehow.

There's something happening here.

For Labor Day 2000, the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) launched a music festival and CD featuring the Toronto hip-hop artist Paula "Bomba" Gonzalez, who recorded the labor classic "Solidarity Forever," but with new lyrics and a new beat:

Yes we kick it on da real
Make it so the people feel
Driving all the nation
End exploitation.

Gonzalez also reworked another labor standard "Which Side R Uon." The CLC is distributing both on CD and video, and the organization sponsored two live, five-hour "Stomping Chaos" concerts. The CLC Youth Committee's plan is to add one new city every year, and they hope to have ten festivals nationwide by 2009.

There's something happening here.

From the Roots: New Voices, New Words
Messages of protest have long permeated our culture, and at some level, the history of popular music is a history of progressive social change. Rolling Stone magazine printed a painting titled "The History of Rock n' Roll - Woody Guthrie's Home Room." Guthrie is teaching a classroom with very young, childlike pupils Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, and Bob Dylan. More than fifty years ago Guthrie stated his philosophy of song writing: "I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. . . . I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world. . . I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work." And Guthrie's message has reached more and more pupils. In the same spirit - and more pithy terms - Kathleen Hanna, of the cutting-edge "Riot Grrrl" movement in the contemporary punk scene and of the band Bikini Kill, said, "Being told you are a worthless piece of shit and not believing it is a form of resistance." Similarly, Bono, the leader of the famous Irish rock band U2, had another take: "There's a lie that's very popular right now which is that you can't make a difference, you can't change our world. A lot of the songs we hear on the radio perpetuate that lie. It puts people in this big sleep."

The Corporate Song
Music is more important than ever to the movement for social justice, because the natural human yearning for solidarity has been increasingly trampled by the overwhelming message of self - "You can do it on your own" - promoted by a capitalist culture. The homogenization of global popular culture has made it increasingly difficult for rebellious voices to break through. Five entertainment conglomerates now dominate the world market: AOL/Time Warner, BMG, Capitol-EMI, Sony, and Universal. We are spoon-fed Britney Spears and Christina Aguillera (they are so similar, I used to think they were the same person), the Spice Girls, the Backstreet Boys and Ricky Martin. The consolidation in the music industry now stands in the way of bands that don't fit the mold. When Universal Music and Polygram merged in 1999 to form the largest music company in the world - Universal Music Group - nearly three hundred bands were dropped from the rosters to make way for the "teen-pop" of Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys.

Given the homogenization of music and culture today, what's exciting and important to labor is the level of resistance to McCulture. Messages of solidarity are breaking through in ways we have not seen in some time. We can find those in concert halls, bars and clubs across the country, as well as on the Internet and through independent music labels. Johnny Temple, the bass player for the New York rock band Girls Against Boys, noted in the October 18, 1999, issue of The Nation, "While independent labels can rarely provide the resources musicians need to survive financially, the most influential - Dischord (D.C.), Touch & Go (Chicago), Jade Tree (Delaware) - to name just a few, offer their bands creative freedom and access to a vibrant musical community - for the first time an alternative to the corporate bottom line assault on music."

We've always had music that calls into question the inequities in society, but political music is blossoming now as part of the larger recognition that corporate control threatens freedom, of thought and action. In this period of cultural shift, it's critical that labor and the Left find ways to build bridges to those artists who help form the popular culture and who are sympathetic to the cause of labor. As Grammy winner Dave Alvin, best known for his roots-rock work with the Blasters, told me recently, "You have more friends out there than you think."

The Real Music Hall of Fame
Since only a few of today's top artists have broken from the mold of corporate sponsorship and authorship, those who have deserve our support and reinforcement.

Ani DiFranco not only carries a message, or many messages, in her music but also lives her idealism. Having refused major record deals she founded the independent label Righteous Babe Records, which has produced all of her more than twelve albums. She's sold well over two million CDs.  Perhaps most notable is the success that she and Utah Phillips - yes, that's right, the Wobbly (IWW), Utah Phillips - achieved with Fellow Workers, which ranked second on Koch International's Soundscan Titles in June 1999. This recording contains the music and singing voices of both artists. An earlier recording, The Past Didn't Go Anywhere, contains mostly DiFranco's music over the spoken words of Phillips, who tells stories of labor history and worker struggles. DiFranco has taken hip-hop beats and presented them to a folk audience in a kind of cross-fertilization that corporate labels probably would not have allowed. As the rock critic and author Dave Marsh has pointed out DiFranco's approach reflects her "insistence on personal freedom" and "a different concept of how to liberate listeners." 

Clearly, country music has strong working-class roots, as reflected in the work of many artists from Loretta Lynn to Merle Haggard.  A new band on the bluegrass scene, which comes out of a folksy-country and rootsy-rock background, is the Indianapolis-based band, Sindacato. Sindacato is Italian for "labor union". The band leader and songwriter, Frank Dean, is the first person in his family not to have gone to work in the mines. He calls labor unions a "life saver," and working-class roots and union roots come through in his songs.

Billy Bragg has long been synonymous with political and class-based music, but what's astonishing is how popular he is today. At the huge Irish Fleahd Festival in New York City, I watched sixty thousand people sing along with Bragg's "There Is Power in a Union." Several months later Bragg performed a special concert in Pittsburgh, for the AFL-CIO convention and kicked off his own twenty-five-city tour of the United States and Canada. Bragg toured in the fall of 1999 to help drum up interest in the Seattle anti-WTO demonstrations, and again in 2000 to promote Global Fairness and volume 2 of Mermaid Avenue. The concert T-shirt has a picture of Woody Guthrie on the front and reads "Billy Bragg & the Blokes - Doin' Woody's Work - 'And every day find ways to fight on the union side for the worker's rights.'" On the back: "Campaign for Global Fairness with the AFL-CIO: End Child Labor, End Forced Labor, Stop Discrimination, Protect Workers' Freedom to Organize."

Dave Alvin won the 2001 Grammy for best traditional folk recording for Public Domain. In this CD, Alvin interprets folk songs that aren't copyrighted and aren't owned by any corporate entity. In addition, much of Alvin's original material strongly reflects working-class and union values. (He's also a child of the CIO, so to speak - his father, Cass Alvin, was a founder and leader of the CIO and later a leader in the United Steelworkers of America). Alvin's "Brother on the Line" addresses the issue of scabs and permanent replacement:

Brother, tonight's as cold on me as it is on you;
times are as hard on me as they are in you. . .
When the bossman shakes you hand sayin' 'son, you'll do just fine'
and you walk into the factory to a job that once was mine,
well don't forget your brother, who's still standin' on the line.

 "Six Nights a Week" speaks to the harshness a working musician faces every day trying to make a living, "Rich Man's Town" and "Boomtown" speak to the struggles of everyday working people, and "Common Man" reflects cynicism toward politicians and the political process.

But my favorite Alvin song is "California Snow," a modern day variation of "Deportee," Woody Guthrie's famous song about the deportation of Mexican immigrants. But Alvin's song takes the perspective of the working-class guy on the night-shift border patrol who connects with those he's trying to police:

Catch the ones I'm able to, watch the others slip away,
I know some by their faces, and I even know some by name. . .
Last winter I found a man and wife, just about daybreak,
layin' in a frozen ditch, south of the interstate.
I wrapped them both in blankets, but she had already died.
The next day we sent him back alone, across the border line.
I don't know where they came from, or where they planned to go;
but he carried her all night long in the California snow.

Various music groups are also making strong political statements. One prime example is the multicultural, multiracial rock/hip-hop band Rage Against the Machine, about which one Rolling Stone cover declared, "The Mightiest Band in Rock is ready to take on Racism, Economic Injustice and Political Oppression." The Band singer Zack de la Rocha is quoted as saying "That's why I'm in this band - to give space and volume to various struggles throughout the country and the world." De la Rocha also helped organize a 1999 spoken-word tour called "Spitfire." In this first-ever package tour, musicians, actors, and activists spoke out on global issues and focused on issues such as sweatshops, voting, and health care. The aim was to expose, enlighten, and entertain, while instigating action. And Rage began the new millennium with a bang by storming the New York Stock Exchange for a guerilla video shoot, fighting alongside striking janitors in Los Angeles, protesting sweatshops, and planning an extensive stadium tour with hip-hop artists the Beastie Boys. Although Rage has now split up, the band inspired a generation and helped build a link between the hip-hop world and the often white-dominated world of social protest. Even now, visitors to the Rage Website, will find a direct link to the Website of the union UNITE!

Come Together: Musical Coalitions
Messages delivered through the popular culture that reinforce solidarity and call into question existing networks of power do not necessarily fit the mold of what we might refer to as "labor" music. But we need to take a broad view - beyond songs that explicitly speak to work issues or even working class issues. Perhaps our concept of "labor" music has changed. People are protesting many things - private prisons, corporate control of the educational system, destruction of the environment, sweatshops, unionbusting, and more. When hip-hop or rap artists decry the conditions of living in the inner city, this is a laborissue. What was it Sam Gompers, the first president of the AFL said over a hundred years ago? "We want more school houses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more constant work and less crime; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures."

In examining popular culture and the movement for social justice today we would be well advised to look beyond our walls and build alliances with those seeking a better world. For example, for three decades, Carlos Santana has been promoting messages of justice and solidarity. Thirty years ago he recorded an album as a benefit for the United Farmworkers of America, and in recent years he has been building bridges between hip-hop, rock, blues, classic rock, and contemporary artists. Last year Santana received an astonishing ten Grammy Awards for his Supernatural recording, which includes his collaborations with such contemporary hip-hop, rap, and pop artists as Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill, Rob Thomas, Everlast, and Dave Matthews. Supernatural is highly spiritual and replete with messages of solidarity. The song, "Maria Maria," for instance, conveys the following:

Stop the looting, stop the shooting, pick-pocking on the corner;
see as the rich is getting richer, the poor is getting poorer.

Santana's come-back work has catapulted him once again to the top of the music world and has increased many people's awareness of other labor-supportive groups. On his Supernatural tour, for instance, the Los Angeles based band Ozomatli, which had played at the AFL-CIO's strawberry workers' organizing march three years earlier, opened the show. Thus, Santana's career makes it clear that connections between labor and pop music have long existed - even though labor often hasn't used them meaningfully.
In addition, the hip-hop movement has been making great contributions to questioning the privatization of the growing prison system. Recently the Prison Moratorium Project and Raptivism Records announced the release of No More Prisons, a hip-hop compilation CD. It contains twenty-three original tracks and features more than seventy artists, including Grandmaster Caz, dead prez, Chubb Rock, Daddy-O, Reanimators, and Last Poets, plus performances by the Harvard professor Cornel West and the actor Danny Hoch. The Prison Moratorium Project has been staging campus hip-hop shows, distributing "Dump Sodexho" stickers, and steering students to its Website. Sodexho-Marriot, a campus food provider, has ownership connections to Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the world's largest for-profit prison company. The project recently scored a major victory by forcing the company to divest from CCA.

Sometimes coalitions between labor, when it is narrowly defined, and other protest movements can prove difficult, however. Take, for example, Bruce Springsteen's recent clash with some labor unions. In 1985 I was working with the USWA on the copper strike in Morenci, Arizona, when Springsteen played in Phoenix and Tucson, and in each case stopped the show to make a plea for the copper strikers. He not only raised considerable sums of money, but also contributed his own large sums. Less than a year ago, however, he opened a series of sold-out concerts in New York City with new fans - and new enemies - for his song "American Skin," which he begins by repeating the words "forty-one shots" - the number of times Amadou Diallo was shot by four New York City police officers in front of his apartment when he reached for his wallet. In Springsteen's words,

Is it a gun?
Is it a knife?
Is it a wallet?
this is your life. . .
It ain't no secret, the secret my friend
you can get killed just for living in your American skin.

Springsteen's candor offended some members of police unions - including many working-class guys who had grown up worshipping Springsteen. Pat Lynch, the president of the police union, asked officers to boycott the concerts, and Bob Lucente, the president of the New York State chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, called Springsteen a "dirtbag." Despite such criticism, many others praised the song and pointed out that Springsteen has done benefits for the families of slain officers. Police Lieutenant Eric Adams, of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, said his group supports Springsteen and is upset that few black artists have used their talents to support the Diallo family. "We commend Bruce Springsteen, and we believe that he is courageous in the position that he is taking."

As protest rock, hip-hop, and rap come together in questioning the corporate dominance of our economic, social, and political systems, unions too must learn how to work with a broad array of forces fighting for social justice - broadly defined. Artists do not feel the constraints of organizations and are therefore free to raise questions that agitate and call into question existing networks of power. We should listen carefully.

Music Festivals as Movement
The international freedom movement, the women's movement, the environmental movement, and the civil rights movement all have used the power of musical celebrities to shine the spotlight on the ills of our society and to raise money for their causes. In recent years, Amnesty International has been particularly adept at enlisting the support of such artists as Peter Gabriel, Alanis Morissette, Bruce Springsteen, Shania Twain, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Radiohead, and Youssou N'dour, all of whom have all toured in support of the organnization. At the end of each show the performers sing Bob Marley's "Get Up Stand Up."

Farm Aid may be one of the most popular benefits, while the Grateful Dead's fund raising for environmental causes, through their Rex Foundation, is one of the most enduring efforts. Live Aid, Net Aid, and the Tibetan Freedom Concerts were all organized by popular singer-songwriters - the Beastie Boys, Dave Matthews, Patti Smith, Natalie Merchant, Emmylou Harris, and many more who decided to use their music and their celebrity status as a vehicle for social change and the betterment of humankind. In forming Farm Aid, Willie Nelson showed he knows the value of being a thorn in the side of agribusiness when he said, "I think thorns are necessary, because eventually somebody's got to feel the prick and maybe figure out a way to get it out."

Hip Movement? A Challenge for Labor
Today's unions have a responsibility to reach out to artists who are sympathetic to labor and to others who are sympathetic to social justice, those working at the grassroots and those "stars" influencing public opinion. We need a strategy to build a core of artists who are pro-labor and outspoken.

To some extent this is happening.

The Great Labor Arts Exchange, sponsored by the Labor Heritage Foundation, is now in its twenty-fourth year. It began with about a dozen mostly white, mostly male folksingers and has expanded to include more than 100 activist-artists of all sorts, including muralists, poets, playwrights, and more. About half are rank-and-file workers sent by their unions to learn how to use music and art in building the movement, and the other half are professional artists supportive of and a part of the movement.

The AFL-CIO has a new Cultural Program which in the spring of 2001 not only hosted the Dropkick Murphys and Baldemar Velasquez & the Aguila Negra Band, but also opened for a photo display about child labor with pictures by David Parker and Louis Hines. This program will be of interest to the arts community and can serve as a conduit to link labor to the artists who support our movement and help form the popular culture.

In November 2000, the International Labor Organization (ILO) named Youssou N'dour - the internationally acclaimed Senegalese musician, singer and songwriter - ambassador of the ILO Global Campaign against Child Labor. The ILO Director-General Juan Somavia, cited N'dour's long-time commitment to human rights. N'dour's video, My Hope Is in You, already has become an integral part of the campaign. A recent recording, "Mademba," features a song inspired by the case of Sengalese trade unionist Mademba Sock, who was scapegoated by Senegal's former government for problems at Senelec, the national power company.

Attempts to spread such activities beyond the labor movement itself are also under way. Several years ago, the American Federation of Musicians endorsed Artists for a Hate Free America (AHFA), which is dedicated to "countering bigotry, homophobia, racism, violence and censorship in American politics and public life through strategies of education, grassroots organizing, and advocacy." AHFA works with artists to provide the material and organizational talent needed to mobilize their audiences and the general public in fighting hate. So who is AHFA? Bonnie Raitt, Neil Young, Pearl Jam, Branford Marsalis, Melissa Ethridge, the Posies, and more.

But this type of activity is still in its beginning stages. We in the labor movement must consider a central debate: Do we build bridges now with the musicians who create popular culture in order to shine the spotlight of truth on the abuses of corporate power? Or do we build the movement first and then reach out to the artists? This is essentially a "chicken­egg" debate, and as with all such there's truth in both constructions. So we must do both - reach out to the artists who share our vision of the future and build our movement so that it is intriguing to those who form the popular culture.

The newly discovered vitality of organized labor in the United States has already tweaked the imagination of sympathetic performers. For instance, Billy Bragg clearly has become interested in associating with the AFL-CIO largely because of the new progressive and activist leadership at the federation. However, various artists have also become intrigued by the role of music and art in the newly forming movement that challenges corporate power. In Seattle, on November 30, 1999, artists joined with labor, church groups, community groups, human rights, environmentalists, and many others to question and challenge corporate globalization.

Saul Alinsky, a community organizer and author, noted that organizing is the art of relationships. Labor and the Left have fallen woefully short in recognizing the importance of this fact - much less acting on it - in relation to artists. It's time now to develop an arts and action program, new life is being injected into the labor movement in a variety of ways. For example, scores of young students on college campuses across the country have recently been supporting antisweatshop efforts, organizing graduate students, and sitting-in (as at Harvard) to gain a living wage for campus blue-collar workers. These young people have been bringing art and music to the movement.

Wynton Marsalis, the world-famous jazz trumpeter, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for his oratorio about slavery, Blood on the Fields. On the same day that I read the review of it in the Washington Post, I also found an article buried deep inside the first section about a U.S. Justice Department slavery case against a North Carolina company that had been charged with enslaving Mexican workers. Marsalis's epic work dealt with the historic enslavement of African Americans in the United States. The Left's new strategy might include actions like supporting a performance of the Marsalis oratorio in that very North Carolina town to shine the public spotlight on the current case of slavery.

Unions for Artists
At the same time that we plan for a convergence of music and labor, we must keep in mind that the creators of popular culture have their own, legitimate self-interests as workers, which the labor movement ought to champion. Yes, we can ask them to approach the labor movement as a sort of philanthropy - ask them to act as witnesses to injustices and in service to causes they care about - but we can appeal to more than just their sympathy. The truth is that these artists also need unions. Last year during the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists strike against the advertising industry, celebrity stars such as Julianna Margolies, Susan Sarandon, Treat Williams, Tim Robbins, Richard Dryfuss, and many more stood up for their brothers and sisters who make their living doing voice-over work and other roles in the advertising field. The issue was residual payment for ads run on cable TV and the Internet - the very same issue those big name celebrities will have to face in their own negotiations.

Courtney Love is one of many recording artists currently challenging the music industry's conglomerates and their strategy to control all aspects of music distribution. Her call to form a new union for recording artists may be misguided, in that she is pursuing a craft approach of organizing a new union only for recording musicians. We already have a union for all musicians­ - the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) - and labor activists should work with and through that union to address the legitimate needs she is raising. The fact is that record companies keep almost all the profits and recording artists are getting a raw deal. Johnny Temple has pointed out that multiplatinum artists like TLC have been forced to declare bankruptcy. Florence Ballard, one of the Supremes singers was on welfare when she died. Merle Haggard enjoyed a string of thirty-seven top-ten country singles (including twenty-three number one hits) in the 1960s and 1970s, and yet he was consistently shortchanged until 2000, when he released an album on the indie-punk-rock label Epitaph. Clearly, artists need unions. Artists create the wealth of the music industry, and they create a piece of the culture. Through unions, willing to adapt to meet new realities, artists can get their fair share.

Will Labor Learn to Sing Again?
Protest musicians of the twentieth century are fading away, but the power of their message is inspiring a new generation. Joey Ramone, a pioneer of punk music, died on April 15, 2001. His band, the Ramones, helped define punk-rock in the mid-1970s and the ethic that went along with the music. And in the 1980s Ramone portrayed a more political bent, which won him the praise of Nelson Mandela and the scorn of Ronald Reagan. Since then, the Dropkick Murphys, Rancid, and Propaghadi have been taking up the tradition and creating a new chapter in punk as social protest. Punk has been and is an angry music - angry about the conventional expectations of our society and culture and punk musicians have lashed out at the corporate educational system and a corporate culture in general.

The incomparable reggae artist Bob Marley would have been fifty-six this year. Now, twenty years after his death, the power and influence of his music have only increased. His "Best Of" collection, Legend continues to sell ten thousand copies a week. No one else has sung of love and solidarity with the eloquence, conviction, and raw power of Marley. He inspired artists like Ben Harper, and arguably even Rage Against the Machine and many of the hip-hop artists featured on No More Prisons.

In the early 1960s it was Johnny Cash who challenged the very assumptions of our capitalist culture in his song "Folsom Prison Blues" when he wrote:

I see those rich folks riding in their fancy dining cars,
they're drinking coffee and smoking big cigars.
I know I had it comin', I know I can't be free,
but those rich folks keep movin', and that's what's torturing me.

Many artists today understand Cash's message. Whether they're taking on prisons like the hip-hop artists, protesting against sweatshops like Rage Against the Machine, singing about workers' rights like Billy Bragg or fighting for a better society like Ani DiFranco, there's power in today's movement of musicians.

A couple of years ago, I was attending an AFL-CIO conference in Williamsburg, Virginia, and several of us were gathering a group for dinner. One member of the group said that his son would be joining us and that we should be forewarned about his spiked, multicolored hair, and different clothing. The boy arrived wearing a Rancid T-shirt. Rancid is a San Francisco-based band that has been at the forefront of the punk movement. I turned the boy around and pointed to the back of the shirt, where a listing of the band's songs appeared: among them "Harry Bridges," a tribute to the West Coast Longshoreman's Union leader, and "Black Lung," about health and safety on the job, as well as "Solidarity," "Untitled (Union Blood)," and "Roots Radical." It seems the son was more pro-labor and hip than his dad.

Something's happening here. The question is whether the labor movement and the progressive movement will seize the moment and get on the front end with these changes.

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