Union Songs

Solidarity in Song

An article by Mark Gregory (February 2002)

One of the earliest May Day marches in the world took place in Barcaldine in Queensland in 1891, during the famous Shearers Strike. Henry Lawson wrote 'Freedom on the Wallaby' for the occasion, with the lines:

So we must fly a rebel flag as others did before us
And we must sing a rebel song and join in rebel chorus...

Banjo Paterson, too, was moved by the shearers' strike and many people see his song 'Waltzing Matilda' as taking the side of the unionist workers, the swagman, in their battle against the squatter station owners and the police troupers and soldiers drafted in to help break the strike.

Up came the squatter mounted on his thoroughbred
Up came the troupers one two three...

Of course long before Paterson and Lawson, poets had lent their support to the workers cause. The convict 'Frank The Poet' was poking fun at the rulers and those who benefited from slave labour half a century before while the Scottish poet Robert Burns had immortalised the notion of equality for all, before any transport ships came to the 'Fatal Shores' of Australia, in his 'A Man's A Man For A' That'

Since Lawson, generations of Australian poets and songwriters have added to our store of union songs. Tex Morton recorded 'Sergeant Small' which was immediately banned, Helen Palmer wrote 'The Ballad of 1891', Dorothy Hewett wrote 'Weevils in the Flower' and 'Clancy and Dooley and Don McLeod', Clem Parkinson wrote 'The Judge and the Shipowner', Glen Tomassetti wrote 'Don't Be Too Polite Girls', Don Henderson wrote 'Isa', Denis Kevans wrote 'The Roar of the Crowd'. Many of these songs began to appear on vinyl records in the 1960s onwards and also in union songbooks.

Unions have international links across the world and many took up the cause of peace during the Vietnam War. Unions took up the anti-apartheid cause in support of workers in South Africa, supported the resistance against Indonesian invasion of East Timor, and have a long history of active support of unionists in other countries.

This aspect of union work has been reflected in songs, the protest songs of the 1960s, Rock Against Racism in the 1970s, the exchange of union songs themselves. On a Sydney May Day March you would be likely hear the Chilean song 'The People United Will Never Be Defeated', or a South African freedom song, or 'There Is Power In A Union' from Billy Bragg in London. In the era of 'Globalisation of capitalism' international links are as vital as ever.

In the last 10 years unions, singers and songwriters have collaborated on CDs such as 'Jumping Fences', 'Union is Strength' and 'Trains of Treasure'. The MUA and RTBU have held regular annual song writing competitions. This year the NSW Labor Council is launching a song writing competition with a handsome $5000 prize (or about 2 months, average, union fought for, wages!). Well worth taking a week or two off to write.

We have an interesting and vibrant tradition of songs about the struggle for union rights, for Aboriginal rights, for women's rights and for human rights. Today1s songwriters and singers write as powerfully as ever before. Think of Midnight Oil, Kev Carmody, Paul Kelly as popular examples. Our song writing tradition is so strong that, during the 1998 wharf lockout, I collected over 30 songs and poems in one month of that historic struggle of unions against the illegal tactics of the employer in conspiracy with the Howard government.

How do you write a union song? I don't think anyone knows the answer to that but it hasn't stopped them from having a go. Woody Guthrie wrote, 'Maybe you got a new song. You have, if you said what you really had to say about how the old world looks to you, or how it ought to be fixed'. Why are they written? Some say it's just preaching to the converted. I think that's actually an important task in itself. Songs that change the world usually do so by strengthening the conviction of those already converted to the cause. And the cause hasn't changed. Look at the increasing attempts by large employers to leave workers without jobs, without superannuation, without their legal entitlements. The same 'legalised theft' the employers always resort to.

We live in a country of great natural resources with a highly skilled population yet the rewards are being creamed off before our eyes by a class that ruthlessly demands ever more profit. Unions are faced by a class-war government intent on making laws that deprive workers of rights fought for and won long ago. We find ourselves being pushed backwards just as the convicts were, just as those shearers were in 1891. One way we can motivate our resistance is through our culture of resistance. That's why we have to write more songs

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