Last year, I opened my International Workers’ Day column by making snarky jokes about the United States not participating and instead opting to have our own Labor Day. All of which I still stand by.
Well, good news! This year employees at Amazon, Target, Instacart and other essential businesses celebrated International Workers’ Day in the most appropriate possible way: By going on strike. They didn’t strike not just for better pay, better hours and better conditions, though those were all obviously part of it. They were striking to demand basic protective equipment and policies during a pandemic that, as of this writing, has killed thousands more Americans than the Vietnam War in just a couple short months.
These workers aren’t unionized yet so they don’t even have the few protections that still provides, but you can begin to form a union at your workplace now so it’s there when you need it. It’s better to have a union you don’t need than be without a union when your employer tries to risk your life for profits you barely get a cut of.
If you’re still not convinced, here are five songs to help make my case. To paraphrase an American hero, I’m here to recruit you.
Pete Seeger — “Which Side Are You On”
We begin with one of the oldest union songs, originally written in the early days of the labor movement back in the 1931. Since then it’s been covered or rewritten by everyone from Pete Seeger and Billy Bragg to Ani DiFranco and the Dropkick Murphys—for good reason, it’s a classic anthemic ode to workers organizing and a call to metaphorical arms to stand up for yourself and your rights.
It was originally written by Florence Reece, the wife of a union organizer named Sam in Harlan County, Kentucky. Sam was a miner and the labor action he helped start is known as the Harlan County War, which should tell you all you need to know about how well the mine owners took the effort. Eventually, mercenary groups euphemistically called “private security” and even the National Guard got involved. An unknown number of miners died in the violence.
As for the song, the story goes that the county sheriff was going to go rough up Sam, but he got advance word and took off thinking they’d go look for him but leave his wife and seven kids alone. They did not. They ransacked his house, terrorized his wife and children, and waited outside his home for him to come back so they could shoot him in cold blood. After the ordeal was over Florence wrote the lyrics to “Which Side Are You On” on a sheet she tore off a calendar in the kitchen and set it to the tune of a hymn.
Being in a union is important, but nobody ever said it was easy.
Joe Hill — “There is Power in a Union”
You think 1931 is old? This one was written in 1913.
Hill wrote it for the Industrial Workers of the World, an international union founded in Chicago in 1899. It’s also become a standard covered by some of the same people; Dropkick Murphys, Billy Bragg, etc. And again, that’s for good reason since it’s also an effective call to action set to the tune of a hymn.
One striking thing about “There is Power in a Union” is that it puts into context what we consider radical. The opening line of this 107-year-old song is “Would you have freedom from wage slavery,” a sentiment and even specific terminology that people in 2020 often say is too far and that the world isn’t ready for. But it was written in 1913. Perhaps the world has been ready for it for a long time but we’re just told this so often to believe it.
I shudder to think what Hill and his contemporaries would say if they saw that a century later people are in roughly the same place now than they were then, but rather than miners and factory workers it’s couriers who bring food and other purchases to people’s homes.
Tom Morello — “Union Town”
If Seeger, Bragg, and Hill had a successor, it’s Tom Morello. More than anyone, even more than his Rage Against the Machine bandmates, he’s been consistently committed to workers and workers’ rights.
He’s so committed, in fact, that in 2011 he released an album called Union Town that was comprised entirely of union songs—including, appropriately, a cover of “Which Side Are You On” and an original song called “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.” He’s also a lifetime member of the aforementioned Industrial Workers of the World, and more in line with his profession, the American Federation of Musicians.
But I don’t really have to give you a history lesson about Morello or his work. You already know.
John Lennon — “Working Class Hero”
Lennon himself may have been a man of questionable character—many of his interviews about this song were shockingly homophobic—but it’s hard to deny he was a fantastically effective songwriter.
While “Imagine” gets most of the attention of his solo work, for my money the best song he ever wrote without Paul McCartney was “Working Class Hero.” Fifty years after its release, verses like “Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV/ And you think you’re so clever and classless and free/ But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see” are so bluntly on the nose it’s shocking. He calls out flaws in our society that have not just persisted but gotten worse in the half-century since.
It’s a shame it had to come from someone like Lennon.
Pete Seeger — “Solidarity Forever”
Yes, Seeger again. It’s my column and I do what I want. The two best versions of this union anthem are by Pete Seeger and from Tom Morello’s Union Town, and you need to appreciate Pete Seeger. Everyone does. He was a great man and a great musician and he doesn’t get the respect he deserves.
The third edition of my sporadic series on underappreciated legends may be on him. We’ll see. If it is, I’m not sorry.
Anyway, you know this tune. It’s one of the most central American folk traditions, a marching tune that’s accompanied by a rallying cry to freedom from oppression. Originally written for “Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us,” a song common in protestant tent revivals in the late 1700s, it was adapted to the abolitionist anthem “John Brown’s Body” sometime in the mid-1800s. John Brown, of course, was the militant anti-slavery crusader to the more level-headed gradualists; he was the Malcolm X, the Magneto, the W. E. B. Du Bois, the Killmonger. And like all the men on that list he was absolutely right.
Once the Civil War broke out, it was adapted again to become “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” an early intermingling of patriotism and Christianity that’s also not about a man hanged for starting a slave rebellion in front of an audience that included John Wilkes Booth and Stonewall Jackson.
Then the 20th century came around, it was rewritten again to be a labor anthem, and that’s where it’s stayed ever since. After all, that fight is still going on. In part because you haven’t joined a union yet to help us win.
Follow editor Daniel J. Willis and tweet column ideas to him at Twitter.com/BayAreaData.