Singing Labor's Song - Music & the Labor Movement

Since its inception, music has been a community builder and rallying point for people to come together through a shared idea. In public squares, religious spaces and at small gatherings, music is a force used by millions around the world to find a common language to tell their stories - and the labor movement is no exception.

This year, the union anthem "Solidarity Forever" turns 100 years old. Ralph Chaplin, the song's writer, was a member of the International Workers of the World and served as its poet laureate, where he looked to capture the struggles and triumphs of working people.

Elise Bryant, chair and director of the Labor Heritage Foundation and leader of the DC Labor Chorus, sings during the Women's Fair Practices Luncheon at the 2015 Grassroots and Mobilizations Legislative Conference. Click here to read the lyrics of 'Solidarity Forever.')

As Chaplin wrote in his autobiography, "Wobbly: The Rough and Tumble Story of an American Radical:"

I wrote “Solidarity Forever” at a time when there was a life-or-death struggle between fiercely competitive ideological groups to see which of them would shape the future the then embryonic left-wing labor movement. It was a knockdown-drag-out fight with no holds barred, and every available weapon from gentle persuasion to brass knuckles was used to gain a fair or unfair advantage.

The song became the unofficial labor anthem, adopted by the American Federation of Labor & Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).

The lyrics detail the toil of working people struggling under a rich and wealthy ruling class, and urge them to stand together and create a country of opportunity for all. And by setting it to the tune of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," Chaplin ensured that the song was easy to sing and remember.

When AFGE was founded in 1932, music with a social justice flair was flourishing. Artists like Woody Guthrie were migrating to the West in search for work, and writing songs about the issue workers faced as wages fell and jobs dried up. He wrote "Union Burial Ground" after seeing organizers killed for trying to form unions in their workplaces, and wrote "1913 Massacre" in honor of mine workers who had been murdered for organizing. As workers started coming together to fight for their rights and secure the benefits we enjoy today, music followed them.

Labor music found new life in the Civil Rights movement, where African Americans fought not only for their civil rights, but for their workers' rights as well. During the 1960s, the song "If I Had a Hammer" by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays gained popularity, a song about the brotherhood and dignity of workers as they completed an honest day's work together.

All of these songs took the poetry of working people and the challenges they faced, and educated the country through music. And even though these songs were written decades ago, the words remain true: the labor movement still fights for better pay, benefits and working conditions for all workers. Much has been accomplished through solidarity and collective action but there is still so much work to be done.

In the 1990's AFGE added its own original tune to labor history -- AFGE & Me. The song and lighthearted video follow the growth of the union from its humble roots of 42 founding members in 1932, to the over 670,000 government workers over dozens of government agencies that AFGE represented at the time. The song shows the pride our workers take in their public service, and how much we have accomplished by standing together.

By using music, the labor movement has been able to teach men and women around the world about what labor can do for them, their families and their communities - and what we can accomplish by standing together.


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