Music and the Labor Movement

Labor History Month

Volume CVIII, No. 5May, 2008

Steve Jones
Click for larger image.
From left, Claire Maida, Eugene Hamond, Pat Logan and Barbara Bailey singing at this year’s commemoration. Photo by Bave Sanders.

MUSIC HISTORY: Each year, UNITE HERE remembers the 148 victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which was the largest industrial disaster in the history of New York City. Most of the victims were immigrant women. The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the ILGWU.

Labor music and labor culture have been powerful forces in American life for the past 80 years. In the 1930’s, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and others formed the Almanac Singers — and they supported union efforts around the country, writing many songs and singing at rallies and union halls.

It was Joe Hill who said, “You can make a speech: people forget it the next day. You put the information in a leaflet: people hold onto it for a week and throw it away. But if you write a song and put that information in a song, people hear it, remember it, and sing it: it lives on.”

When Bruce Springsteen released “The Seeger Sessions” last year, he paid homage to a musician who as much as anybody is responsible for the folk music movement and putting guitars in the hands of millions of young people. In addition to the richness and power of Pete Seeger’s music, Springsteen spoke to a larger contribution.

Seeger was called before the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950’s and refused to do their bidding as they pursued a witch-hunt of Communists. He was held in contempt and scheduled to go to jail.

Labor music and the movement for civil rights are deeply entwined. “We Shall Overcome” was heard as “I Will Overcome” on a union picket line in one of the largest union movements ever seen in the South. In the 1940’s, the Food, Tobacco and Agricultural Workers Union came to Winston Salem, North Carolina, where it was largely led by African-American women. At the R.J. Reynolds company, Theodosia Simpson started a sit-down strike that involved 7,000 workers. Workers struck later at American Tobacco in Charleston. African Americans organized themselves into unions for the first time in American history on the basis of equality.

Adding lyrics to the old gospel song, those workers sang,

“We are not afraid
We are not afraid today
Oh deep in my heart
I do believe
I will overcome some day.”

Many of these leftist activists were red-baited and blacklisted, and attacked as Communists and “un-American.” Their ideas were a belief in racial equality, workplace democracy and the rights of women. Those have now become mainstream American values.

Of course, the labor movement in the U.S. is a part of a worldwide movement. Labor culture draws on the strength of brothers and sisters overseas. Militant struggles produce powerful music. The U.S. labor movement took part in the fight against apartheid. Nelson Mandela spoke of the role of music in that historic struggle: “Music… uplifts even as it tells a sad tale. You may be poor, you may have lost your job, but that song gives you hope… Politics can be strengthened by music, but music has a potency that defies politics.”

Today there are singers who sing at picket lines and at union rallies. They are part of the tradition of speaking truth to power and of building spirit to keep the movement going.

Steve Jones is a pianist, composer and member of AFM Local 161-710 (Washington, D.C.). His latest project is “Forgotten,” a jazz opera about the union organizer Lewis Bradford. E-mail Steve Jones at or see