Many mourned the death last December of Joe Strummer. The former Clash guitarist, a true voice of punk resistance, died in London from a congenital heart disease at age 50.
Virtually unreported in the U.S. media was Strummer’s history of support for labor, including his recent support of the British firefighters’ union during their fight for a decent national contract.
The firefighters showed their gratitude in turn at Strummer’s funeral – the procession down Ladbroke Grove was led by a firetruck.
As his body was carried into the chapel, twelve uniformed members of London’s fire brigades stood guard in silent tribute.
Andy Gilchrist, the 39-year-old head of the Fire Brigades Union, was a Clash fan, and claimed to have been first politicized at their 1978 Rock Against Racism concert. 80,000 people showed up at that concert in Hackney, a working class neighborhood of East London, to rock to the Clash and also show their disgust at certain established British rock figures who had affiliated with the racist National Front.
But the firefighters’ presence at Strummer’s funeral wasn’t just nostalgia. Gilchrist has gone on to lead the first U.K. union to seriously challenge the anti-labor policies of Tony Blair’s deceptively titled “New Labor” government. In mid-November 2002, Strummer played a solidarity benefit for the union at Acton Town Hall. Former Clash bandmate Mick Jones also showed up – their first reunion performance in 19 years – and joined Strummer for the encore, “London’s Burning.” As he left the stage, Strummer shouted, “Give ’em money. And give the nurses and the teachers money too.”
Strummer’s final public shout, and the solidarity performance that preceded it were broadcast again and again on British television following his death.
And although the negotiations are still unresolved, the support of Strummer and other musicians has been critical in generating publicity and political support for the union.
The musicians playing New York’s clubs and concert venues are well situated to play a similarly constructive role here. Benefit concerts, public statements of support by well known musicians, discounted admissions to striking union members – all could go a long way towards ending the isolation imposed on workers in labor conflicts by an almost exclusively anti-union local press.
Of course, many of the musicians who could potentially participate are royaltied recording artists. If the AFM wants to ask for the solidarity of these musicians, it could begin by extending a bit of solidarity of its own: by ending the shameful lack of protection for royaltied artists in the current AFM sound agreement contracts.
Under the current agreements, royaltied artists receive only one session payment per song – a pittance in an era when artists may work on a 12-song CD for months. (And over 90 percent of artists never recoup any artist royalties.)
Incredibly, royalty artists working under union contracts can often be ordered by the record company into unlimited revisions of songs without being entitled to any additional pay.
The health and pension plans are due for a redesign so that they reflect the needs of royalty artists, too.
And the AFM needs to collaborate with AFTRA to make sure that everyone in bands is represented.
The solidarity of royalty artists might come in handy closer to home if the union ever hopes to solidify its strength in the recording field. But solidarity has to involve real mutual support, not just rhetorical gesture. Rock artists too, are often masters of the gesture. Many prefer the ubiquitous and easily marketed gesture of resistance to the risks of actually connecting with the world.
Joe Strummer was a musician, recording artist and rock rebel whose opposition went beyond hollow rhetoric, phony gestures of resistance and a rad haircut. We could use more like him.
This article was based on an interview with writer Chris Salewicz that took place in London on Jan. 22.