Labor in Song

Look for the Union Label (1978)
International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (now UNITE)

Friends with Low Wages (2007)
American Rights at Work
One Big Union (2007)
Producer Unknown
Words and music by Matthew Grimm
Solidarity Forever (2008)
Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 689
Performed by the Whiteville Choir
Are We Making It America? (2009)
Alliance for American Manufacturing
Performed by Kathy Garrison

Employee Free Choice Act (2009)
Coalition of Labor Union Women
Operation Hey Mackey! Whole Foods, Oakland (2009)
Jamie LeJeune, Cassidy Friedman
Performed by the Brass Liberation Orchestra
Union Song (2009)
Steve Bailey Music
Performed by Steve Bailey

Where Has All the Money Gone? (2009)
Producer Unknown
Performed by the Angry Tired Teachers
Everything is Fine on the Picket Line (2010)
Producer Unknown
Performed by Charles Mattice

Flash Mob at Shaw's Supermarket (2010)
Rand Wilson
Performed by the Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society Brass Band
Our Song (2010)
Delta Association of Flight Attendants
Written by Jarrod Anderson

Send It Down the Line (2010)
United Food and Commercial Workers International Union

Adapted from "The Music of Labor: From Movement to Culture" by Michael Richmond (Legal Studies Forum 23:1 1999)

Labor music began out of the need to attract people to group meetings and then to get them to feel a part of the group. The simple music often selected gospel melodies or melodies popular at the time—music people could hum and they would recall from the happier days of their youth. The lyrics of the music allowed people to “pick them up” easily, and to sing along with the rest of the group. Simple and often repetitive, they spoke to basic needs—decent conditions, fair wages, employment and family security. They exhorted and instructed, they gave people larger-than-life heroes to emulate, and gave people the hope that enabled them to withstand imprisonment, beatings, and disappointment.

The music of labor unions in the first half of this century went well beyond revolutionary exhortation, and differed markedly in tone from similarly-themed popular music of the second half of the century. The need for sheer numbers of union members to achieve the union goals of decent working conditions and living wages drove Joe Hill  and then Woody Guthrie to write songs that would galvanize their listeners and create in them a common bond. A dramatic disillusionment with the form organized labor had assumed by the middle of the century then found its way into music, and pushed the music to take different forms — both in the message the music provided, the audience which received the music, and in the very nature of the music itself. The loss of jobs following the Second World War and the entry of women and minorities into the workplace in increasing numbers also served to create a different type of labor music in recent years. 

[Woody Guthrie in Pastures of Plenty (1999) is quoted saying] "People need work music. People need music to march by and to fight with... And rather than me to keep on scribbling here, it would be a whole lot better if we both always keep our eye peeled and our ear cocked to what all of us are trying to say – because all any kind of music is good for anyway is to make you and me know each other a little better. That’s the most modern thing in the world."