MUSIC: Singing Out Labor’s Power

Picket lines can be lonely places.

Maybe you’ve felt that way, huddled around a burn barrel some chilly morning, wondering if the world even remembered you existed.

But it’s impossible to go on feeling lonely when the New York City Labor Chorus (NYCLC) shows up to serenade you with solidarity.

That’s why three “founding mothers” from different unions came together to form the chorus more than 20 years ago, with help from legendary folksinger Pete Seeger and other labor activists.

“We thought we could use the chorus to build solidarity inside the movement,” said Laura Friedman, one of its founders. “When we sing on picket lines and at union meetings, we reach into the hearts of members as well as their minds.”

Strike a Chord

The chorus now numbers more than 80 members from some 20 different New York metro-area unions, making it the largest as well as the oldest labor chorus in the country. The group has traveled abroad to Sweden, Canada, Cuba, and Wales.

Click here to listen to the NYCLC singing “We Shall Not Give Up the Fight” with Stella D’Oro bakery workers during their strike.

They’ve also sung with Con Edison electrical workers during their lockout; with Occupy Wall Street protestors in Zuccotti Park; with a spirited group of restaurant workers outside the Capitol Grille; and at a fundraiser for nurses sending medical aid to Haiti.

One of their standbys is “Solidarity Forever,” performed with a rock beat and a dynamic soloist. Here you can hear them singing it at New York’s latest May Day celebration in Union Square.

Music for Movement-Building

If you look at any successful movement in history—civil rights, for instance, or anti-apartheid—you’ll find music played an important role.

Music lifts our spirits and keeps us going through tough times. It can drive a message home with more emotional punch than words alone. And it brings people together.

The American labor movement has a long tradition of music that went hand in hand with militant struggle.

Ralph Chaplin’s “Solidarity Forever,” written in 1915, became the labor movement’s unofficial anthem after immigrant loggers in the Pacific Northwest popularized the song in their free speech fights. Loggers organizing with the Industrial Workers of the World packed the jails in Spokane, Everett, Tacoma, and other cities, insisting on their right to make radical speeches on street corners.

The growth of militant unionism in the 1930s with the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the expansion of the American Federation of Labor reenergized the fusion between folk music and labor, most famously expressed by singers like Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and groups like the Almanac Singers.

Although the McCarthyism of the 1950s almost broke unions’ link to our musical heritage—and the militancy that went with it—folksingers and a new generation of civil rights activists kept labor’s songs alive.

Union leaders today, for the most part, don’t think of music as important to their organizing. But today’s labor choruses are trying to change that.

“The thought was to use it as a tool,” said Barbara Bailey, the New York chorus’s president and another founder. “We’re trying to revive the labor movement, labor culture. What better way than with song?”

‘Occupy the U.S.A.’

The NYCLC still loves to sing the classics, but it’s not just “Bread and Roses” and “We Shall Overcome” anymore. New struggles are producing new songs.

In fact, a burst of creativity has matched the upsurge in action the past couple years. Pat Humphries and Sandy O’s clever “Occupy the U.S.A.” imagines a popular movement turning the military version of occupation on its head. (“We're here to stand our ground / We demand our jobs with justice / We're 99% in charge / Now you'll just have to trust us”)

Bill Valenti’s upbeat “Rise Up, Take it to the Streets” celebrates the 2011 popular uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and Wisconsin. (“Rise up together so the whole world can see / Common people rising, they just want to be free”)

Another recent chorus favorite is Joe Jencks’s “Rise As One,” an example of the time-honored tradition of using songs to tell labor’s stories. This one recounts how public school workers in Ohio won a three-month strike in 2002. (“We held a rally at the fairgrounds, to show them our resolve / And to drum up some support for our campaign / A thousand people hit the street, and that's more than half our town / And after that, you know things couldn't be the same”)

And NYCLC member Jeff Vogel recently wrote some great labor-themed lyrics to Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” which you can hear online too.

And Join the Chorus

In the two decades since the New York chorus was founded, others have followed its lead. San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Minneapolis-St. Paul all now boast their own labor choruses.

They welcome new members. And if your town isn’t on that list yet, why not round up a rehearsal space, put a recruiting notice in your next union bulletin, listen for the strongest voices on your next picket line—and start a local labor chorus yourself?

Bob Harris, tenor, is a member of the New York City Labor Chorus and the United Federation of Teachers. To join, hear, request, or hire any of the choruses, contact them at the websites linked above.