Unionists are often many things – steadfast, political … and surprisingly decent musicians. Union songs have been a part of the movement since the very beginning.
So in that spirit, here are 10 of the best songs written about workers or the union movement, in no particular order.
Factory: Bruce Springsteen
You’d be hard pressed to find a rock musician with more of a symbolic connection to blue collar workers than Bruce Springsteen. Though his catalogue is full of stories of the working class, Factory from 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town is one of the most poignant.
The song was supposedly written about Springsteen’s father. The two didn’t get on very well, and Factory is a somber representation of the struggles of the average worker.
Florence Reece: Which Side Are You On?
Reece never claimed to be a singer, but this song is one of the most important accounts of the union movement. Her father was a coal miner who was killed in the mines, and her husband, a union organizer in Kentucky, died slowly of the Black Lung.
Reece wrote the song after she and her children were accosted by a group of men said to be working for the owners of a mine during a strike in the ‘30s. Like a lot of folk songs, its melody came from a hymn – Lay the Lily Low.
Working Class Hero: John Lennon
Working Class Hero was featured on John Lennon's first post-Beatles solo album, 1970's John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, and it’s one of his best.
Backed by an acoustic guitar and three chords, Lennon venomously plumes the difference between social classes. “A working class hero is something to be” remains one of his most memorable lines.
Billy Bragg: Power in a Union
There is Power in a Union was written by Joe Hill in 1913, but was popularized by Billy Bragg on his 1986 album Talking With the Taxman about Poetry. The song was first published in The Little Red Songbook in 1913.
Tom Morello: Union Town
You can’t have a list of songs celebrating rights and dissent without mentioning a member of Rage Against the Machine. Morello is an avowed unionist, and often shows up at rallies and events like the Occupy Movement with a guitar to celebrate worker’s rights.
This version of the song comes from 2011’s World Wide Rebel Songs, and was also featured on an EP of the same name that year. The Union Town EP also features covers of important union songs, like Solidarity Forever and Whose Side Are You On?
Johnny Paycheck: Take This Job and Shove It
Take This Job and Shove It was Ohio-born country singer Johnny Paycheck’s only number one hit. Paycheck sings about the trials and tribulations of 15 years working in a factory – but in true classic country music fashion, his “woman done left” him, too. No word on if his dog or his trucks are okay.
Judy Collins: Bread and Roses
Bread and Roses originated in a speech by U.S. labour leader Rose Schneiderman back in the early 20th century. The speech inspired a poem of the same name by James Oppenheim, which eventually lead to the song by Judy Collins, which is one of the more popular musical versions.
It’s often associated with a textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts from 1912, now referred to as the "Bread and Roses strike".
Pete Seeger: Solidarity Forever
Ralph Chaplin wrote the original version of Solidarity Forever back in 1915 but Pete Seeger’s version is one of the more popular modern versions.
The song often pops up at union events in Canada, the U.S. and Australia, and has been sung at NDP conferences over the years.
Woody Guthrie: Union Burying Ground
This tune was featured on Guthrie’s 1941 album Struggle, and was written to commemorate everyone who died in labour actions in the early 20th century.
According to The Patriot Ledger, the album was full of "raw, gut wrenching protest songs … His charismatic style gets back to the roots of folk and the voice of the people."
Greg MacPherson - Company Store
Winnipeg’s Greg MacPherson’s songs are full of stories about how the common man deals with oppression. Company Store, a longtime fan favourite, is no exception.
The song re-imagines a story his father told him about his own father. A coal miner in Glace Bay, N.S., MacPherson’s grandfather participated in the burning down of the town’s company store after the workers went weeks without pay.
Though the song is propelled by rage and places its sympathies in the miner’s camp, it also shines a critical light on the history of violence in Canadian labour struggles.
MacPherson once told his record label the song, “is my way of pointing out that we have a colourful and acrimonious history that should be remembered and learned from.”
Honourable Mention: The Power Plant Strike Song: The Simpsons
Okay, okay, this might not carry the weight of some of the other songs listed here – but The Power Plant Strike Song remains one of the most memorable tunes about a union ever written. And who could forget Homer’s adventures as a bumbling union leader?
“Lisa needs braces!”
Some suggestions from Twitter
@cbchamilton Maggie's Farm-Dylan— Scott Wooder (@ScottWooder) April 19, 2013
@cbchamilton'Union Man' - United Steelworkers of Montreal.— Greg Risko (@Esau13) April 19, 2013
@cbchamilton "Three Chords and the Truth" - Ry Cooder, a personal favourite.— Bob Beck (@mycatsheds) April 19, 2013
This is a part in a series of stories about unions in the 21st century from CBC Hamilton — all leading up to our Labour Pains: Do Unions Still Matter? Town hall on Tuesday, April 23.
Join CBC Hamilton at Mohawk College's McIntyre Performing Arts Centre for a discussion and live webcast on the state of unions in Ontario and Canada, hosted by Brent Bambury, of CBC Radio's Day 6. Tune in on Tuesday, April 23 from 7:30 p.m. – 9 p.m.