I am not a holiday sort of person, so much. I don’t have a religion, I’m wary of clichés, and my work schedule tends not to take notice of when the banks and post offices are shut. However, if there’s one thing which can move me to celebration or solemn observance, it’s an old-fashioned leftist’s sentimental patriotism. That sentiment has found me the words to observe the Fourth of July in years past, and it always gives me the motivation to pay my respects to the people who have served this country by working for it, and who have fought for the right to do so with dignity. Labor Day is one of my very favorite days in America—and Labour Day one of my very favourites in Canada. You, dear reader, may or may not know that I was raised on the songs of the American labor movement; it was the IWW Little Red Songbook which instilled in me the basic sense of social justice, love and respect for each other, and conviction that we are more than our jobs and our wages, which I am proud to consider my creed. I have made a mixtape or a playlist nearly every first Monday in September of the songs and their history which taught me to adhere to the courage of my convictions—and this Labor Day I shared that playlist with Facebook over about twelve hours. I thought I might as well reproduce it here.
“Solidarity Forever,” written by Ralph Chaplin, is the song which stopped my crying when I was an infant. Here is the Weavers’ version.
The great organizer and songwriter Joe Hill’s “There is Power in a Union,” here performed by the venerable IWW folksinger Utah Phillips.
Joe Hill was executed on a framed murder charge in 1915, following a highly controversial trial which seems largely to have convicted him due to his political affiliations. A martyr to the cause of organized labor, several songs have been written in his honor. This, with words by Alfred Hayes and music by Earl Robinson, in versions sung by Paul Robeson and then by Joan Baez, is the most famous.
My sister and I learned fearless dissidence from the following song. I don’t know its author, and it’s not in my well-worn 1973 edition of the IWW songbook, but here is a version sung at a 1980s IWW convention by Faith Petric and Mark Ross. This is required listening for you, dear reader—and if I had the power to compel every elected Democrat in the United States to listen to this song, it would be required listening for them, too.
My early childhood feminism came from Woody Guthrie’s classic “Union Maid,” here well-updated with solid, modern verses by Woody’s son and granddaughter.
In 1931, the United Mine Workers in Harlan County, Kentucky were engaged in a bitter, violent, scary, and courageous strike. Florence Reece was the wife of a UMW leader, and the mine bosses broke into her home and terrorized her and her children in an attempt to intimidate her husband and the UMW into capitulating. It didn’t work, and Reece wrote this beautiful, haunting song. Here is Pete Seeger singing “Which Side Are You On?”
The Republican candidate for the Senate in Kentucky, Rand Paul, professed not to know why Harlan County is famous. Someone should tell him that “They say in Harlan County, there are no neutrals there/You’ll either be a union man, or a thug for J.H. Blair,” the sheriff who attempted to intimidate Florence Reece.
We conclude with the poignant “We Have Fed You All for a Thousand Years,” by an anonymous author, first printed in 1908. Here’s Utah Phillips, and here are the lyrics, which are worth typing up in full out of the IWW songbook.
We have fed you all for a thousand years
And you hail us still unfed,
Though there’s never a dollar of all your wealth
But marks the workers dead.
We have yielded our best to give you rest
And you lie on a crimson wool,
Then if blood be the price of all your wealth,
Good God! We have paid it in full!
There’s never a mine blown skyward now
But we’re buried alive for you.
And there’s never a wreck drifts shoreward now
But we are its ghastly crew.
Go reckon our dead by the forges red
And the factories where we spin.
If blood be the price of your cursed wealth,
Good God! We have paid it in!
We have fed you all for a thousand years—
For that was our doom, you know,
From the days when you chained us in your fields
To the strike a week ago.
You have taken our lives, and our husbands and wives,
And we’re told it’s your legal share,
But if blood be the price of your lawful wealth,
Good God! We have bought it fair!
I’m not a praying woman, but let us all send thoughts of some kind today to the workers who have fought for the right to organize and who have fed their families and served their countries with honor and dignity, no matter how much the bosses try to keep them down and out. As “Solidarity Forever” says, “It is we who plowed the prairies, built the cities where they trade/Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid.” It is working folk—whatever “working” means—who have built this country, and they deserve the thanks of its government and its people for all they have done and how hard they have fought to do it on fair and humane terms.
When we talk about Labor Day, and labor unions, we must necessarily talk about the right to organize, and the actions of the people who do organize unions, who do come together to work cooperatively in the fight for fair treatment, a living wage, safe working conditions, and the right not to be treated like shit. Now, “organizing” means many things, but above all it means working together and caring for each other, and no rhetoric about “efficiency” or “accountability,” no smearing of the good name of socialism, will change that. What makes us human is that we care for each other, but what we don’t often consider is that caring for each other does not just mean loving our families and being friendly enough to attend our neighbors’ cookouts on the National Day Off. It also means—and perhaps even more so than those other things—that we spend some time on Labor Day being grateful to the people who don’t have the day off, or the people who have made great personal sacrifices in the course of their efforts to build a world in which it is possible for some to have the day off. We have organizing to thank for that. We have organizing to thank for the fact that These States are still, after all, One Big Union Strong. I wonder if perhaps it might make sense for someone to tell the bosses who run this country—elected officials or simply the powerful—that organizing is more, so much more, than an industrial inconvenience.
Every morning before I have a shower or have a cup of coffee or start to read books about 19th-century intellectual history, I read the newspapers. Sometimes I am so demoralized by what I see, so convinced that we live in an insane and deranged simulacrum of the world as it should be, so certain that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, that it is hard, so terribly hard, to have a shower or have a cup of coffee or start to read books about 19th-century intellectual history or do any of the many small tasks we all set about to make daily life better for ourselves, for the people around us, and for the people who will come after us. But: though the story is apocryphal, it is still said (and worth saying) that Joe Hill’s bold last words before the firing squad were “Don’t mourn: organize!”
Happy Labor Day (and, we should not forget, Labour Day) to all, and to all a good night. May you all wake up tomorrow ready not to mourn, but to organize—whatever form of cooperation and comradeship that word may mean to you.