Union Songs

Although the difference between the ideal of a worker’s union and its current instantiation, at least in the US, is substantial, the problems of downtrodden workers and their feelings about their lives has generated more than one song that PG enjoys.

Following are a few examples:

Joe Hill, an early 20th century Swedish-American union activist and martyr, wrote a song titled, There is Power in a Union in 1913.


American singer, Johnny Paycheck, part of the 1970’s “Outlaw Movement” in country-western music, performed a song about a poorly-paid laborer who has finally had enough, Take This Job and Shove It, written by David Allan Coe, who, per Wikipedia, spent much of his early life (starting at age 9) in reform schools and prisons.


Woody Guthrie, an American singer/songwriter who grew up in Oklahoma and Texas during the Great Depression, known as the “Dust Bowl Troubadour”, wrote Union Burying Ground in 1941.


Most union songs were originated and written by men, but Bread and Roses is an exception.

The term is associated with the strike by mostly female textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, between January and March 1912, now often referred to as the “Bread and Roses strike”. The slogan pairing bread and roses referenced an appeal for both fair wages and dignified conditions for women.

Per Wikipedia, the “bread and roses” term originated in a 1910 magazine article written by Helen Todd describing an Illinois campaign for women’s rights to vote.

Woman is the mothering element in the world and her vote will go toward helping forward the time when life’s Bread, which is home, shelter and security, and the Roses of life, music, education, nature and books, shall be the heritage of every child that is born in the country, in the government of which she has a voice.

The phrase was applied to the right to unionize in 1912 by Polish-born union activist Rose Schneiderman of the Women’s Trade Union League of New York

What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist – the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too. Help, you women of privilege, give her the ballot to fight with.

The lyrics of the song originated in a 1911 poem by James Oppenheim. The first stanza reads:

As we come marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill-lofts gray
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing, “Bread and Roses, Bread and Roses.”

Per Wikipedia, the song has been sung by graduating seniors at Mount Holyoke College each year since 1932.

Mimi Farnia wrote the following version of Bread and Roses.


Finally, back to Joe Hill.

The performer in the following video, Paul Robeson, became the third African-American student ever enrolled at Rutgers College in 1915 and graduated as the valedictorian of his class. Robeson was also a star football player in college and during the early years of the National Football League.

Robeson was the son of a mother who was an African-American school teacher from a prominent Quaker family and a father who who had escaped from slavery in the American south while in his teens and became a Presbyterian minister in Princeton, New Jersey.

While playing professional football, Robeson also attended Columbia Law School and quit football a month before he graduated in 1923. He started his long and successful professional performing career in 1924 as the lead in a Eugene O’Neil play in New York City.

In 1934, Robeson traveled to the Soviet Union at the invitation of famous Russian film-maker Sergei Eisenstein, stopping in Nazi-dominated Berlin on his outbound trip. During the Spanish Civil War, Robeson was an active and open supporter of the Republicans in opposition to the Fascists. During and after World War II, he was labeled a Communist by the FBI which ultimately lead him to be prohibited from traveling overseas during the McCarthy era of the 1950’s and seriously harmed his performing career.

Ultimately, a landmark US Supreme Court decision in 1958, Kent v. Dulles, holding that the right to travel is a part of the “liberty” of which the citizen cannot be deprived without due process of law, permitted Robeson to travel and resume his performing career outside of the United States.

In 1961, Robeson’s health began a severe decline, including a suicide attempt in Moscow followed by extended in-patient psychiatric treatment, including electroshock therapy, in Moscow and East Germany. After returning to the United States in 1963, Robeson’s remaining years were spent in seclusion until he died in 1976.

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