Join 3,432 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


...what the Communists sneeringly referred to as the “Anarchists' Marching Song”
May 18, 2012 9:00 AM   Subscribe

Why I Wrote Solidarity Forever. "In the pantheon of American labor history there is a very special place for Ralph Chaplin, the man and his work. As the poet laureate of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), he is probably remembered best for giving organized labor its fighting them song, Solidarity Forever."

"Seemingly, with the best of intentions, I had unleashed an element that made the high-voltage emotional power generated more potent than the instrument itself. Whatever it was, Walt Whitman must have had the same thing in mind when he spoke of “songs that sometimes come back to their authors dripping blood”. This I might profitably have kept in mind when it was scribbled hastily on a crumpled scrap of paper while members of the Western Federation of Miners were being shot down like jack rabbits from the Colorado state boundary to the Canadian border."
posted by Stagger Lee (27 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
I suppose I could link to the song. Here's Pete Seeger.
posted by Stagger Lee at 9:02 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sure beats the Internationale for singability.
posted by Cash4Lead at 9:26 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Even less reassuring were tidings that “Solidarity Forever” had been translated into a number of African dialects and used effectively by less tribes beyond the law, together with the made-in-Moscow slogan: “White Men Go Home!”

This takes the gloss off a bit, though. "Lesser tribes without the law" is Kipling-insult. And I'm not entirely sure I'd be telling Africans in the 1950s that "White Men Go Home" is a terrible, Moscow-inspired slogan. ("Stalin, liberator of the Africans" or something, sure.)

I'd say, more than anything, that the song is greater than the writer and escapes him. Which is how you know you've written a great song.
posted by Frowner at 9:39 AM on May 18, 2012


The continued existence of the IWW always pleases me. When I was in high school, the internet did not attest to their continued existence in the US. To be honest, I'm not sure the website was convincing me that they existed in Britain. I was using some book on the IWW for my US History term paper and in the forward, there was an address for the head office somewhere on Madison in Chicago. (I think it was on the near West Side, much like is mentioned in the article.) But it was a second edition and it seemed like the address might have dated from the much-older first edition. I'd periodically debate telling my dad that we needed to make a detour after he picked me and my brother up from the train and go bang on the door to see if the IWW still existed. But I never did. One, I didn't think my dad would go for it and, two, what was I going to say? Did they really want some high school kid turning up and going 'Just checking if you still exist?'

We have Wobblies in Minneapolis, actually. They tried to unionise Jimmy John's the other year, but it didn't work. (They lost the vote, but management was engaged in suspect practices surrounding the election and I'm not sure how that was resolved.) I met some at a party a couple months back, which was not nearly as surreal as meeting Maoists on a book tour. I'm kind of torn about the actually existing Wobblies, sadly. Mostly because they turned up in a May Day parade mostly populated by families with small children with their faces covered. I'm not sure if they're trying to look hard, genuinely thought there was a reason to cover their faces, or if they were trying to start something. Surely they weren't worried about the small children starting something. The police definitely weren't worried about it kicking off. They had a token presence for, I assume, intimidation purposes, but they weren't even filming that I could see. Maybe they're sneakier than the UCPD.

Anyway, this comment would be much more awesome if I had gone and knocked on the door.
posted by hoyland at 9:39 AM on May 18, 2012


And here's the lyrics, courtesy of Wikipedia:

When the union's inspiration through the workers' blood shall run,
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun;
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one,
But the union makes us strong.

CHORUS:
Solidarity forever,
Solidarity forever,
Solidarity forever,
For the union makes us strong.

Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite,
Who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might?
Is there anything left to us but to organize and fight?
For the union makes us strong.

Chorus

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;
Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made;
But the union makes us strong.

Chorus

All the world that's owned by idle drones is ours and ours alone.
We have laid the wide foundations; built it skyward stone by stone.
It is ours, not to slave in, but to master and to own.
While the union makes us strong.

Chorus

They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn,
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.
We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn
That the union makes us strong.

Chorus

In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold,
Greater than the might of armies, magnified a thousand-fold.
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old
For the union makes us strong.
posted by Atreides at 9:44 AM on May 18, 2012 [8 favorites]


We have Wobblies in Minneapolis, actually. They tried to unionise Jimmy John's the other year, but it didn't work. (They lost the vote, but management was engaged in suspect practices surrounding the election and I'm not sure how that was resolved.)


They're still fighting that one through the courts, and it looks like they're getting their jobs back. Apparently that one isn't over yet.
posted by Stagger Lee at 9:46 AM on May 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Mostly because they turned up in a May Day parade mostly populated by families with small children with their faces covered. I'm not sure if they're trying to look hard, genuinely thought there was a reason to cover their faces, or if they were trying to start something. Surely they weren't worried about the small children starting something. The police definitely weren't worried about it kicking off. They had a token presence for, I assume, intimidation purposes, but they weren't even filming that I could see. Maybe they're sneakier than the UCPD.

Which May Day parade was this? I didn't see them in this year's HOTB and I marched with them in last year's, and we were actually singing Bella Ciao and doing a little repeating street theater of "10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1......Revolution!!!!" [run and jump, crowd cheers] routine. No one had their faces covered.

Was this the May 1 immigrants' rights protest? I was also in that part of the parade and didn't see anyone with covered faces there either. Could you be confusing them with the "A-anti-anticapitalista" folks? They also wear red and black and they're not just labor.

Vis a vis the Jimmy John's thing: the NLRB ruled in favor of the Wobblies. Here's an article. Of course that isn't the same thing as actually getting the settlement or getting another election together.
posted by Frowner at 9:51 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Which May Day parade was this? I didn't see them in this year's HOTB and I marched with them in last year's, and we were actually singing Bella Ciao and doing a little repeating street theater of "10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1......Revolution!!!!" [run and jump, crowd cheers] routine. No one had their faces covered.

Also, two miles of running and jumping gave me blisters...but blisters for the revolution!
posted by Frowner at 9:53 AM on May 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


Was this the May 1 immigrants' rights protest? I was also in that part of the parade and didn't see anyone with covered faces there either. Could you be confusing them with the "A-anti-anticapitalista" folks? They also wear red and black and they're not just labor.

Immigrant rights protest a few years back (possibly as far back as 2009), which was overwhelmingly SEIU. They were definitely Wobblies--they had a banner. (And, for aforementioned reasons, Wobblies stand out to me.)
posted by hoyland at 9:55 AM on May 18, 2012


Oh man. I fondly remember going on sympathy marches with my dad, supporting the Solidarnosc movement in Poland in the early 80s, and belting out this song. In fact that period is what made me take for granted the notion that being pro-union = being anti-communist. It amazed me how many people I've met since who think being actively pro-labor is somehow on par with being communist. Maybe the whole workers' rights thing, you know, because there's totally no spectrum there, right?
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:02 AM on May 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


Immigrant rights protest a few years back (possibly as far back as 2009)

Was that during the Starbucks campaign? I guess I can think of two things:

1. The Starbucks campaign was being super-heavily policed and monitored so people may have felt a bit more face-covery in general and there were other issues.

2. The IWW's composition has changed a LOT in the past three years, since the Jimmy John's campaign. I think it skewed a lot younger and more punk rock before the serious organizing really got rolling.

Also, you know, now that I am O-L-D old, I worry a lot less about the young and truculent - I've seen so many waves of protest and organizing now that I sincerely feel that face cover/non-face-cover doesn't make that much difference in the large scale. And I remember when people were being all disapproving about the Zapatistas going masked - the Zapatistas! the world's finest social movement! - so I don't think that being masked means much if your other politics are good.
posted by Frowner at 10:05 AM on May 18, 2012 [6 favorites]


Lest I be accused of using this place as a political mouth piece, god forbid, it's worth pointing out that the most fascinating parts about this piece were the insights into the song's meaning and history, and the role it played in American labour history. It really is a cultural artifact from a piece of American history that's very often ignored, and as a historian of obscure American history I find it delightful.

My relationship with the IWW is as unrelated as it can be, under the circumstances.
posted by Stagger Lee at 10:21 AM on May 18, 2012


This article is a fascinating read - to get a glimpse of this critical moment of history, with all the factionalizing, in-fighting and consolidation, the conflicts and the breakthroughs ... man, I just feel real, real fortunate right now.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:26 AM on May 18, 2012 [2 favorites]




This article is a fascinating read - to get a glimpse of this critical moment of history, with all the factionalizing, in-fighting and consolidation, the conflicts and the breakthroughs ... man, I just feel real, real fortunate right now.


That's exactly how I felt.
Massive, massive respect to the people that fought so hard, and so grateful for the luxury that I have. The end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century was such a fascinating point in American history, and a lot of my politics are motivated by concern that we're going in the wrong direction relative to that place and time.
posted by Stagger Lee at 10:29 AM on May 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


I've been debating joining the Wobs, but am reluctant for a few reasons.

1) I'm damn introverted. That, along with my weight/health/anxiety issues means getting out to things like rallies or even meeting people take a lot of energy out of me. (some of this is excuses more than anything)

2) I'm not sure, what, exactly the point is? My friend (I believe she's a wob) said mostly it's to support other people during protests and fights and offer support when actions do happen IWW-wise (but that they do a lot of support of labor in general -- I guess like go offer food to strikers, help support them in other ways, even march with them in solidarity -- again -- the aforementioned issues hinder this aspect).

So - do I join? I just really want a sweet bumper sticker and red card! :)

But I would feel like a poser if I did it for that reason only and want to actually support them if I join. It's more than a card, it's towards building something. It's just so hard to get over cynicism. *sigh*
posted by symbioid at 10:33 AM on May 18, 2012


Speaking of labor songs. I recall in 98 going to an ISO meeting and standing around with them as they sang the Internationale, and it all felt so very cultish to me, down to the singing of the "hymns" -- I felt like I was in fucking church, and it scared my poor little anarchist-inclined brain.
posted by symbioid at 10:35 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


CONSIDER THIS:

the IWW wanted to unite ALL workers, and farmers, worldwide...Now, in the US, as elsewhere, try to fight via your union and company will threaten or move to another state, another nation, offshore etc...But the Wobblies wanted ALL throughout the world to recognize mutual needs!

Occupy will not work because it is local and Congress listens to MONEY and corporations...
posted by Postroad at 10:57 AM on May 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oooh, my favorite labour song. We sing a verse with queer rights courtesy of the the queer leader of Ontario CUPE. Two years ago my children and I drove from Windsor to Toronto (from a labour conference) singing Solidarity Forever the whole way. Next week we are going to it again, this time via VIA (ha!); I hope the whole train joins in!
posted by saucysault at 10:59 AM on May 18, 2012


Mostly because they turned up in a May Day parade mostly populated by families with small children with their faces covered.

If you're doing clandestine union organizing in your workplace then having your face show up in e.g. newspaper coverage of a May Day march is a really good way to lose your job (or at least tip off your employer).
posted by cdward at 11:11 AM on May 18, 2012 [6 favorites]


The Canadian government is currently pushing through a bill to outlaw masks or face coverings during protests, with a five year prison term.

There ARE legitimate reasons to wear masks, and not all of them imply some guilt or wrong doing. I'm nto saying that any particular group is necessarily on the right side of that, but some understanding should be applied before leaping to judgements. We can be caught in awkward positions where we feel that we have to stand up for what we believe in, but can't afford to be seen there by our employer, or even future employers, by the media, public, by our family, or whoever. (By our parole officers? har har har.)

I've never been the masked type, but we should definitely extend some empathy and understanding before assuming they've got something nefarious to hide.
posted by Stagger Lee at 11:39 AM on May 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


symbioid, I'd suggest seeing what the IWW branch in your city is up to. I dunno about Madison specifically (although the Internet suggests they were active in the protests and recall campaign), but local branches in other places have been directly involved in organizing workplaces, setting up stuff like SeaSol, and the usual solidarity work that you mention. If you become a member through your local branch, a big chunk of your dues will go to directly supporting their work.

(I let my membership lapse a few years ago -- partly because I was moving out of town for a while, and partly because my local branch wasn't doing much and I didn't have the time or energy to change that. I should get in touch with them again and see what's going on these days.)
posted by twirlip at 12:31 PM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


In the early 1980s we did a play in 6th grade called "On the Line", an educational play about the Lawrence strikes of 1912. We sang this song, as well as "Bread and Roses." Thanks for the stroll back on memory lane!
posted by Melismata at 1:27 PM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you're doing clandestine union organizing in your workplace then having your face show up in e.g. newspaper coverage of a May Day march is a really good way to lose your job (or at least tip off your employer).

Perhaps Frowner has more details, but I have the impression that, by May 2009, anyone involved enough in organising at Starbucks to bother turning up for a parade would have been known to management. But, yeah, I'm aware that people don't necessarily want their union involvement publicised--I have these considerations, though my job is better protected than the average.

I'm not arguing there aren't circumstances where covering your face is appropriate. At the time, I didn't see that parade as one of them. I'm also not convinced now that it was.
posted by hoyland at 2:16 PM on May 18, 2012


Wildmen, Wobblies, and Whistle Punks Stewart Holbrook's Lowbrow Northwest History is an anthology of his writing and recollections of the Pacific Northwest as it was becoming civilized. We are just now learning table manners. Progressives had to fight crony capitalism out here. Labor did a fine job of providing a living wage for themselves and got comfortable and lazy as they aged. Producing a generation not understanding the fight for decent working conditions, a living wage and some time off from wage slavery. Unions have a mixed reputation associated with organized crime, theft of services, goldbricking, wage inflation etc... A union is made up of people and can only be as good as the people involved in it. The Occupy movement of today captures the imagination of would be progressives.
posted by pdxpogo at 2:58 PM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Pdxpogo, it was never just about a living wage for most of these organizations; it was about exerting control over their place of employment. Equitable share of profits of the industry, and control over work environment. I think that gets missed in discussions about how good we have it as compared to whomever, and in relatively affluent industries. It's not always about making enough to survive, it's about how you relate to your boss, your coworkers, and the economy.
posted by Stagger Lee at 3:11 PM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Can be sung to the tune "Sweet Home Alabama".
posted by vitabellosi at 4:15 AM on May 19, 2012


hoyland: A huge part of solidarity is trust. They thought it was appropriate, for whatever reason, and it didn't harm you in the least. That should be enough.
posted by cdward at 8:10 AM on May 19, 2012


« Older Curt Schilling, a former Major League Baseball pit...  |  In other positive criminal jus... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments