People tend to be a little flip about the importance of unions every Labor Day. I’ve already seen on facebook post by a friend saying “Happy Labor Day! Celebrate with appropriate laziness!” And sarcasm or condescension (“The unions used to be necessary, but we’re past that now”) is often the best the labor movement can hope for. More often the reaction on the right is rage against the “job-killing unions.”
In fact, one of the best things you can say about the labor movement is that it has killed jobs. Plenty of American manufactures have moved overseas because it would be illegal to treat American workers the way they treat their laborers abroad. Child labor, dangerous working conditions, and wage slavery are all common abroad in American-owned countries; it’s absurd to claim that, absent the rabble-rousing labor movement, there would be no pressure to backslide on workers rights. Unions hold the line at home and the international workers movement tries to expand protections abroad.
So, on Labor Day, there are plenty of classic union songs to post, and if you don’t know “16 Tons,” “Which Side Are You On?” “Solidarity Forever,” or “Union Maid” by all means follow the hyperlinks. The one I want to feature today is by Peggy Seeger, the younger sister of Pete Seeger, who is featured in several of the links above and who sings her composition below.
One reason I particularly like this song is that it emphasizes the importance of collective action. By uniting in solidarity, workers can reclaim agency and dignity in the face of deliberate maltreatment or the impersonal dehumanization of industrialization.
Oh, and I lied when I said I was going to only post one video. I can’t resist sharing this union song from Newsies (the Disney musical about the Newsboys Strike of 1899, starring a very young Christian Bale).