Happy Labor Day!

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.

YouTube Preview Image

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).

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08016230732925516069 Gilbert

    Amazing. I didn't know even one of the songs mentioned here. I always thought Americans had Joe Hill and other then that Arbeiterlieder where a purely European thing. It's an aspect of your culture I totally missed.Which is funny, because I actually have a soft spot for the German analogates. I'm often whistling them unconsciously, quite in contrast to my actual political leanings.You learn something new every day.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15222328459836041333 Gillimer

    "Which side are you on?" is the filthiest insult I can conceive of. It says to me: forget about truth. Forget about integrity. Forget about everything except unthinking loyalty to a "side" which has decided that it owns you. As for "Solidarity Forever", Lech Walesa gave that a whole new meaning. (I wonder if that has rendered it Politically Incorrect.)

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Adam Lee

    Another of my favorites is "Bread and Roses". Pro-union and pro-feminist too!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08016230732925516069 Gilbert

    @Gillimer"Which side are you on?" is the filthiest insult I can conceive of. It says to me: forget about truth. Forget about integrity. Forget about everything except unthinking loyalty to a "side" which has decided that it owns you.First a disclaimer: That particular video is blocked over here for copyright reasons. I suppose this is a different performance of the same piece. Should I be wrong about that please disregard this comment.That being said, let me make the obvious counterpoint before the atheists do. As a bit of interpretation a "side" is not always a political group. It can also be quite simply a side on a given moral question. And we do not get the option to be neutral between good and evil when evil is presently being done. Such a neutrality is itself a moral failure. For example, we wouldn't approve of someone being neutral about slavery when it was still extant, rather we would count such a person as (weakly) pro-slavery. Same with someone who was personally opposed but wouldn't impose their morality on others. And there was a time, when workers being treated with basic dignity was such a question in the western world. In some parts of the world it still is. Today and in the western world it isn't (I guess that puts me in Leah's "sarcasm or condescension" crowd :-) ) so making the songs claim here and now would be abusive. But playing it wouldn't be enough to make that claim here and now, it might well have grown into a identitarian historical hymn. Like Christians might still sing about the exodus at church without insulting present-day Egyptians. Also, while Solidarność shows us that the best example of a good union didn't affiliate with a political party, it still is an example of a union quite rightly named after a union slogan. There was no change of meaning there, just taking the conventional meaning more serious then a communist government would want to take it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10845051786114528609 Julie Robison

    I LOVE THE NEWSIES!!That is all. Great song!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15222328459836041333 Gillimer

    Gilbert: Sorry, but I am speaking from bitter experience, of time after time after time when I was faced with demands to "side" with Us for completely A-moral reasons, and accusations that failure to do so meant "siding" with Them. I will not stand for demands that everyone and everything fit into one of two and only two pigeonholes (which prompted Scott Adams to denounce "binarians".)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15222328459836041333 Gillimer

    Likewise, the very existence of an anti-Communist labor movement probably made the binarian ideologues' heads blow up.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15222328459836041333 Gillimer

    As the saying goes, there are two kinds of people: the ones who believe there are only two kinds of people, and the ones who don't.


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