A Labor of Music: World-Changing Music from American Unions

The American Labor Movement was a direct result of the period of history known as the Industrial Age. Labor Unions were formed because workers had to bear with working in inhuman conditions. The average laborer was poor, uneducated, and had no other means of survival other than their job. Business owners took full advantage of this, and made their labors work extremely long hours, in unsafe, unsanitary, and unhealthy conditions. The workers were also exploited by being expected to produce products for extremely low pay.

People working under these brutal conditions felt demoralized. They worked doing the same monotonous, back-breaking work day after day, year after year. They needed a source of motivation, and hope. The unions offered that. But along with the formation of unions, the workers needed a way to express how they felt, and to encourage other workers to solidify with each other. The impression of the workers was that the system was against them; the system didn’t even regard them as human beings. Through song, the union members could lift each others spirits, and maintain their humanity. They used song to keep their sanity, and to put a salve on their spirits. The songs helped to boost morale, and make their lot bearable.

The songs from the labor movement, and the actions were inseparable, because the lyrics were meant to either detail the daily plight of the workers, or to encourage the workers to stand up for themselves as a unit. The result of these songs is that labors found strength in the songs, and each other. They rose up as force to be reckoned with. Employers saw that the labors were serious about being treated with humanity, and respect for the work that they produced.  The songs inspired other labors to form, and join unions. Labor songs helped shape the way the American workforce operates today.

There are many examples of the history of labor union songs, and how they affected different sectors of workers:

The History Of Rosie The Riveter: Rosie The Riveter is a fictional character created during WWII. Women entered the workforce in the factories, because the men were fighting the war. The song extolled the strength, and capabilities of women in the workforce.

American Labor Studies Center: The center provides educational resources about labor unions, their songs, and specific sectors of people impacted.

American Labor Museum: This museum is located in Haledon, N.J. It’s aim is to teach about labor movement history from the prospective of immigrants to America.

Peter Seeger: Mr. Seeger is an American Folk singer who composed many songs. Among them were songs about the labor movement.

Wisconsin Labor History: Media for Wisconsin Schools has resources for students to learn about the labor movement, and the songs associated with it.

Women’s Work Songs: There is a list of many old time songs sung by female laborers.

United Association For Labor Education: This modern organization host a summer school program for female laborers. There is a song sung called “We Were There”, that talks about the role women played in the labor movement.

Babies In The Mill:  This video contains the lyrics about children working in the mills in the old South.

Testimony Of Patience Kershaw: Halfway through this page are the lyrics about a young child working in the coal mines.

Labor Union Song Samples: Listen to MP3 samples, and read the lyrics to the songs that spoke about laborers of all genders, races, and ages.

Work, Lyddie! Work!: This teaches children how privileged they are to be able to go to school, instead of working in mill. The reader learns the song lyrics, researches factory conditions, and then creates a labor song.

Bread and Roses: This song was about a textile factory strike in 1912. The song demands a better quality of life along with their labor.

Union Burying Ground: This Woody Guthrie song is about men and women working until they died in the union factories.

Solidarity Forever: This is a key union song for all union members

There’s Power In A Union: A modern labor song by Billy Bragg

Sacco’s Letter To His Son: The words in this letter from an Italian Immigrant father to his son was turned into a labor song.

Labor Heritage Foundation: Songs of Freedom and Justice

Fruit Of Labor: This singing groups performs songs about the labor struggles that African Americans faced in the “Black Belt” in the South.