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This Day in Labor History: January 15, 1915

[ 26 ] January 15, 2014 |

On the night of January 15, 1915, the IWW writer and propagandist Ralph Chaplin wrote the song “Solidarity Forever.” The song is emblematic of Wobbly culture. If there’s one thing the IWW did well, it was culture creation. This culture creation has done a great deal to give them outsized influence compared to their real accomplishments in American labor and radical history, continuing to make the union and its ideas relevant to activists today.

The IWW valued culture as politics very early. The early twentieth century was a period of working-class poetry and song. The timber union journals I look at are full of this sort of thing, whether radical or not. Given the popularity of syndicalism among the Wobblies’ European immigrant base, this was enhanced by these same immigrants also bringing traditions of radicalism through culture with them to the United States.

Ralph Chaplin was a central figure in the IWW. He was born to radicalism, having witnessed a worker shot to death during the Pullman Strike at the age of 7. He later traveled to Mexico in the early days of the Mexican Revolution, becoming an admirer of Emiliano Zapata. Upon his return from Mexico, Chaplin became involved with the growing IWW, which had by the early 1910s become the most important union alternative to the American Federation of Labor. Chaplin began writing “Solidarity Forever” while working on a coal strike in West Virginia in 1914. It took him a few months to finish. After watching a demonstration of the hungry in Chicago in 1915, he went back to his hotel room and finished the song. It soon became the most important song of the IWW’s Little Red Songbook.

Ralph Chaplin

The song’s lyrics:

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.

Carried from place to place by the unionists, the songbook gave workers songs over which they could build solidarity. In our present of demographically divided cultural creation, it’s almost impossible to imagine a single song or style having the ability to unite people in struggle. That might well make for better music, but it’s politically a problem. The ability to sing together, although not cool in our oh so ironic and detached age, helped workers riding trains between timber camps, in the fields, and in the mines of the American West get through their daily lives of toil and great struggle. These songs and images created a revolutionary counterculture to the dominant culture of the day that contributed to working-class oppression. Songs and posters were central to building a workers’ revolution. They also served to push a revolutionary message to a polyglot and often illiterate (especially in English) working-class. Not everyone could read a tract. But they might learn the lyrics of “Solidarity Forever.” And it didn’t take a working knowledge of the language to see the meaning of a class war prisoner reaching through prison bars or a muscular man standing proud.

The Little Red Songbook

Through their songbooks, their newspapers, and their flyers, the IWW created really great culture. The black cat. Mr. Block. “Solidarity Forever.” These are images and songs that stick with us. As a labor organization, the IWW was often pretty ineffective. Some of that had to do with the conditions of organizing in the early 20th century. But as much had to do with weaknesses within the IWW. It was not infrequent that the IWW’s commitment to culture actually hindered organizing. The disastrous Paterson Strike Pageant was a prime example, dividing the workers (those not selected to participate were jealous and the resentments split the strikers) and taking them away from picketing, thus allowing scabs into the factories.

A classic piece of Wobbly culture creation

Compared to either the AFL or CIO, the IWW accomplished almost nothing. At best, the union’s campaigns caused so many problems in a given industry that it helped force the government to improve the conditions of workers to undermine it, such as with the Pacific Northwest timber workers I study. But both the AFL and CIO were terrible at culture creation. And as bureaucratic organizations, they had little room the kind of individualistic, showy activity that embedded the IWW in public memory. In fact, they explicitly eschewed this kind of thing as unproductive. Maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t. But the IWW remains in the memory of American radicals today as an alternative to an AFL-CIO seen as unresponsive, boring, and bureaucratic. It’s had that power since the late 1960s. And the reason for it is largely the powerful cultural creations like “Solidarity Forever.”

Like many Wobbly intellectuals, Chaplin initially expressed hope that the Soviet Union was the beginning a true workers’ revolution but also like many of them, became quickly disillusioned. Chaplin remained committed to anti-communist leftist thought in the United States until World War II. In 1949, Chaplin became curator for manuscripts at the Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma, a position he retained until his death in 1961. I figure this makes him the most famous archivist in American history.

For a good book on the creation of IWW culture, see Salvatore Salerno, Red November, Black November: Culture and Community in the Industrial Workers of the World.

This is the 91st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  1. J. Otto Pohl says:

    Your last paragraph leaves me with some questions. I assume the “leftist anti-communist thought” referred to is a continuation of IWW style syndicalism. But, what changes about his ideology in WWII? Did he publicly disown syndicalism in the 1940s?

  2. Rob in CT says:

    That’s a nifty song right there.

  3. JL says:

    Early on in my participation in Occupy, we were doing a march in favor of a union – it might have been the Verizon workers’ union, though I wouldn’t swear to that – and people started singing Solidarity Forever. I had never heard it before and was entranced.

    We marched through the Downtown Crossing area stopping outside various locations (Verizon stores? this was more than two years ago now). At one of them, there was this older guy, probably in his 60s, in nice clothes and a fedora, very businesslike, who was watching us in surprise, and then suddenly joined the crowd and started singing. As we marched on to the next stop, I heard him say “I never thought I’d hear that song again.” I’m not sure what his story was, but it was a cool moment.

    • JoyfulA says:

      In my first post-high school job in an office building across the street from the state capitol steps, I heard “Solidarity Forever” from the 12th floor. A large group (I was at the wrong angle to read the signs) was singing loud and clear.

      It was familiar to me (but I don’t know how), and it was thrilling to hear it so enthusiastically sung.

  4. Karen says:

    One of the comments on yesterday’s Edward Bellamy thread was a music teacher who lamented the decline in general musical skill among us, and specifically mentioned that people don’t sing together anymore other than Christmas. Do you think it’s worth trying to restart this kind of thing?

    • Erik Loomis says:

      I don’t really know how one could intentionally restart it. The old style sing-along is something pretty heavily eschewed by a lot of young activists today. I remember being at the Highlander Center in 1999 when Guy and Candie Carawan (Guy is the person who rewrote “We Shall Overcome” and introduced it to SNCC in the early 60s) had a sing-along, singing these old songs. And man were younger people annoyed by this. I thought it was really disrepectful, but then I wasn’t really singing either.

      I’m also reminded of the time Matt Yglesias redbaited Pete Seeger because when Yglesias was a kid he went to a summer camp and Seeger did a singalong and young Matt didn’t like it.

      • JoyfulA says:

        I was going to mention “We Shall Overcome,” which I have sung in assorted situations in favor of assorted causes.

      • Lee Rudolph says:

        God, Yglesias really is a disgusting little worm, isn’t he? And David Boaz seems to be even worse.

        Back around 1980, the administrative assistant in my department at Columbia, who had been one of the Pennywistlers, and who had earlier introduced me to the music of the great Leon Rosselson, suggested I should go hear Pete Seeger at a benefit being held for her childhood music camp, a real red-diaper operation. I did (it was my first Seeger concert), and loved it. Most of the audience was more her age (late 40s? early 50s?) than mine (early 30s), and all joined in the sing-along parts with considerable gusto—until Pete sang The Internationale. That got a definitely cold reception. I couldn’t sing along because that was the first time I’d heard it. It’s a great tune, with great (and truly inspiring) lyrics, and for it to be neglected or despised just because it was hijacked by the Soviet state (and, I will concede, its useful idiots in the CPUSA) for many decades is a damned shame.

        Fun CPUSA fact: all three of Earl Browder’s sons became mathematicians; I took a course from the middle one (an algebraic topologist), was a colleague of the youngest one (a soft functional analyst) for 3 years at Brown, and have barely met the eldest (a hard functional analyst, and the only conservative in the group, the others being liberal Democrats).

      • JL says:

        Huh, I actually hear singalongs reasonably often at actions, including actions that are mostly younger people (maybe, in the years between 1999 and now, things have wrapped around again?). The main barrier seems to be a lack of relevant songs that everyone knows.

        I do have a qualm about “We Shall Overcome” at many actions that I’m at, in that it seems weird to have a group of mostly white people implicitly analogizing themselves to the Civil Rights Movement.

        I want to be on a march where we sing “Do You Hear the People Sing”.

      • xaaronx says:

        I think you just need songs those people care about and know. That will help.

        Not a demonstration, by any means. And there are plenty of videos from house shows that illustrate the sing along ethos that is definitely alive in the punk community—I can’t speak to other communities the same way—but I wanted to use this song and couldn’t find a video like that of this.

    • marijane says:

      I was actually invited to a singing get together in Portland recently, if I hadn’t already had other plans I would have attended. Everyone was supposed to bring multiple copies of the songs you wanted to sing.

      We also have a few private-suite karaoke businesses up here in the PNW, and I’ve noticed that certain songs turn more into sing-alongs than karaoke when I’ve attended parties at these establishments.

  5. oldster says:

    “They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn,
    But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.”

    I.e., they are the moochers, and we are going to go Galt.

    Another reminder that most of the Randian ethos is an attempt to appropriate rhetoric that was originally directed *against* capitalists, and direct it against labor instead.

    The closely related fact, a bit regrettable for fans of labor, is that much of the anti-capitalist rhetoric was also anti-semitic (the original people vilified as looters and moochers were also subhuman parasites with tentacles in all of the world’s capitals).

    Accordingly, Alisa Rosenbaum’s schtick was also an exercise in appropriating anti-semitic rhetoric and turning it against the gentile workers.

    “You’re the idle parasites!” “No, you’re the idle parasites!”

  6. elm says:

    My favorite union song, by far. I can remember good times in grad school, walking picket lines in sub-freezing weather singing this song.

    Leonard Cohen also has a good version of this song.

  7. MPAVictoria says:

    I love this song.
    Thanks again Erik.

  8. ckc (not kc) says:

    Remember the war against Franco?
    That’s the kind where each of us belongs.
    Though he may have won all the battles,
    We had all the good songs.

  9. Tom Servo says:

    Who wrote The Iron Heel?
    Where is Joe Hill buried?

  10. Patricia Kayden says:

    I didn’t know it was a song tied to American unions since I recall hearing it sung by members of the New Democratic Party (a left of center party) while growing up in Canada. Interesting.

  11. Greg says:

    I hear this song almost every day. It’s a staple of the Solidarity Sing Along in the Wisconsin State Capitol.

  12. sue says:

    A bunch of us have been singing “Solidarity Forever”–along with a lot of other union, protest, and civil rights songs–inside the Wisconsin state capitol building every weekday from noon to one since March 11, 2011. “Solidarity Forever” is perhaps the only song that’s been sung at every single one of these. It is indeed empowering to sing with a group, even for those of us who aren’t great singers. It’s true that most of us who come a lot are on the other side of forty, but there are a number of younger regulars as well.

    What we’ve been doing gets under the skin of the Republicans enough that they tried to change the building’s access policy and arrested nearly 200 people this past summer. The state had to back down in the face of an ACLU suit, and we’re fighting these violations of our civil rights in the courts. We’re still singing “Solidarity Forever.”

  13. Matt_L says:

    Erik, this is an outstanding bit of historical analysis.

    “If there’s one thing the IWW did well, it was culture creation. This culture creation has done a great deal to give them outsized influence compared to their real accomplishments in American labor and radical history, continuing to make the union and its ideas relevant to activists today. ”

    I’ve been a wobbly fan for decades, but this really taught me something new about American labor history and the American left. Every time I read these posts its sets things in a more critical framework. As historian of another continent and time period, I appreciate the craft involved. Thanks for doing these.

  14. Anna in PDX says:

    I have a singalong brochure kind of like that. I love this stuff. Thanks Erik.

  15. Nick says:

    20 years in activism, over half in Labor here…and there are 2 things that have always bothered me about “Solidarity Forever.”

    1) The lyrics are incredibly unidiomatic and stilted. “When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ hearts shall run” sounds like a crappy 10th-grade translation of Cicero. The whole song is filled with clumsy constructions and archaic vocabulary that make it hard to memorize and awkward to sing. Crowds of people never remember the lyrics and can’t quite figure out where they are in the song, partly, I think, because the language is so alien and weird (mostly, it seems, in order to fit the meter).

    2) I’ve always wondered whether singing Labor’s official anthem to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” hampered efforts to organize in the South. Certainly pretty much every time I’ve been in a crowd singing it, it’s sounded like a dirge, especially the chorus. The opposite of the optimism of the lyrics in the last couple of verses. We need something that sounds more like this.

  16. [...] Square Riot. January 14, 1888–Publication of Looking Backward. January 15, 1915–Ralph Chaplin writes “Solidarity Forever.” February 13, 1845–Lowell Female Labor Reform Association organizes and forces Massachusetts [...]

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