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This Day in Labor History: January 15, 1915


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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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