The Common Good
May 2011

Solidarity Forever

by Danny Duncan Collum | May 2011

In 1886, members of America's fledgling labor movement called a general strike for May 1 to demand an eight-hour work day.

In 1886, members of America's fledgling labor movement called a general strike for May 1 to demand an eight-hour work day. On May 4, workers at the McCormick farm equipment plant in Chicago, still out on strike, held a rally in Haymarket Square to press their demands. An unknown person threw a bomb that killed seven police officers. Eight radical union leaders were framed for the killings. All eight were convicted, seven were sentenced to death, and four were executed before a new governor commuted the sentences of the survivors. The memory of the Haymarket Martyrs was enshrined throughout the world, and May 1 became International Workers Day, everywhere except in the U.S.

Yet the movement that brought us the eight-hour work day is needed more than ever in 2011 America, when businesses routinely expect more work for less pay from fewer workers. That's why the direct action campaign by Wisconsin government workers is the best thing to happen in our country for a long, long time.

There’s a cool music video, widely seen on the Internet, that sets footage from the occupation of the Wisconsin Capitol to the song "Rebellion (Lies)" by Arcade Fire. Produced by University of Wisconsin graduate Matt Wisniewski, the video syncs the drumming and dancing in the Capitol rotunda to the drumbeat of the song. Wisniewski also successfully weaves in the bagpipes of the police and firefighters' daily solidarity parade. But to me, the high point comes when he fades the song to catch Nation columnist John Nichols bellowing, twice, "An injury to one is an injury to all."

The line is an old one. It was a favorite slogan of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a revolutionary union that, from 1905 to 1919, scared the pants off American capitalism. The IWW sought to organize "One Big Union," bringing together skilled and unskilled, immigrant and native, black and white, men and women, to claim the fruits of their labor and control of their lives. It organized around wages and working conditions, but the real agenda was frankly stated: "To build a new society within the shell of the old."

Those were not Marxist ideas. In fact, as Dorothy Day often noted, they are essentially Christian. And the IWW wasn't a Marxist organization. Instead it leaned toward a freewheeling anarcho-syndicalism that trusted common people to organize themselves and run their own workplaces and communities. But the fear and fratricide that followed the Bolshevik revolution did in the IWW. It never recovered from the Palmer Raids of 1919, which left its leadership jailed or in exile.

The best thing about the IWW, even better than its unabashed revolutionary Americanism, was its culture. It was, among other things, a singing organization. Its most widespread propaganda tool was a songbook that set pointed, satirical, and uplifting verses to the familiar tunes of hymns and pop songs. One of those songs, "Solidarity Forever," (sung to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic") lived on to become the unofficial anthem of the U.S. labor movement. Few people seem to know its words anymore, so in honor of May Day and the Wisconsin workers, here’s an inspirational verse:

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.
Solidarity forever! Solidarity forever! Solidarity forever!
For the union makes us strong.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky. His novel White Boy will be available from Apprentice House (www.apprenticehouse.com) later this spring.

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