Songs about working class and unions

[The following piece by George Schmidt was originally published on Labor Day, 2011.]

Thanks to The Nation magazine and YouTube, there is now a chance to get a complete medley of some of the best songs about working people and unions online.

The Nation put up ten songs, and as they say in the introduction, it's a shame to leave out "Which Side Are You On?" but they did in their choosing. If you go to the link, you can hear some classics (like the Pete Seeger version of Solidarity Forever, which many in Chicago have been learning and playing for the past year or more) and others that have been harder to get (like the original Tennessee Ernie Ford "Sixteen Tons").

"In honor of Labor Day 2011, here’s a stab at the impossible task of naming the best songs ever written about working people," Nation Associate Editor for Projects Peter Rothberg writes in his introduction. "I know it’s a travesty to not include ‘Which Side Are You On’, but I just couldn’t bear to knock out any of the eventual finalists. I also feel terrible about not including anything by The Clash or John Mellencamp and thought Johnny Paycheck’s classic ‘Take This Job and Shove It’ deserved mention. Please use the comments field below to let me know your favorite labor songs and enjoy your Monday."

Every one of the songs selected by Peter Rothberg is worth listening to, but the one that moved me the most, because I had not heard it in more than a quarter century, was sung by Phil Ochs in Sweden a long time ago, "The Ballad of Joe Hill." Before his untimely death, Phil Ochs sang for all of us, and I can still remember him singing, along with Country Joe and the Fish and Peter Paul and Mary, when we marched, ran, shouted, and sang (and got tear gassed and some beaten) in August 1968, when that year crashed in front of the world ("The Whole World is Watching") during the Democratic Convention in Chicago in August 1968.

In the years that followed the watershed event, I ran across thousands of people who said they had been on Chicago's streets during those nasty (CS gas causes pain) and bloody (one friend of mine had his legs broken with billy clubs) days.

But some of those times, as in Lincoln Park the first day of the protests, it was easy to count those of us who were there — because there were so few. And Phil Ochs was one of those few. When he sang his song "I Ain't A Marchin' Anymore" against American imperialism, it seemed like everyone knew the words. Or maybe it was just because those around me did after we were let out of jail for talking to soldiers who had been camped in Chicago to suppress the demonstrations against the Vietnam War.

Here are the songs featured in The Nation. Comment with your picks:

1. Pete Seeger, Solidarity Forever

2. Sweet Honey in the Rock, More Than a Paycheck

3. The Clash, Career Opportunities

4. Tennessee Ernie Ford, Sixteen Tons

5. Judy Collins, Bread and Roses

6. Dolly Parton, 9 to 5

7. Woody Guthrie, Union Burying Ground

8. Phil Ochs, The Ballad of Joe Hill

9. Hazel Dickens, Fire in the Hole

10. Gil Scott-Heron, Three Miles Down

Bonus Track #1: The Kinks, Get Back in Line

Bonus Track #2: Paul Robeson, Joe Hill

SOLIDARITY FOREVER! By Ralph H. Chaplin (Tune: "John Brown's Body", "Battle Hymn of the Republic") Below are the four ‘main’ verses of the union song “Solidarity Forever”. Two other verses from the “original” have been deleted. These are the ones usually sung. The original was first published in the IWW Little Red Song book.

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!/ But 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, 'mid the wonders we have made;/ But 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 thousandfold./ We can bring to birth the new world from the ashes of the old,/ For the Union makes us strong. (Chorus)

There is too much to do this morning to finish this contribution with the lyrics to all the songs, but they are available, along with others not in this collection, and it's good people are singing them again, and remembering them.


September 3, 2018 at 10:34 PM

By: Susan Ohanian

Labor Day Songs

Thanks for the songs, George!

Woody Guthrie wrote about Trump bigotry.

"Old Man Trump," ~1950

I suppose

Old Man Trump knows

Just how much

Racial Hate

He stirred up

In the bloodpot of human hearts

When he drawed

That color line

Here at his

Eighteen hundred family project

—Woody Guthrie, “Old Man Trump,” ~1950

September 6, 2018 at 1:03 AM

By: john kugler

just the working life

Factory by Bruce Springsteen

Early in the morning factory whistle blows

Man rises from bed and puts on his clothes

Man takes his lunch, walks out in the morning light

It's the working, the working, just the working life

Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain

I see my daddy walking through them factory gates in the rain

Factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life

The working, the working, just the working life

End of the day, factory whistle cries

Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes

And you just better believe, boy

Somebody's gonna get hurt tonight

It's the working, the working, just the working life

Oh it's the working, the working, just the working life

Uh hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm

Uh hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm

Uh hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm

Uh hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm

(Darkness on the Edge of Town is the fourth studio album by Bruce Springsteen, released on June 2, 1978))

September 6, 2018 at 3:05 PM

By: John Whitfield


September 17, 2018 at 5:06 PM

By: Rhonda McLeod

George is a hero

This is to say I and so many will miss George's voice and strength. His fight will continue and his family will be strong. Thanks for sharing the road with us.

September 17, 2018 at 10:15 PM

By: john

Has anybody here seen my old friend?

September 18, 2018 at 6:02 PM

By: Jean Schwab


In many ways George was God's servant calling out good and bad. We have so much to thank him for and hope that some day another person like him will appear.

September 2, 2019 at 4:29 AM

By: john whitfield


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