Sunday, March 13, 2011

Talking Union (Which Side Are You On?)

So I'm not sure about you, but I've been following the Wisconsin protests pretty closely for weeks now. I was disgusted at the shameless, spineless, likely illegal maneuvers used to pass the union stripping bill in that state. I am disgusted and fearful over the anti-union measures popping up all over, particularly Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan, where a recent bill made it legal for the state governor to unseat elected local officials. Yes, the governor has the authority to negate democracy and break union contracts whenever he feels there is an "emergency." In America.

This is not to say that unions are unilaterally "good" organizations. They serve to protect the jobs and best interests of their members, even on occasions when it goes against cost efficiency. I am particularly weary of the tenure program for public school teachers, along with the "last hired, first hired" philosophy. I will admit that I am far from an authority on the topic, but it's obvious that our public sector needs some work.

BUT to try and strip their bargaining rights is not only nonsensical, it is probably the most transparent right wing ruse perpetrated in the last several years. Long story short: Citizens United Supreme Court ruling means corporations ("people") can spend unlimited money in elections. The 2010 midterms (the most expensive midterms in the history of midterms) saw 7 of the top 10 donors as right wing "companies". The other three? Unions. So what's the best way to take away liberal "free speech"?

Anyway, judging from the fact that this weekends protests in Madison were the largest to date, it is certain that this is far from over. Teachers aren't to blame for your shitty pension. Sanitation workers didn't take your job. EMTs did not drive our economy into the ground. So let's put a little blame where blame is due.

Here is a collection of songs dealing with unions and the history of workers rights in America. Listen and see how far we've come, and let's keep fighting for what we've got.

Running Time: Aprox. 57 minutes
Track Pick: Ani Difranco - Which Side Are You On?

Note: Mentally replace Green Day's "Working Class Hero" with the Lennon version.

Cast of Characters

This is by no means a comprehensive history of the American labor movement. These are just a few interestingly melodic players.
Joe Hill
Joe Hill was a Swedish American activist and song-writer who was executed in 1915 under dubious pretenses. One of his most famous songs, "The Preacher and the Slave," is featured into the mix under the name "Pie in the Sky" as covered by Utah Philips. It's one of my favorites simply because of it's brave and concise argument against the religious pleads that the poor simply shut up and wait for their reward in the afterlife. At least the mainstream right seems to have moved beyond this argument. Anyway, the song "Union Maid," sung by Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers is highly reminiscent of another one of Joe's tunes, "Rebel Girl." For the turn of the century, this is really explosive stuff. Joe Hill, singer-songwriter, labor hero, American badass.

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger was another American Badass born four years after the execution of Joe Hill. As a frontline labor songwriter-activist, Seegar co-founded The Almanac Singers in 1941 and they went on to record several songs on this mix, including "Talking Union" and "Which Side Are You On?". He was blacklisted for his political activities in the 1950's (see above picture of him testifying before Congress during the McCarthy era) and continued to voice his believes about civil rights, the world's war, and the environment through action and song. His words are well-represented on this mix because, well, they're awesome.

While most of his songs deal with fundamental worker's rights such as safety, 8-hour work days, and weekends, his basic message of worker dignity and a living wage still apply today. Yes, this is most certainly a middle class movement, and the differences between that era and his cannot be ignored. However, the struggles of unions past got us the rights we take for granted today, and I believe we must not turn our backs on this sacrifices of those brave men and women. Take special note of Ani Difranco's adaptation of "Which Side Are You On?". She did an excellent job of bringing that song into the 21st century with a brand new message of hope.

A side note about the songs that mention a PAC: PAC definitely stands for political action committee, though it's obvious that that phrase meant something entirely different back then. While PACs today can take in millions of anonymous dollars to spend as they see fit (Thanks, Supreme Court), they seemed to have started as a way for the MANY to stand up to the FEW (all we need is a dollar from you and a dollar from me). I included those songs because they speak to the fundamental purpose of democracy, which is 'one person, one vote.' Click here to watch a quick video about how this ideal is being distorted by so-called "corporate citizenship," and to see what you can do to help.

Utah Phillips

Utah Phillips must also share the title of American Badass. A folk hero, labor sympathizer, and self-declared "anarchist," Phillips filled his 73 years with music, storytelling, and teaching the ways of the world to the likes of Ani Difranco, who recorded two albums with him. I admire his passion and his wisdom, and I hope that his words will never be forgotten.
Solidarity Forever.

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