The Rise of Labor Unions

As noted, economic conditions for immigrants and other workers in the late 1800s and early 1900s were very harsh. They worked 60-80 hours a week for an average wage of 10-12 dollars a week. Unemployment was growing; machines were replacing workers. Life expectancy was about 48 years for males and 52 years for females. (Epstein, Political Folk Music in America from Its Origins to Bob Dylan, p. 22.)

To remedy their miserable circumstances, immigrants turned to labor unions and other social institutions. “The labor question became the basic public issue of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.” (Eric Foner, historian, quoted in Hakim, Freedom: A History of US, p. 216.) Labor-management relations were often characterized by violence. Business owners hired “gun thugs” who were often supported by local and state law enforcement to quell the labor actions. The calling out of the National Guard and the invocation of martial law raised questions of suppression of constitutional rights. (Id.)

Early union organizing activities (before 1900) were largely ineffective. The efforts were met with physical, often deadly, resistance from owners and management. One of the early unions was the American Railway Union started and led by Eugene V. Debs, who later was involved in other unions. Debs was a socialist, and he was often imprisoned for his union and political ideas. In 1920, Debs, in jail for speaking out against the United States’ involvement in World War I, ran for president from his cell on the Socialist ticket. He garnered almost a million popular votes. (Jennings and Brewster, p. 87.)

Another early union established after the Civil War was the Knights of Labor (K of L). Its original name was “The Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor” but it later dropped the initial phrase. It reached its peak membership in the 1880s. Terence V. Powderly was called “the Grand Master Workman” and was its president. As its original name and Powderly’s title suggest, the organization was fraternal in nature. Nevertheless, the K of L was involved in strikes and boycotts. The K of L published a songbook of labor songs that workers sung at union meetings and on picket lines.

Samuel Gompers founded the American Federation of Labor (A F of L) in 1886, and was its first president. Gompers had a conservative political philosophy and rejected some of the more radical tactics of his contemporaries. As a result, people like Big Bill Haywood, a prominent socialist, split from the A F of L and formed other unions. Haywood was one of the primary organizers of the International Workers of the World (the IWW, whose members were called “Wobblies”).

The International Workers of the World was organized in Chicago in 1905. Well-known labor activists such as Eugene V. Debs, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, Big Bill Haywood and others helped it gain recognition. (Cohen, Work and Song, p. 20.) Following the example of the Knights of Labor, the IWW used “song as a front line device for building morale, recruiting new members, and garnering publicity.” (Routledge, Music and the Labor Movement in the US, Benjamin Bierman, p. 33. The Wobblies had a songbook, called the The Little Red Songbook, that was published in 1909. It is republished regularly, with the latest edition in 2010. (Id., p. 34.)

Numerous strikes in the late 1800s reflected the violent nature of the labor movement. “The families of the miners, especially the organizers, were exposed to extraordinary violence from the hired company thugs. The owners and operators of the mines were determined that unions would not be brought into company towns. Legal justice is hardly possible when the judges and the sheriffs are also the mine operators.” (Hilda E. Wenner & Elizabeth Freilicher, Here’s to the Women, 100 Songs for and about American Women, p. 103.)

In May 1886, workers at the McCormick Harvester Company in Chicago were holding marches and speeches in support of an eight-hour work day. On May 4, during a rally at Haymarket Square, shots were fired into the crowd and several workers were killed. The next day when thousands of workers came to protest the killings, someone threw a bomb that killed workers and police. Although no one knew who threw the bomb, workers were arrested and charged with murder, including some who were not at the Square when the bomb was thrown. Four workers were found guilty and were hung. Another committed suicide. The union failed to achieve its strike objectives. But, three years later, the governor of Illinois pardoned the remaining workers. (Hakim, pp. 217-19.)

Gomper’s A F of L was responsible for the Homestead Strike at Carnegie Steel Works near Pittsburgh (1892-94). The workers and management were involved in negotiations over working conditions at the Homestead mill. The strikers were protesting very poor working conditions, miserly wages (less than $1.70 for 12-hour days), management’s efforts to step up production and to lock out workers with union affiliation. When negotiations broke down, management shut down the mill, locked out the workers and hired several hundred Pinkerton detectives as security guards. The workers had control over the mill but it did not last long. The Pinkerton men were joined by 8,000 state militiamen by order of the state governor. In a gun battle between the workers and the Pinkertons, seven workers and three Pinkertons were killed. With the help of these armed forces, the workers’ control over the mill was broken. It would be 44 years before the steel industry would be unionized. (Hakim, p. 215-16; Carry It On, p. 61-63.)

The Pullman Strike (1894), led by Eugene V. Debs of the American Railway Union, involved Chicago area workers, who built railroad cars for the Pullman Palace Car Company. The workers decided to strike when management cut wages and would not give the workers a corresponding reduction in rent at the company town. The workers instituted a blockade of all railroad trains that carried Pullman cars. The strike expanded from the Chicago area and eventually became nationwide with more than 250,000 railroad workers joining the strike. President Grover Cleveland, using the need to maintain the delivery of the federal mail as the reason, obtained a court injunction ordering the workers to stop the strike. The strikers refused to honor the court order. The strike ended when President Cleveland called out 14,000 federal troops to enforce the injunction. Approximately, thirty people were killed in incidents relating to the Pullman Strike. (The Story of America, p. 290, 343; Carry It On, pp. 66-69.)

Labor songs were ubiquitous at union meetings and on picket lines. (Work and Song, p. 75.) “Songs from the labor movement were first and foremost intended to create and express solidarity among workers. Many offered social commentary directed at class conflicts or dangers of particular lines of work.” (Wells, Life Flows on in Endless Song: Folk Songs and American History, p. 70.) John Reed, a labor activist in the early 1900s, was quoted as saying “Remember, this is the only American working class movement which sings. Tremble then at the IWW, for a singing movement is not to be beaten…. They love and revere their singers, too, in the IWW…. I have met men carrying next to their hearts, in the pocket of their working clothes, little bottles with some of Joe Hill’s ashes in them.” (Eyerman and Jamison, Music and Social Movements: Mobilizing Traditions in the Twentieth Century, p. 57.)

Perhaps the greatest of all union songwriters was Joe Hill of the IWW. Well known Joe Hill songs include “The Preacher and the Slave, a traditional union organizing song containing the phrase “pie in the sky” which was coined by Joe Hill. The song was first published in the 4th edition of the Little Red Songbook in 1911. It is sung by Mischief Brew at .

Long-haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right;
But when asked how ’bout something to eat
They will answer with voices so sweet

You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

The starvation army they play,
They sing and they clap and they pray
‘Till they get all your coin on the drum
Then they’ll tell you when you’re on the bum


Holy Rollers and jumpers come out,
They holler, they jump and they shout.
Give your money to Jesus they say,
He will cure all diseases today.
If you fight hard for children and wife —
Try to get something good in this life —
You’re a sinner and bad man, they tell,
When you die you will sure go to hell.


Workingmen of all countries, unite,
Side by side we for freedom will fight;
When the world and its wealth we have gained
To the grafters we’ll sing this refrain:

Final chorus:
You will eat, bye and bye,
When you’ve learned how to cook and to fry.
Chop some wood, ’twill do you good,
And you’ll eat in the sweet bye and bye.

Other labor songs by Joe Hill include “There is Power in a Union,” “Rebel Girl,” “Casey Jones – Union Scab” and “Workers of the World Awaken!” Many of these songs are sung by Bruce “Utah” Phillips, who was called the “Golden Voice of the Great Southwest” on YouTube.

Joe Hill went to Utah in 1913 to help organize the copper miners there. He was arrested on suspicion of murder, convicted after a trial on disputed evidence and executed by firing squad in 1915. As reflected in the songs set out below, the evidence that Joe Hill committed the crime was flimsy, which adds to the legend that Joe Hill was a martyr for the union cause. Before he died, Joe Hill wrote a letter to Big Bill Haywood in which he told the leader of the IWW “Don’t Mourn—Organize.”

“The Ballad of Joe Hill, written (circa 1966) and sung by Phil Ochs, tells the story of Hill’s life from a sympathetic point of view. (

Joe Hill come over from Sweden’s shores
Looking for some work to do
And the Statue of Liberty waved him by
As Joe come a sailing through, Joe Hill
As Joe come a sailing through

Oh his clothes were coarse and his hopes were high
As he headed for the promised land
And it took a few weeks on the out-of-work streets
Before he began to understand
Before he began to understand

And Joe got hired by a Bowery bar
Sweeping up the saloon
As his rag would sail over the barroom rail
Sounded like he whistled on a tune
You could almost hear him whistling on a tune

And Joe rolled on from job to job
From the docks to the railroad line
And no matter how hungry the hand that wrote
In his letters he was always doing fine
In his letters he was always doing fine

Oh, the years went by like the sun goin’ down
Slowly turn the page and when Joe
Looked back at the sweat upon his tracks
He had nothing to show but his age
He had nothing to show but his age

So he headed out for the California shore
There things were just as bad
So he joined the industrial workers of the world
‘Cause the union was the only friend he had
‘Cause the union was the only friend he had

Now, the strikes were bloody and the strikes
Were black as hard as they were long
In the dark of night Joe would stay awake and write
In the morning he would raise them with a song
In the morning he would raise them with a song

And he wrote his words to the tunes of the day
To be passed along the union vine
And the strikes were led and the songs were spread
And Joe Hill was always on the line
Yes, Joe Hill was always on the line

Now, in Salt Lake City a murder was made
There was hardly a clue to find
Oh, the proof was poor but the sheriff was sure
Joe was the killer of the crime
That Joe was the killer of the crime

Joe raised his hands but they shot him down
He had nothing but guilt to give
It’s a doctor I need and they left him to bleed
He made it ’cause he had the will to live
Yes, he made it ’cause he had the will to live

Then the trial was held in a building of wood
And there the killer would be named
And the days weighed more than the cold copper ore
‘Cause he feared that he was being framed
‘Cause he found out that he was being framed

Oh, strange are the ways of western law
Strange are the ways of fate
For the government crawled to the mine owner’s call
That the judge was appointed by the state
Yes, the judge was appointed by the state

Oh, Utah justice can be had but not for a union man
And Joe was warned by summer early morn
That there’d be one less singer in the land
There’d be one less singer in the land

Now, William Spry was Governor Spry
And a life was his to hold
On the last appeal, fell a governor’s tear
“May the Lord have mercy on your soul
May the Lord have mercy on your soul”

Even President Wilson held up the day
But even he would fail
For nobody heard the soul searching words
Of the soul in the Salt Lake City jail
Of the soul in the Salt Lake City jail

For 36 years he lived out his days
And he more than played his part
For his songs that he made, he was carefully paid
With a rifle bullet buried in his heart
With a rifle bullet buried in his heart

Yes, they lined Joe Hill up against the wall
Blindfold over his eyes
It’s the life of a rebel that he chose to live
It’s the death of a rebel that he died
It’s the death of a rebel that he died

Now, some say Joe was guilty as charged
And some say he wasn’t even there
And I guess nobody will ever know
‘Cause the court records all disappeared
‘Cause the court records all disappeared

Say wherever you go in this fair land in every union hall
In the dusty dark these words are marked
In between all the cracks upon the wall
In between all the cracks upon the wall

It’s the very last line that Joe Hill wrote
When he knew that his days were through
“Boys, this is my last and final will
Good luck to all of you, good luck to all of you.”

Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson wrote another song about Hill: “The Ballad of Joe Hill, in 1936. It portrays Joe Hill as a sympathetic symbol. The song became widely known when Joan Baez sang it at Woodstock in 1968. (

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you and me
Says I, “But Joe, you’re ten years dead,”
“I never died,” says he, “I never died,” says he.

“In Salt Lake, Joe, by God,” says I
Him standing by my bed,
“They framed you on a murder charge.”
Says Joe, “But I ain’t dead,” says Joe, “But I ain’t dead.”

“The copper bosses shot you, Joe,
They killed you, Joe,” says I.
“Takes more than guns to kill a man,”
Says Joe, “I didn’t die,” says Joe, “I didn’t die.”

And standing there as big as life
And smiling with his eyes
Joe says, “What they forgot to kill
Went on to organize, went on to organize.”

“Joe Hill ain’t dead,” he says to me,
“Joe Hill ain’t never died.
Where workingmen are out on strike
Joe Hill is at their side, Joe Hill is at their side.”

“From San Diego up to Maine
In every mine and mill
Where workers strike and organize,”
Says he, “You’ll find Joe Hill,” says he, “You’ll find Joe Hill.”

“Solidarity Forever, a very strident IWW song written by Ralph Chaplin in 1915, is considered by many to be the preeminent labor anthem. Although it was written for use by the IWW and published in the Little Red Songbook, to Chaplin’s chagrin, the song had been widely adopted by unions all over. Chaplin stated: “I didn’t write ‘Solidarity Forever’ for ambitious politicians or for job-hungry labor fakirs seeking a ride on the gravy train. … All of us deeply resent seeing a song that was uniquely our own used as a singing commercial for the soft-boiled type of post-Wagner Act industrial unionism that uses million-dollar slush funds to persuade their congressional office boys to do chores for them.” (Ralph Chaplin, “Why I Wrote Solidarity Forever”, American West, January 1968, pp. 23-24.) “Solidarity Forever,” sung by Pete Seeger, can be found at (

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.