The Depression-era politics of strikers' songs that called for solidarity and action
The Depression brought unprecedented changes for American workers and organized labor. As the economy plummeted, employers cut wages and laid off workers, while simultaneously attempting to wrest more work from those who remained employed.
In mills, mines, and factories workers organized and resisted, striking for higher wages, improved working conditions, and the right to bargain collectively. As workers walked the picket line or sat down on the shop floor, they could be heard singing. This book examines the songs they sang at three different strikes- the Gastonia, North Carolina, textile mill strike (1929), Harlan County, Kentucky, coal mining strike (1931-32), and Flint, Michigan, automobile sit-down strike (1936-37).
Whether in the Carolina Piedmont, the Kentucky hills, or the streets of Michigan, the workers' songs were decidedly class-conscious. All show the workers' understanding of the necessity of solidarity and collective action.
In Flint the strikers sang:
The trouble in our homestead
Was brought about this way
When a dashing corporation
Had the audacity to say
You must all renounce your union
And forswear your liberties,
And we'll offer you a chance
To live and die in slavery.
As a shared experience, the singing of songs not only sent the message of collective action but also provided the very means by which the message was communicated and promoted. Singing was a communal experience, whether on picket lines, at union rallies, or on shop floors. By providing the psychological space for striking workers to speak their minds, singing nurtured a sense of community and class consciousness. When strikers retold the events of their strike, as they did in songs, they spread and preserved their common history and further strengthened the bonds among themselves.
In the strike songs the roles of gender were pronounced and vivid. Wives and mothers sang out of their concerns for home, family, and children. Men sang in the name of worker loyalty and brotherhood, championing male solidarity and comaraderie.
Informed by the new social history, this critical examination of strike songs from three different industries in three different regions gives voice to a group too often deemed as inarticulate. This study, the only book-length examination of this subject, tells history "from the bottom up" and furthers an understanding of worker culture during the tumultuous Depression years.
Timothy P. Lynch is an associate professor of history at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, Ohio. He has been published in the Michigan Historical Review and the Encyclopedia of American Social History.
Striker doing a jig, photo courtesy of Walter P. Ruther Library, Wayne State University