Monday, December 8, 2008

Sit-in Songs


Laid-off workers at Republic Door and Window in Chicago have occupied their factory, demanding that they be paid the 60 days' wages and for the unused paid vacation that they are entitled under federal law. The factory occupation is a tactic not seen since the auto plant sit-ins lead by the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement in 1970s Detroit. On a mass scale, it hasn't been used since the upsurges in the 1930s that built the CIO.

Though it's too early to say whether this signals a complete revitalization of the labor movement, what the Republic workers have done is historic. They have shown that in a time when the worst elements of the crumbling economy are bound to fall on the heads of ordinary people, some folks are mad as hell, and aren't going to take it lying down anymore.

It's been more than a generation since the US could be said to have a vibrant workers movement. The tradition is far from dead, though. Likewise, that lineage of music relating to our daily struggles at work hasn't died, either, and in fact one could say that it's more alive than it has been in a while. These songs aren't Woody Guthrie or Joe Hill. They're songs from our time, our place, and our generation's fight to get what we deserve.

But of course, the list is far from complete. I'm sure we can think of more than a mere five. Send your suggestions! What songs from over the past few years really encapsulate our generation's struggle for dignity and justice? I'll be posting suggestions next week!

1. The Nightwatchman - "Night Falls"
This slow ballad off of Tom Morello's new album The Fabled City tells the story of one man who has thrown himself into a heated battle to unionize in the Western US. It's a tale of bravery, sacrifice and the fight for basic dignity at the workplace.

2. Mr. Lif - "Live From the Plantation"
Lif has raw anger on this track--anger against the boss, the monotony, boredom and soul-sucking labor at a modern day cubicle farm. In today's world, we're told that office workers have it made, yet how many of us have wanted to "punch the clock right off the fuckin' wall?"

3. Ted Leo & the Pharmacists - "Biomusicology"
Not a song directly about labor, but about something broader: breaking through our alienation and making our life's work worthwhile. Best line: "...come out from the tunnels we dig in / To see that tunneling's not living."

4. Street Dogs - "There is Power in a Union"
Originally written by Billy Bragg, Street Dogs' version is driving, determined punk rock gutsiness. Combined with Bragg's timeless lyrics, their take really captures the anger and frustration that young workers have at the workplace today, but translate it into hope, pride and power.

5. Rage Against the Machine - "Maria"
The tale of a worker in the maquiladora on the Mexican/American border. Zack De la Rocha's powerful poetry and Morello's maniacal, screaming guitar work bring to life the brutality felt by workers in the global south in the age of corporate globalization--and also give voice to the power we all have to fight back!

*****

1 comment:

jesseray said...

Here are a few contributions:

a gimme:
"Which Side are you on?" I'm partial to the Billy Bragg version, but a classic.

"99 and 1/2" - Mavis Staples' version. A great version of this classic protest song. Ry Cooder adds some searing lyrics about getting the demands our side needs without compromises.

"Ghetto Manifesto" - The Coup. Hard to pick the most appropriate song from Boots and Pam the Funkstress, but these lines sold me:
"Shook the jobby job down at noon and don't disperse
They wouldn't pay ya ass as far as they can throw you
They think you punkin' but they don't know you"

Pretty much anything by the Redskins, but for sit-in songs, I think "It Can Be Done" takes the cake. Here the Redskins narrate the lessons of the victories and defeats of workers' struggles in the Russian and German revolutions and in Poland in the 80s. Great, upbeat song that reminds us of the revolutionary tradition we stand in.

"Soldier" Erykah Badu.

"Youngstown" Bruce Springsteen. Brilliant narration of the history of the workers who built this country and the gutting of their livelihood in the Rust Belt-ing of heavy industrial jobs over the past 30 years.