Class struggle has always had a soundtrack. A hundred years ago, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) had Joe Hill, author of popular labor folk songs like “The Preacher and the Slave” and “There’s Power in a Union.” American Communists of the 1930s had baritone Paul Robeson, and the activists of the 1960s and 1970s had folksy Joan Baez and Phil Ochs. Today’s striking autoworkers have GmacCash.
Fifty thousand workers at General Motors (GM) are entering week four of a massive strike. GM is losing millions, but won’t give in to union negotiators. Workers’ major demand is an end to the multitiered contracts which screw over new and temporary workers — who now have to work for eight years before reaching full pay — and undermine the solidarity and wages of the whole union.
When the United Autoworkers (UAW) and other industrial unions were built in the 1930s and 1940s, millions of workers went on strike each year, coming together across lines of skill, ethnicity, and geography. Since the 1970s, however, union membership and strike participation have declined precipitously, while millions of manufacturing jobs have been relocated to nonunion plants and income inequality soars. In 2017, only 25,000 workers participated in major work stoppages, the second lowest year on record.
Today’s striking autoworkers, following the lead of hundreds of thousands of teachers who have struck since last spring, are fighting to reverse decades of working-class defeats. It’s a daunting challenge, and it won’t be easy to win. Luckily, autoworkers have some special talents to bring to bear on this fight.
Detroit rapper and former Chrysler worker GmacCash released a song in solidarity with GM strikers called “On Strike” last month. Strikes are transformative experiences for participants, building new communities and commitments. Strikes unlock the ingenious creative capacities of workers to wage and win battles against seemingly all-powerful employers — and produce catchy songs like this one.
In the music video, GmacCash joins GM workers on the picket line singing a chorus that could be a union chant: “We goin’ on strike / We goin’ on strike / We goin’ on strike / Till they get this shit right.” The song has three short verses:
We goin’ on strike so you better listen
We ain’t bout to keep workin’ under these conditions
Working in a hot plant with no air conditioning (it’s hot as hell)
And they got the nerve to tell us that there’s fair conditions (yeah right)
If they don’t work their ass off, they’re gonna get fired
Temps workin’ like slaves and don’t get hired
The supervisor don’t care if they get tired (they don’t)
They just trying to make sure them sales get higher (keep goin’)
The union gotta stick together
Do this for each other
Do this one for all my sisters, for my brothers
Cause they tryna treat us wrong but they say they love us
We need a change right now or we ain’t goin’ further
Inspired by GmacCash and fed up with GM’s stalling, striking GM workers in Fort Wayne, Indiana, members of UAW Local 2209, released their own picket line strike anthem, “Burn Barrel.” The song opens with the following spoken words: “Solidarity and equality. Shout out to Local 659, home of the original sit-down strikers. It’s now our time to make demands. Better believe we have some grievances that need answering.”
The Lost Art of the Strike Song
These songs are part of a long and rich tradition of strike songs celebrating the brilliance and power of the trade union movement. In American Labor Songs of the Nineteenth Century, labor historian Philip Foner collected hundreds of such songs, from slave spirituals, to songs meant to open Knights of Labor meetings, to the 1883 classic, “The Scab’s Death.”
One section features a dozen songs coming out of the late 1800s movement for the eight-hour day, including the 1878 song “Eight Hours,” with lyrics by I.G. Blanchard, which Foner writes became the most popular labor song until the 1915 IWW anthem, “Solidarity Forever.” By the 1880s, hundreds of thousands of workers had joined the movement whose slogan was sung in the chorus of “Eight Hours”: “Eight hours for work / Eight hours for rest / Eight hours for what we will!”
On May 1, 1886, 350,000 at over ten thousand workplaces across the United States went on strike demanding the eight-hour day and singing the movement anthem — marking the first May Day, still commemorated every year by workers, unions, and socialist parties around the world as International Workers Day.
In 1937 Detroit autoworkers sang UAW lawyer Maurice Sugar’s “Sit Down!” as the sit-down strike wave crippled the world’s greatest manufacturing companies and showed the incredible power of factory workers:
When they smile and say, “No raise in pay.”
Sit down! Sit down!
When you want the boss to come across.
Sit down! Sit down!
Sit down, just take a seat,
Sit down, and rest your feet,
Sit down, you’ve got ’em beat.
Sit down! Sit down!
GmacCash and Local 2209 workers are recovering this tradition and adapting it for today’s fight. If a new workers’ movement can coalesce and fight for even more, we should expect to see a new era of class-struggle culture.
A Culture of Solidarity
Bosses have enormous wealth and power to wage massive, prolonged, and, historically, bloody battles. The anti-worker political establishment can legislate restrictions against strikes and union organizing, and then call in the cops and the army to ruthlessly enforce them. There is no major independent media for the working class today, so the billionaire-owned mainstream media can smear unions and turn workers against their own cause. And while workers are powerful when united, they face countless obstacles to unity: racial prejudice within the working class, powerful incentives to freeload and scab, and a deep cynicism that nothing we do matters.
To overcome fear, cynicism, and division, workers in the past have had to construct organizations and cultures of solidarity. After decades of union decline, and without a major working-class party in the United States, this culture has eroded. So too has class consciousness: workers’ sense of unity with each other and awareness of their irreconcilable conflict with the bosses. Without common examples of victorious strikes — and with the media usually silent on strikes and labor issues generally — workers have lost faith in themselves and in the power of their collective action.
As more workers take part in the transformative experiences of class struggle — joining fellow workers in a battle against the bosses and politicians who seemed all but invincible just beforehand — they won’t see these experiences reflected in corporate media, and will start producing their own culture.
Like labor songs of old, the return of the strike song on GM picket lines celebrates the shared purpose and solidarity of proud, militant workers while making their fight for social justice emotionally palpable. As the GM strike rolls on and the Chicago Teachers Union prepares for a historic strike next week, we’ll hopefully see a lot more music videos from the picket lines. Personally, I’m hoping GmacCash will release a strike-themed remix of “Old Town Road.”