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Article Songs of Unionization, Labor Strikes, and Child Labor

Sheet Music: Slavery is a Hard Foe to Battle
Union organizer and co-founder of the Industrial Workers of the World, Mary Harris Jones, also known as "Mother Jones." Select the link for more information about this photograph.

The industrial revolution of the nineteenth century gave rise to social problems related to the treatment of factory workers, fair wages, child labor, and working conditions, all giving rise to the creation of unions. Songs became a major means of creating solidarity among workers uniting to improve their lot. Early examples of the use of popular songs to carry the labor message are "Eight Hour Strike," by Billy Pastor, intended to spread the idea of the eight hour work day (1872), and "The Worker's Anvil," with lyrics by Laura M. Griffing, celebrating "the cause of labor" (1878).

Unions for particular trades soon found that banding together with other trades provided more strength for both labor negotiations and political lobbying. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was one of the first federations of labor unions in the United States, founded in 1886. The sheet music for the songs "Labor's War Cry" and "Co-Join Coxey's Army" are examples of songs from this period (1887). "Coxey's Army" was a march on Washington by laborers in 1894. Coal miners followed the example of the (AFL) in their formation of the United Mine Workers in 1890, later called the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). John Mitchell, who was president of the UMWA from 1898 to 1908, is celebrated in the song, "Johnny Mitchell's Train," peformed by miner Jerry Byrne.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or the Wobblies, was an international union that brought together workers of many industries under one union, beginning in 1905. Swedish American longshoreman, labor activist, and song writer, Joe Hill (born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund), was among those whose songs were published in the first IWW song book in 1909.[1] He was convicted of murder on weak circumstantial evidence and executed in 1915. His execution is widely considered to have been a miscarriage of justice. His death became a galvanizing moment in Union history in the United States. His funeral, organized in Chicago by the IWW, was attended by more than 30,000 people. Several songs were written about him, including "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night," written by Joe Hayes in 1930.[2] A famous co-founder and coordinator for the IWW in the United States was Mary Harris Jones, known as "Mother Jones," who is referred to in the song, "Sprinkle Coal Dust On My Grave" sung by miner Orville J. Jenks.

The fight for women's rights, women's labor, and children's labor have often converged. An important example is the textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in January 1912 that protested a reduction in wages. The majority of the workers were women and children. Their wages were so low that this was a fight for bread. This event is often referred to as the "Bread and Roses Strike" because the strikers used the slogan "Bread and Roses," which was likely taken from a poem by James Oppenheim, published in December 1911.[3] Later this was set to music, attributed to Caroline Kohlsaat and/or Martha Coleman, and it was used as a song by women fighting for their rights elsewhere. The use of a rose as an emblem of women's rights in many parts of the world is thought to have had its origins in this poem and song.

John L. Lewis was president of the UMWA from 1920 to 1960. A disagreement in the AFL over the unionization of industrial workers led to the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1935, in which the UMWA and John L. Lewis played major roles." Lewis achieved political power unprecedented in prior union history, aiding the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. His work to see legislation passed to favor coal miners during the New Deal period is celebrated in the song "This is What the Union Done," sung by miner George Jones. The song "Union Man," performed by miner Albert Morgan in 1947, refers to both the AFL and CIO as the dominant unions of the day (the AFL and CIO merged in 1955).

The United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America was a union affiliated with the American Federation of Labor formed in the 1930s that worked to provide protection for workers in agricultural industries. This presentation includes examples of songs sung during the Madera Cotton Strike of 1939 performed by migrant workers who were there, such as "Roll Out the Pickets" and "Associated Farmers Have a Farm," both performed by Ruby Rains, and "Fight for Union Recognition," sung by Bert Rains. This was a strike that succeeded in securing a minimum wage for agricultural workers belonging to the union, including migrants displaced by the Dust Bowl.

In addition to songs used in strikes and celebrating union gains, songs sometimes reflected the struggle of union members and efforts to intimidate union members, such as "Harlan County Blues," sung by miner George Davis.

Child labor

Songs of children who had to work instead of going to school tell a particularly poignant story about migrant labor. A song beginning "Yo cuando era niño -- mi padre querido," sung by Jose Suarez, was composed by the singer about his childhood picking cotton with his father in Texas. "The Cotton Picker's Song," composed and sung by fourteen-year-old dust bowl migrant Lloyd Stalcup about the new life in which he finds himself." In the first decades of the twentieth century, child labor, long a concern in America, peaked. A campaign to protect children begun early in the industrial revolution finally concluded with The Fair Labor Standards Act, passed in 1938. But this law did little to help the situation of child agricultural workers, particularly migrant children, a problem that remains with us to the present day.


  1. The 1910 edition of the The IWW Song Book, (also known as the Little Red Songbook) is available online via the Hathi Trust. In addition, the late Archie Green compiled all the songs from previous editions of the IWW song books as The Big Red Songbook, published by Charles H. Kerr in 2007. [back to article]
  2. "Joe Hill," performed by Paul Robeson is available on the album Classic Labor Songs from Smithsonian Folkways (2006). [back to article]
  3. "Bread and Roses" was published in The American Magazine, December 1911. James Oppenheim was the author of other protest songs as well. The music attributed to Caroline Kohlsaat may be found in the Unitarian Hymnal, Singing: The Living Tradition, Beacon Press, 1993, which uses the alternate title "As We Come Marching, Marching." The song was set to a different tune in 1974 by Mimi Baez Fariña, updated for a new generation of woman fighting for their rights. [back to article]


  • Cohen, Ronald D. (2009). Work and Sing: A History of Occupational and Labor Union Songs of the United States, Carquinez Press.
  • Don't Mourn-Organize!: Songs of Labor Songwriter Joe Hill, various artists. Smithsonian Folkways Records, 1990.
  • Joe Glazer Sings Labor Songs, Collector Records, 1982.
  • "Songs of Social Change" (Songs of America)
  • "Traditional Work Songs" (Songs of America)

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  • Songs of Unionization, Labor Strikes, and Child Labor


  • -  Work and Industry
  • -  Songs and Music
  • -  Social Change
  • -  Articles

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