– Samuel Butler
There’s an ominous feel to the opening chords here, like someone is about to cop it. That first line –
“ Come you ranks of labour, come you union core”
is Phil, direct and strident and confident. Oh, someone is gonna get it alright!
This is a union song. A union songs built in the tradition of great union songs. Typical of Phil it’s a wonky union song, and as Michael L Richmond put it, it’s a song that embodies “all the strengths of labor music in a song which attacked and mocked labor itself”.
In his essay “The Music of Labor: from Movement to Culture” Richmond writes of change in Union songs in the early part of the twentieth century with unions confident and desperate for members to songs in the middle of the twentieth century that showed a “dramatic disillusionment with the form organized labor had assumed”. Similarly, union songs showed evidence of changes in the union movement away from being Pinko, Soviet sympathisers to being fearful of the anti-communist sympathies as Aunt Molly Jackson’s ‘I Am A Union Woman’ is an example of;
“I was raised in old Kentucky,
In Kentucky borned and bred,
But when I joined the union,
They called me Rooshian Red”.
In his introduction to a rather fiery version of this song at Newport in 1964, in full sarcastic mode, Phil said that “back in 1949 they purged out all of the communists and socialists and homosexuals out of the labor unions, leaving behind virile American types who took major stands on all the major issues of the day. And now I’d like to dedicate a song to George Meany and other freedom fighters around the world…”
Meany was President of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) from 1952 until its merger with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1955. He led the AFL-CIO in taking up a strong anti-communist stance, expelling leftist unions (hence the line in Love Me I’m A Liberal “I’m glad all the commies were thrown out of the AFL-CIO board”) and supporting dictator backed, anti-communist and pro-U.S. unions in South and Central America. By 1964 Meany revealed that 23% of the annual AFL-CIO budget was being spent of foreign programmes.
Meany and the AFL-CIO supported both the Johnson and Nixon administrations in their role in the Vietnam War. Frank Koscielski wrote of Meany being a “quintessential cold-warrior and anti-communist” quoting Meany saying that “the Communist conspiracy overshadows everything else that we may think of”. Meany threw the full weight of the federation behind the war effort, right up until 1975.
Phil’s song doesn’t mention this. Meany’s support for the war saw him and his federation become deeply entrecnhed in the establishment. However angry Phil may have been with union support for the war, it was in another field that the actions, or rather inactions of the unions that really got his goat.
In 1968, during the New York City teacher’s strike, rookie Board of Education President John Doar stated that “a basic conflict exists between labor union concepts and civil rights concepts”. Reading the official line on George Meany’s time as head of the AFL-CIO union would lead one to think that he had found a way around this conflict. His biography on the AFL-CIO website states that he was “a staunch supporter of civil and equal rights his entire career, [who] put the federation’s muscle behind the civil rights movement”. Look a little deeper however and things are a lot less straightforward.
In 1955, following the merger of the AFL and the CIO unions, the new federation required members to end racial discriminatory practices. This was in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education case that found racial segregation in United States’ schools to be unconstitutional. Phil’s line ““Then in 1954 decisions finally made” refers to this, what the Congress for Racial Equality called a “groundbreaking case” that “provided the legal foundation of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s”;
“What this legal challenge represents is at the core of United States history and the freedoms we enjoy. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown began a critical chapter in the maturation of our democracy”
With Hispanics and blacks barred from joining several unions, A.Philip Randolph, the only black vice-president in the federation, called for discriminatory unions to be expelled, just as the left-leaning ones had been. Meany argued strongly otherwise, arguing that there was no hope of those unions changing their ways if they were away from AFL-CIO’s influence. However racial discrimination continued.
In 1963 the March on Washington hoped to bring together the struggles for workers’ rights with the struggles for civil rights, and was largely successful. Numerous unions came out in support of the march, but not Meany’s AFL-CIO. While paying lip service to the civil rights movement the AFL-CIO appeared unwilling to get actively involved. Doar’s words ring true when considering Meany’s half-hearted support for the inclusion of an anti-discriminatory ‘fair employment’ section (Title VII) into the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Whilst welcoming Title VII (and later even trying to claim responsibility for it) Meany stressed that he would be unwilling to enforce it stating that the AFL-CIO “operate in a democratic way and we cannot dictate even in a good cause”.
In 1944, when Meany was AFL Secretary and Treasurer, W.C. Hushing, the AFL National Legislative Committee chairman argued that the AFL takes “strong exception to the compulsory imposition upon unions of…any policy interfering with the self-government of labor organizations”. Twenty years later Meany argued that “when the rank-and-file membership of a local union obstinately exercises its right to be wrong, there is very little we in the leadership can do about it, unaided”. The unions it seems were happy to sit in the middle ground – arguing against government inference whilst also stating that its own role denies them the opportunity to organize against breaches of civil rights.
This having-your-cake-and-eating-it approach is exemplified by a 1963 dispute between members of Meany’s own Local 2 Plumbers Union in New York refused to admit four black and Puerto Rican workers. Stating that “Union men don’t work with non-union people” Meany neglected to mention that those workers were non-union because the local union refused to allow non-white members.
Meany and the AFL-CIO may well have been attempting to straddle the awkward line between the progressive forces trying to bring in some semblance of civil rights (exemplified by those very same left-leaning members of CIO which he had attempted to force out) and the more bigoted constituents of the unions under his power.
This unwillingness to rock the boat is the embodiement of the kind of establishment serving that the AFL-CIO had become. As Phil wrote in the sleve notes to I Ain’t Marching Anymore; “the old lions of the left were the new pillars of the segrgated structure”, or as he sing in Links On The Chain;
“Your union took no stand and your union was betrayed”
Links On The Chain was the song that Phil chose to sing to Woody Guthrie as he lay on his hospital bed. Woody may or may not have given the song a positive repsonse, or any response at all (Phil claimed that Woody “half got up and sort of grunted ‘good’”). The song sure got a response from another bullwalk of the New York folk scene – Dave Van Ronk. In his book The Mayor of MacDougall Street, Van Ronk was rather taken with Phil’s song. Not one to dish out praise lightly, Van Ronk was particularly taken with Phil’s quoteing of the of union song in the line “It’s only fair to ask you boys, which side are you on?” writing that “there is a dialectic to that line, it has a history, and all of it is right there”. Suggesting that the use of that song to “attack those it was written for” had caaused some consternation Van Ronk argues that Phil’s use of it is wholly justified; “he not only called ‘em the way he saw ‘em but made the call a work of art”
Amen to that!