Why I wrote Solidarity Forever, by Ralph Chaplin

When a hostile “town clown” would confront the union harvest stiffs at the freight yards, demanding, “Who are the leaders here?” the unanimous response was “We are all leaders – what are you going to do about it?”

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It was from the lips of Eugene Victor Debs that I first heard the world “solidarity” uttered, and from Debs also that I first learned of the Western Federation of Miners, and of Bill Haywood, who, like Debs, brought down on his battle-scarred head the wrath of the employers and the invective of the capitalist press. Naturally, I could not remain neutral. It wasn’t in the cards, however, for me to meet Haywood until eight years later and through him to contact that One Big Union of the Industrial Workers of the World that was to become a lifetime dedication. Debs remained in the Socialist Party, which he had organized in Woodstock Jail after having been persuaded that the time was ripe for a combined labor union and Labor Party crusade on behalf of the economic underdog. He started out frankly critical of both politics and politicians, sharply disagreeing with those who looked upon political action as a cure-all. Many of us thought that Debs looked upon the Socialist Party as a means of appealing to splinter nonconformist groups for united action against a common enemy. About that time Charles Edward Russell called the cut in the International Socialist Review by charging that “anyone who sits at that grimy board cannot remain uncontaminated.” This was the policy of the Review at the time I was selected to take Seymour Stedman’s place on the board of directors. I was then twenty-one years old and needed no coaxing to declare war on Victor Berger and his craft union-political action fixation.

Haywood, in complete agreement with Debs at that time, was denouncing Berger and Gompers as “two labor fakirs tarred with the same stick.” Debs went so far as to beg his huge audiences to see to it that he never was elected to public office lest he too succumb to the temptation to misuse power. Debs in the “red” Socialist Party, and Haywood in the “red” Western Federation of Miners always held up – over and above the winning and the maintenance of living wages and humane working conditions – the vision of a free world in which man’s inhumanity to man would become a thing of the past. That was why they were “revolutionary.” Debs, like Haywood, took the position that union officialdom is not the master of the rank-and-file membership, but its servent. That is why, in their own estimation at least, they were “democratic.” In my humble opinion they were both right in proclaiming that no one gains, and everybody loses, by getting masses of men to march shoulder to shoulder in the wrong direction. “Solidarity Forever” was written on the assumption that we knew where we were going and knew how to get there. … What we were seeking was a united labor movement – “all for one and one for all” – and it was this principle that I tried to embody in “Solidarity Forever.” That is why, if for no other reason, that the story of “Solidarity Fovever” may be worth the telling.

At all events, my “Marching Song of Industrial Freedom” has been making history for a long time (so I am informed), and it is still going strong. It was launched into a world in which issues were shaping up that would shake the established order to its foundations. One part of the American heritage is the heritage of conflict, this for the good and sufficient reason that our years of conflict have shaped our national destiny more significantly than our uneasy intervals of peace. No one had to spell out the meaning of the “class struggle” for us; it was one of the inescapable realities of our daily lives. I didn’t write “Solidarity Forever” for ambitious politicians or for job-hungry labor fakirs seeking a ride on the gravy train. I wrote it, or thought I was writing it, for a bunch of “timber beasts,” “gandy dancers” and “harvest stiffs” who wouldn’t have had a full belly or a place to flop if they hadn’t learned to become “the stick-together guys that organize.” These were my people, and they looked to me to write this kind of song for them. I prefer to think that it was they, rather than any special skill on my part, that breathed the breath of life into whatever it was that made the words and rhythm click. That it became the theme song of the “fighting, singing IWW” is understandable; that it became, at a later date, the theme song of the not-so-needy, not-so-worthy, so-called industrial unions spawned by an era of compulsory unionism is not so understandable. Something also beyond the wildest stretch of my imagination was the possibility of Big Unionism competing with Big Business on fairly equal terms – and using identical promotional devices, including singing commercials – to keep business booming. That sort of “solidarity,” in my humble opinion is nothing to brag about, or sing about.

The Industrial Workers of the World, at the time “Solidarity Forever was written, was distinctly indigenous. Even at this late hour I am more grimly convinced than ever that neither the song itself nor the organization that sparked it could have emerged from any environment other than the Pacific Northwest in the afterglow of the rugged period of American pioneering. If we had waited for the industrialized East to inspire what went into its making, we might still be waiting. Neither was it a foreign importation. Few old timers agreed with Brissenden’s thesis that the IWW was a rehash of European syndicalism. To us it was more akin to what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he declared that “The government that governs the best, governs the least.” The raw frontier did that to men.

It is true that “Solidarity Forever” was written in Chicago, but it is also true that nobody ever heard of it until fifty thousand striking Puget Sound loggers bellered it out to a world that didn’t care a hoot about the problems of vote-less and cruelly exploited “timber beasts.” It is also true that the young author of “Solidarity Forever” had been shaped by bitterly contested labor struggles, including a two-year strike against mine owners of Kanawha County, West Virginia, but that it took the sustained militancy of the grass-roots Western Federation of Miners, in the face of equally ferocious opposition to put the hefty punch into “Solidarity Forever” that later on made it the theme song of the entirely latter-day labor movement.

This is not the attempt of a nostalgic old-timer to impress a less ideologically alert generation with the notion that “there were giants in those days,” and that the author of “Solidarity Forever” was one of them. The fact is that there were no supermen among us – and none would have been tolerated. We were faced with the choice of being either true-blue rebels or “scissorbills.” The “scissorbill” was that belly-aching element among the unorganized that would rather remain unorganized than do anything about it. When the IWW harvest workers announced, “We are out for a winter stake in this summer, and we want no scabs around,” they confirmed the declaration by singing “Solidarity Forever” instead of “Hallelujah I’m a Bum.” And it worked, at least to the extent that the niggardly “going wage” was quickly discarded in favor of the regional five-dollar day. When a hostile “town clown” would confront the union harvest stiffs at the freight yards, demanding, “Who are the leaders here?” the unanimous response was “We are all leaders – what are you going to do about it?” When asked by a  court judge to define the word “scissorbill,” Joe Hill is reported to have replied “The ‘scissorbill,’ your Honor, is an ‘I guy’; we happen to be ‘we guys’.” It was as simple as that to Joe Hill and his fellow workers. That is why, in my opinion, Joe Hill’s satirical “Mr. Block” was far more definitive than “Solidarity Forever.”

All that belongs to yesterday, but it is needed to make labor’s yesterdays understandable, particularly in relation to the crazy-quilt pattern of industrial relationships that grew out of them. Among those of us who managed to survive those stormy pioneering years, there is no one who does not look with a rather jaundiced eye upon the “success” of “Solidarity Forever.” All of us deeply resent seeing a song that was uniquely our own used as a singing commercial for the soft-boiled type of post-Wagner Act industrial unionism that use million-dollar slush funds to persuade the congressional office boys to do chores for them – chores that the case-hardened crusaders of the old days were eager to do themselves for the good of the cause, with their bellies flapping against their backbones. Many people these days wonder how Joe Hill could stop traffic on busy skid row street corners singing such hilarious songs as “Pie In The Sky” and “Mr. Block,” or how he could refuse to be blindfolded when he faced the firing squad at the Utah State Prison, and himself give the order for the fatal volley that made his name the symbol of dedicated service to the economic underdog. Or why the striking loggers on the S.S. Verona chose to die singing “Hold the Fort” and “Solidarity Forever” in the rain of bullets from a mob of respectable businessmen on the docks at Everett, Washington. Or why young Wesley Everest, union organizer and World War I veteran, was lynched at midnight from “Hangman’s Bridge” in Centralia, Washington. Or why my good friend and fellow worker Frank Little was given the same treatment by hired Anaconda gun-thugs for attempting to organize the mercilessly exploited hardrock miners at Butte, Montana. This could go on and on, every word of it is true, but only to be discounted as the resentment of an old codger mumbling through his beard.

It is still my contention, however, that the story of organized labor, both in principle and practice, is too important to be misrepresented or swept under the rug of labor-hating pressure groups or individuals. I contend also that when the labor movement ceases to be a Cause and becomes a business, the end product can hardly be called progress. It must be remembered that my “Battle Hymn of Industrial Democracy” was tailored to meet the unique requirements of free-born, pioneering Americans who resented the status of unresisting wage-slavery; and that it was critical of the archaic craft unionism of those days because of disillusionment with repeated and uniformly hostile efforts to find a political answer to pressing economic problems. More than ever before in a long lifetime I am convinced that there are not such answers. To me the record clearly reveals that “anyone who sits at that grimy board cannot remain uncontaminated.”

An outstanding example of what set the IWW apart from the stuffed shirt organizational pattern of its day was the 1916 drive to put union cards in the pockets of the unorganized, voteless army of boxcar bindle stiffs who were expected to fill the breadbaskets of the nation that eventful year. The IWW Agricultural Workers Union, Local 400, armed with the Little Red Songbook plus a lot of selfless crusading fervor, did its job so well that it sent hysterical scare headlines screaming from coast to coast. How it appeared through the eyes of a competent, history-minded contemporary is preserved for the record by James Jones, the noted author of From Here to Eternity. An imprisoned World War II soldier, describing the spectacular fight that preceded the Local 400’s successful operation, nostalgically recalls the dedicated IWW militancy of his boyhood days:

You don’t remember the Wobblies. You were too young. Or else you weren’t born yet. What they really were was a religion. They were welded together with a vision we don’t possess. It was their vision that made them great. And it was their belief that made them powerful. And sing! You never heard anyone sing the ways those guys sang unless it was for a religion. Bunches of them, ten or twenty at a time, out in the harvest fields or in one of their free speech fights, sitting in the barred windows of the second floor of the jail singing the songs that Joe Hill had written for them or Ralph Chaplin’s “Solidarity Forever,” a singing that swelled through the town until nobody could escape it.

The story of “Solidarity Forever” would have finished on a glory note had it finished right there. At the time I had no way of knowing that it would go into orbit, both with the type of unionism with which it had so little in common, and with the Red Star of monolithic statism that was already rising ominously in the East. Long after the IWW had seemingly joined the best laid plans of mice and men, “Solidarity Forever” continued to make headlines in one major strike after another, as such practical labor leaders as Walter Reuther and Harry Bridges pluming themselves with stolen feathers, hit pay dirt where the “pesky-go-abouts” of the IWW had been prospecting. Finally, the AFL-CIO elaborately printed Songs of Work and Freedom appeared, with “Solidarity Forever” emerging from the uneasy grave in which the IWW refused to lie buried as “the most popular union song on the North American Continent … If a union member knows only one song it is almost sure to be this. It has become, in effect, the anthem of the labor movement.”

http://www.iww.org/history/icons/solidarity_forever/1

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  1. […] a year. But we have seen how this arrangement only serves to reinforce the power and secrecy of those who should be the members’ servants. Given that the membership is supposed to be the supreme authority of the local, how can it […]

  2. […] (2) Eugene Debs, like Big Bill Haywood, took the position that union officialdom is not the master of the rank-and-file membership, but its servant.  (Why I wrote Solidarity Forever, by Ralph Chaplin) […]

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