Recently, I was considering the impact of cultural workers, musicians in particular, on the labor movement in light of the Dec. 16 Solidarity Rally in support of Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100, in New York City. It is sad that nearly no one in media focused on the larger point of solidarity, unity en masse, when describing the event; they instead chose to focus on the fact that a strike had been averted.
As one who was not only present that night, but also a musical performer on stage, I’d like to officially declare that this was indeed a solidarity rally. So many of New York’s unions were involved in every aspect of this event that TWU rally organizers needed to update the flyer several times by not only adding more endorsers, but also listing those endorsing unions’ issues alongside their own. TWU officials worked on a broad steering committee, and speakers came from many unions, including the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, the latter being almost unprecedented in NYC labor history.
The feeling in the air was electric! It seemed to all that this was surely a historic moment and one that will not be fleeting. An intermingling, multi-generational body of men and women, collars blue, gray and white, marching, chanting and singing as one. There was no room for the petty rivalries we sometimes feel; all not only seemed supportive of the other, but also became a cheering squad for all – better still, for the cause.
I worked out updated versions of established workers’ songs with my colleague Kirk Kelly, also a topical musician and activist. Together we perform as The Wildcat Singers. It was wonderfully exciting to take the stage in the frozen evening air to open the rally. Neither of us could feel our fingers on our instruments’ fret-boards, but no matter that; to warm up the growing mass of unionists with songs by Woody Guthrie, Joe Hill and many cultural workers who’ve come before us was an honor. Especially at such a large-scale rally.
This, to me, is the final piece in the puzzle of solidarity: song, the arts. Where our earlier union counterparts used choruses, bands and solo performers, theater and dance troupes, poetry recitals and art installations as integral parts of events for labor and other progressive struggles, in recent years too many have allowed this important asset to dwindle.
It is odd that the effects of McCarthyism could have held on so long, but apparently they have. The great expanse of cultural programming, always laced with a powerful political and social science ingredient, eroded during the 1950s. Though several unions have built up a degree of cultural programming (most notably 1199’s Bread and Roses program), these tend to stand apart from other union functions. All too often, they are not enmeshed in rallies and actions as they should be. Need to be.
The Dec. 16 rally was exemplary of how powerful an impact cultural workers can have. While I have performed the classic “Solidarity Forever” at many events, never has its call for workers’ unity seemed so clear. Though it was late by the time we were called back on stage to close the evening, and by then absolutely freezing, and though more than a few were beginning to leave, suddenly nearly everyone stopped and moved toward the stage. Kirk and I sang the familiar lyrics and a new verse I wrote specific to the Local 100 workers, then still unsure of the negotiations’ outcome. Upon hearing the opening chords on our banjo and guitar – performed in a somewhat rocking style – those folks who’d been rushing home to a hot meal or stiff drink suddenly began singing, many marching in time as they did so. As quickly as our hands began to again freeze up, our hearts were warmed by the response we received. Indeed, no matter who was singing there that evening, there could be no better way to end a rally, particularly one built of solidarity.
It was a moment to behold for me and a point that I trust will not soon be forgotten by those present: cultural workers from within and without our unions need to be allowed to do their thing and work as agitators, educators and organizers for all actions and for the politics of today’s labor movement.
Here is that new verse I wrote in honor of the Transport Workers:
It is we who lead the masses through
the darkened maze below
and it’s we who drive the people, carry them to and fro.
It is we who stand with thousands, solidarity we show!
and this UNION keeps us strong.
John Pietaro is a NYC protest singer/songwriter and Co-Chair of the Cultural Workers’ Consort. He works as a staff representative for District Council 1707 American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org