Machinists spearhead ‘new wave’ of union music for working people
Woody Guthrie, the legendary song writer and singer, has long been a mainstay for labor activists trying to use music to get out the word. Today, however, the Machinists are among those backing and developing new musical choices for the movement. | AP

BUFFALO – While traditional labor songs for working people were written by such legends as Woody Guthrie and Joe Hill – and long served as the mainstay for the labor movement since they were first penned way back when — there’s now an updated musical choice when it comes to speaking to union members about jobs they do and issues they face.

And James Neureuther of the Machinists in Buffalo played a role in IAM’s unioNation Band, comprised of more than 20 musicians, singers and songwriters.

The IAM band recently released their second CD, Wake Up, Rise Up, Stand Strong, that features 21 songs, including Back to the Fight, Union Heart, Work’n Overtime, Union Thug, Blue Collar Blood, Ordinary People, Gotta Have a Union and Neureuther’s own composition, Walking the Line. The songs run from rap to rock and country to jazz.

“I’m very proud of it,” the 62-year-old Neureuther, who works at Ingersoll-Rand in the Buffalo area as a Quality Inspector and who’s been an IAM member for 22 years, tells

“It’s near and dear to my heart.  Now the hard part is getting people to listen (to the labor songs on the CDs) to the message. But music is a great communicator.”

“I see a young man, running his machine… Just starting his life… He’s gonna take out a loan and build a home for his pretty young wife… He could be going downtown, just hanging around, but working’s what he wants to do.”

Asked whether these new songs the labor movement and its members would embrace these new songs, Neureuther – who plays the guitar and harmonica on four other songs on the latest CD, sings and writes, answers: “Most definitely. Back then, Joe Hill wrote for people on the picket line.  Now, we’ve come a long way. I think over time, the use of music fell to the side and you really didn’t hear a lot of (new) songs anywhere.”

“I’m walking the line, to make things better for you… There’s an old man, works in the foundry, 40 years stoking the fire. He moves a little slow, got two more to go before he can retire… He’s always been tough but he’s had enough of working ‘till he’s black and blue.”

The unioNation band started back in 2012, according to production manager and IAM education representative Henry Bagwell, who recently spoke to via phone from the union’s Offices in Hollywood, Md. “No union in the world is doing what we are in the IAM,” Bagwell told Western New York Labor Today.

“I’m walking the line, to make things better for you… Walking the line… Gonna stand straight and tall… Walking the line… All for one and one for all.

UnioNation’s first CD was simply titled Machinists Music Project, while its second CD is Wake Up, Rise Up, Stand Strong. It includes all original labor music by IAM members from Canada and across the U.S. who took part in the project.

The 25 unionists, most of whom had never met each other, worked to expand upon the mission of unioNation, Bagwell said: “To create and perform Workers’ music that motivates activism and that will be enjoyed by the masses.”

The group only had days to write, arrange, practice and perform original labor songs and the IAM members created 21 original songs that focused on workers and the struggles they endure -every day.

“It’s been an amazing trip. We didn’t know what to expect and we had no expectations whatsoever,” said Bagwell. “We originally put the call out and got around 23 musicians. Second time out, it was about 45. Many musicians told me pulling off what the IAM did ‘can’t be done.’ But when you put unionists and musicians together, you can do anything

We have a young sister, fitting up pipe, trying to make it on her own… She’s gonna raise her son, but it ain’t no fun when you’ve got to do it alone… Needs a new car but she won’t get far because her rent is overdue.

The IAM musicians gathered at a recording center in Maryland to work together to write and perform their songs. “We blocked out the studio for two solid weeks. We didn’t know what to expect. What we got were all kinds of songs, from rap to rock to country and jazz, but we knew it had to be music people would listen to today, not just the old stuff,” Bagwell told

I’m walking the line to make things better for you… I’m walking the line to make things better for you.

Neureuther originally found out what the IAM was doing through its union newsletter. Neureuther, who’s been playing music since the age of 7, and as an adult played in some local bands in the Buffalo area, said “it was a great experience for me, very cool.”

“I played guitar, the drums and the harmonica on some of the blues songs,” he said. “I’m very proud of it and I’m very thankful to Henry” Bagwell for letting him be involved.

Walking the line… Got our own point of view…

Asked what this updated version of labor songs could do for the labor movement as it continues to not only get its word out, but reach a diverse range of workers, both ethnically and by age, Neureuther said: “It’s a great way to get people to listen to the message.” Music is a “great (form of) communication,” Neureuther added.

“We’ve come a long way since the days of Guthrie and Hill, but use of music by labor to communicate its message just seemed to fall by the wayside. You just don’t hear a lot of those songs anymore.”

Walkin’ the line… Fighting for me and you…

Bagwell said “it was time to move forward on creating an alternative and up-to-date version of union songs, because all the old stuff wasn’t reaching the Labor audience of today.

Walkin’ the line… Never running out of steam…

And that was accomplished by these talented IAM members, including many “weekend players,” as well as some who had also played professionally in their lives, Bagwell said.

“They all left their egos at the door and helped each other out in order to make music for working people who would listen to it. Many of them said it was the most fun they have ever had. They played a two-hour concert and it was a big hit.”

Walking the line… Keeping the American Dream.

Tom Campbell is the editor and publisher of Western New York Labor


Tom Campbell
Tom Campbell

Tom Campbell is the editor of Western New York Labor Today.