Song and struggle: “There is Power in a Union”

The Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, was founded in 1905 by a group of socialists, anarchists, and militant trade unionists. At the cutting edge of the labor radicalism, it allowed women, black, and immigrants to join the ranks of its members, who were called “Wobblies.”

The preamble to the constitution set out the organization’s premise:

“The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people, and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life…

“These sad conditions can be changed and the interests of the working class upheld only by an organization formed in such a way that all its members in any one industry, or in all industries, if necessary, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof, thus making an injury to one an injury to all.”

One Big Union was the idea. According to the theory, craft unions keep workers separate, but with OBU an injury to one can be responded to by all. Ultimately, OBU can organize the mass strike and seize the means of production for the working class. As a modern day Wobbly put it, “when the flight attendants, pilots, mechanics, and staff are in the same union, that’s when we’ll see an airline taken by workers.”

The idea of OBU is not outside of Marxist tradition. For instance, Engels thought, “At the side of, or above, the unions of special trades there must spring up a general union, a political organization of the working class as a whole.” Many IWW members went on to join the Communist Party founded after the Russian revolution, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Big Bill Haywood. It was a natural transition, as Wobbly-turned-Communist, J. P. Cannon, explained:

“The IWW, while calling itself a union, was much nearer to Lenin’s conception of a party of professional revolutionists than any other organization calling itself a party at that time. In their practice, and partly also in their theory, the Wobblies were closer to Lenin’s Bolsheviks than any other group in this country.”

Joe Hill’s song “There is Power in a Union” is from the heyday of the IWW’s OBU campaign. It is typical Hill – set to a religious tune, mocking religion, and urging workers to organize in the Big Union.


Would you have freedom from wage slavery
Then join in the grand Industrial band;
Would you from mis’ry and hunger be free,
Then come! Do your share, like a man.

There is power, there is power
In a band of workingmen.
When they stand hand in hand,
That’s a power, that’s a power
That must rule in every land
One Industrial Union Grand.

Would you have mansions of gold in the sky,
And live in a shack, way in the back?
Would you have wings up in heaven to fly,
And starve here with rags on your back?

If you’ve had ’nuff of the blood of the lamb,
Then join in the grand Industrial band;
If, for a change, you would have eggs and ham.
Then come! Do your share, like a man.

If you like sluggers to beat off your head,
Then don’t organize, all unions despise,
If you want nothing before you are dead,
Shake hands with your boss and look wise.

Come, all ye workers, from every land,
Come join in the grand Industrial band.
Then we our share of this earth shall demand.
Come on! Do your share, like a man.


By folk singer U. Utah Phillips:
Sung by a labor chorus:

Photo: Joe Hill, via Wikipedia