In 1889, an international group of socialist party members and trade union representatives designated May 1 as a day in support of workers in commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Affair in Chicago and the subsequent trial and executions. Since then, May Day (also called Workers’ Day or International Workers’ Day) has been celebrated in many countries and recognizes the historic struggles and gains made by workers and the labor movement.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Chicago was a hotbed of activity for the labor movement. As such, the city was a creative center for working-class protest songs and poetry from about 1865 to 1920. Labor publications and organizations featured thousands of compositions by workers and their allies as they sought to rally support. Songs appeared in newspapers, songbooks, and posters, and at rallies, strikes, meetings, and social events. Literary and musical influences included folksongs, hymns, Civil War music, poetry, and literature. The majority offered social criticism and a prolabor message, but also addressed specific issues including wages, hours, strikes, among others.
After 1900, mainstream unions moved away from broad-based social reform, as well as cultural activities such as music and poetry. Additionally, workers began seeking their entertainment from the burgeoning popular culture industry. Radicals, however, maintained and refined the labor song tradition, producing important work. The Chicago-based Industrial Workers of the World (“Wobblies”) proved adept at the craft, publishing IWW songbooks that were often sold at protests for a few cents apiece. Singing at union gatherings would continue into the 1940s, as workers still sang Chicago “Wobbly” Ralph Chaplin’s famous 1915 labor hymn: “Solidarity Forever! For the Union makes us strong.” The days when labor songs permeated the labor movement, however, had passed.
Learn more about the history of labor songs in Chicago in our Encyclopedia of Chicago entry.
Image: Cover and pages from the Industrial Workers of the World songbook Songs of the Workers, 28th ed., July 1945. CHM Research Center, M1664.L3 I6. Photographs by CHM staff.