The Story Behind “Solidarity Forever”

The iconic labor song "Solidarity Forever" turns 109 years old today. Written in defiance of early 20th-century oppression, it railed against the forces that “would lash us into serfdom” with the abiding counsel that the “union makes us strong.”

Joseph J. Ettor, who had been arrested in 1912, giving a speech to barbers on strike. (Wikimedia Commons)

In an era where actual labor songs — of the sort popularized by Pete Seeger in the 1940s — are in short supply, Rage Against the Machine has become the quintessential representative of “protest music.” This is despite the fact that “Sleep Now in the Fire” is now over twenty years old. One could make the case that we are long overdue for more overtly pro-union, pro-worker anthems.

In a tragic instance of “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” we likely couldn’t find a more serviceable tune than one of the mainstays of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) trade union songbook. “Solidarity Forever” still resonates, even at 109 years old.

The song’s lyrics, referencing the “untold millions” who “stand outcast and starving,” might lead one to assume that the song was composed at the height of the Great Depression. But the fact that it was composed about fifteen years before the stock market crash of 1929 highlights that the oppression and hardship experienced by the American worker transcended the confines of the worst general economic crisis the nation faced in the twentieth century.

The song’s enduring relevance, mirroring the hardships and oppression experienced by millions of Americans today, underscores both its timelessness and universal message. Unfortunately, it also reminds us that many of the battles fought over a century ago have yet to be won.

Ralph Chaplin crafted the lyrics over the course of several years in the mid-1910s, finalizing them on January 15, 1915. Chaplin set the lyrics to the melody of “John Brown’s Body,” a popular Union marching song from the Civil War. Notably, Chaplin completed the song just six months before the execution of fellow IWW songwriter Joe Hill, credited with coining the term “pie in the sky” in his song “The Preacher and the Slave.”

Chaplin began writing the song three years earlier, while working as a journalist covering the Paint Creek–Cabin Creek Strike of 1912. The strike marked one of several bloody confrontations between striking workers and hired thugs over a roughly decade-long period known as the Mine Wars. The Mine Wars, in turn, were part of the broader Coal Wars, a series of labor conflicts in coal mining dating back to the 1870s.

In a tragically familiar tale, the strike, lasting from April 18, 1912, through July 1913, ended in considerable violence and suffering. While historical records note around fifty casualties on both sides, many more among the striking miners and their families are believed to have succumbed to malnutrition and starvation. The strike ranks as one of the most violent labor conflicts in American history, though it is somewhat overshadowed by later conflicts like the Battle of Blair Mountain and the Battle of Matewan (also known as the Matewan Massacre).

At the heart of the conflict was a difference of just two-and-a-half cents. The miners of the forty-one unionized Paint Creek mines received two-and-a-half cents less per ton of coal mined compared to their counterparts in Kanawha County, West Virginia. If the mine operators agreed to the terms, it would have cost about fifteen cents per miner per day (equivalent to just over $30 in current dollars).

The miners’ other demands were all quite reasonable as well: recognition of their union, respect of workers’ rights to free speech and freedom of assembly, fair payment for the coal they mined (with the right to independently verify weights measured and scales used), and the elimination of rules forcing miners to spend their pay at company stores.

Rather than agree to these reasonable terms, the mine operators chose violence, hiring the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to provide three hundred armed guards who quickly set up fortifications with machine gun posts. In response, Socialist Party activists sent the miners one thousand rifles and fifty thousand rounds of ammunition. Reciprocal acts of violence and sabotage became the norm. When state troops were called in to restore order and impose martial law, they disarmed the striking miners and carried out mass arrests.

“Solidarity Forever” was born of in this violent chapter of American labor history. Its subsequent popularity left Chaplin with serious misgivings, particularly due to what he perceived as the co-optation of the American labor movement. He was particularly leery about the song’s adoption by the AFL-CIO, which many Wobblies considered too conservative. Chaplin spelled out his misgivings about both the song and the movement it was born out of in a 1968 article for American West.

Despite these reservations, Chaplin’s lyrics remain impactful today because the fight for working people isn’t over. The United States is still controlled by the “greedy parasite who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might.” Child labor, once believed to have been eradicated through the militant labor struggles of a century ago, has reared its ugly head once more. Government remains passive and unconcerned about the plight of the working class, and issues like prison labor, flagrant workers’ rights violations, and abusive union-busting policies persist. Homeless encampments of working poor further highlight that, from the vantage point of an early twentieth-century militant labor activist, the America of 2024 wouldn’t seem all that unfamiliar.

Recent successes in labor organizing are undeniably inspiring, especially considering the opposition such efforts have faced. But the crisis of labor so aptly described in “Solidarity Forever” serves as a stark reminder that the fight is still far from over, and too much ground has been lost over the last forty years.

The key to understanding the potency highlighted in “Solidarity Forever” — and the reason it still serves as a beacon of hope for the future — lies in the song’s final verse:

In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold
Greater than the might of armies, magnified a thousand-fold
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old
For the union makes us strong

For Chaplin, the point wasn’t simply a New Deal or a Great Society, but a workers’ utopia. Lofty though it may sound now, such a goal is still worth fighting for.