Talking Union album cover with illustration of four band members

Socialist Song of the Month – Talking Union Blues, Almanac Singers

“Talking Union Blues” – Almanac Singers

In commemoration of May Day, this month’s Socialist Song of the Month is Talking Union Blues by the Almanac Singers, originally formed in 1940 by Millard Lampell, Lee Hayes, and Pete Seeger, and later joined by Woody Guthrie. This song was more or less a group effort. It was released on the album Talking Union in 1941, which included the well known song Union Maid.

The origins of May Day, or more formally, International Workers Day, had its origins in the fight for an eight hour work day. A mass strike in support of this first occurred in Victoria, Australia, on April 21, 1856, and this became an annual event. Agitation for an eight hour day eventually spread to the United States, leading to a mass strike in many cities starting on May 1, 1886. In Chicago, this ended with the Haymarket Square massacre on May 3. In spite of this, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, (later the American Federation of Labor, or AFL), the organizer of the strike, called for another one on May 1, 1890.

On July 15, 1889, an international convention of labor and socialist organizations gathered in Paris, calling itself the International Workers’ Congress, later to become known as the Second International. The eight hour day was high on its priorities. A member of the French delegation proposed an international labor stoppage on a given day. The American delegation proposed May 1, 1890 as that day.

While May 1 continues to be a public holiday in most countries, in the United States, the officially recognized day is the first Monday in September, established officially in 1887, fearing May 1 would become a commemoration of the Haymarket massacre. In further attempts to grind out the association of May 1 with working class agitation, May 1 was also designated as Loyalty Day in 1921 and Law Day in 1961.

For a more thorough retelling of the history of May Day, see here. For an account of the first meeting of the Second International, see here.


Now, if you want higher wages let me tell you what to do
You got to talk to the workers in the shop with you
You got to build you a union, got to make it strong
But if you all stick together, boys, it won’t be long
You get shorter hours, better working conditions
Vacations with pay. Take your kids to the seashore
It ain’t quite this simple, so I better explain
Just why you got to ride on the union train
‘Cause if you wait for the boss to raise your pay
We’ll all be a-waitin’ ’til Judgment Day
We’ll all be buried, gone to heaven
St. Peter’ll be the straw boss then
Now you know you’re underpaid but the boss says you ain’t
He speeds up the work ’til you’re ’bout to faint
You may be down and out, but you ain’t beaten
You can pass out a leaflet and call a meetin’
Talk it over, speak your mind
Decide to do somethin’ about it
Course, the boss may persuade some poor damn fool
To go to your meetin’ and act like a stool
But you can always tell a stool, though, that’s a fact
He’s got a yaller streak a-runnin’ down his back
He doesn’t have to stool, he’ll always get along
On body takes out of blind men’s cups
Well, You got a union now, and you’re sittin’ pretty
Put some of the boys on the steering committee
The boss won’t listen when one guy squawks
But he’s got to listen when the union talks
He’d better, be mighty lonely
Everybody decide to walk out on him
Suppose they’re working you so hard it’s just outrageous
And they’re paying you all starvation wages
You go to the boss and the boss would yell
“Before I raise your pay I’d see you all in hell.”
Well, he’s puffing a big cigar, feeling mighty slick
‘Cause he thinks he’s got your union licked
Well, he looks out the window and what does he see
But a thousand pickets, and they all agree
He’s a bastard, unfair, slavedriver
Bet he beats his wife
Now, boys, you’ve come to the hardest time
The boss will try to bust your picket line
He’ll call out the police, the National Guard
They’ll tell you it’s a crime to have a union card
They’ll raid your meetin’, they’ll hit you on the head
They’ll call every one of you a goddam red
Unpatriotic, Japanese spies, sabotaging national defense
But out at Ford, here’s what they found
And out at Vultee, here’s what they found
And out at Allis-Chalmers, here’s what they found
And down at Bethlehem, here’s what they found
That if you don’t let red-baiting break you up
And if you don’t let stool pigeons break you up
And if you don’t let vigilantes break you up
And if you don’t let race hatred break you up
You’ll win, What I mean, take it easy, but take it