Union Songs Make Us Strong, No. 3

USMUS is an IW column dedicated to the intersection of music and worker struggle.

“It’s an 80-10-10 split,” says Noah W, James Connolly Upstate New York IWW Branch Secretary Treasurer. “80 to our general fund, 10 to direct worker relief, 10 to our strike fund.”

Since Industrial Worker last checked in with the Upstate NY IWW General Membership Branch, the group has released two benefit albums and tripled in size. “Rebel Tongues Living Tongues” was released in May 2022, a collection of 18 tracks in three languages featuring over a dozen artist contributions.

“Whenever the occasion calls for it, we have a lot of musicians in the branch,” says Noah.

Starting from a core group of musicians within the branch, they began collecting songs toward producing a benefit album. Musician-members including George Mann, Charlie King, Magpie and Fellow Worker M contributed renditions of original and traditional pro-worker songs, recorded in local studios. Noah said FW M also was responsible for a lot of the artist coordination, which included some 50 cold calls via the music platform Bandcamp.

“All credit to William Russell, who as far as upstate New York recording for labor artists in our scene [goes]? Good guy. Really solid guy,” Noah says. They gave a shout out to  the musicians also. “It really means a lot that they helped us out, especially Magpie. They’ve contributed a lot to the branch.”

At the time they were working on the first album, the James Connolly branch was growing and so were their expenses. They put out the benefit album and were able to weather some turbulence in the national organization that delayed dues remittances. Noah said growing from 50 to 170 members in a short amount of time would have led to temporary negative fund balances regardless, if not for the proceeds from “Rebel Tongues.”

“It really helped ease the growing pains,” they said. “Now we’re past the growing pains but we’ve got, well, other pains.”

They followed up a year later with “We Will All Sing One Song,” a 23-track collection that includes more experimental and free-form tracks, as well as contributions from the Kansas City Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC). Noah called this the “most coordinated part,” which brought contributions from artists Unknown Prole and Zero Prophet to the collection.

“A lot of these songs were also played at our yearly Connolly memorial,” said Noah.

During our interview, Noah was preparing for an in-person Organizer Training 101 session being hosted by the Upstate NY GMB. Workers from Boston, Buffalo, and Vermont were taking part. Noah said New York IWW chapters from Rochester, upstate, and NYC gathered a couple of years ago and more recently at an IWW Northeast Organizing Summit.

“More capacity is the issue facing every branch in the northeast.”

Noah said they’re not a musician. “I know nothing about music but they said, ‘this is a secretary duty,’” Noah added. “At my last training there was a semi-spontaneous singing of Solidarity Forever and The International.”

Whether raising spirits at a training session or financial lifeblood for a union branch, Union Songs Make Us Strong—Solidarity Forever.

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