In August 2018, the New Economics Foundation organised a day school on ‘How to Win at Work’, with trade union activists and organisers from the IWGB, UVW, Unite, the Bakers’ Union, BECTU, IWW, UCU, and RMT.
Daniel Randall, a railway worker and RMT rep, was on the organising committee for the event, and gave the closing speech. We publish a slightly edited version of the speech here.
My name is Daniel Randall; I’m a railway worker and a rep in the RMT union, and I’ve played a small role in helping to organise today’s event. Thank you all for coming today, and particular thanks to those comrades who’ve worked so hard to organise this.
We’re going to conclude by attempting a collective sing-along to the classic labour-movement anthem ‘Solidarity Forever’; there’s a proud and rich tradition of song in the labour movement, somewhat depleted of late, and we’re going to try to do our little bit here today to help revive it.
This also gives me an opportunity to tell you something about the history of the song, and in so doing offer some closing remarks for today’s event.
The song was written by the American socialist and union activist Ralph Chaplin, begun in 1914 while he was involved in supporting a miners’ strike in West Virginia, and completed in 1915 during a demonstration in Chicago. Chaplin was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW, a radical trade union that sought not only immediate gains and reforms, but the overthrow of the entire capitalist system.
As well as being a rousing song, it’s also a series of political lessons. It’s a lesson about the need to organise collectively: “what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one?”, says the opening verse. Without collective organisation, workers are individual foot-soldiers under the command of capitalist generals, a piece of equipment in the hands of a boss. With collective organisation, we can discover our power; indeed, reclaim our dignity, and our humanity.
It’s also a very fundamental lesson about how capitalism works. In the daily grind of working life, it’s easy to feel like the boss has all the power. But, as the song reminds us, the bosses’ profits were created by us, by our labour: “It is we who ploughed the prairies; built the cities where they trade; Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid”…
You can adapt that for your own work: whether you’re serving drinks or hamburgers, or couriering them around for a takeaway app; whether you’re checking tickets in a cinema; whether you’re cleaning a university or teaching in one; driving or fixing a train, or cleaning a train station… whatever work you do, it’s your labour that creates wealth. Workers make the world move. As the song says later: “Without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn”.
Arriving at these fundamental realisations is the beginning of what’s called class consciousness; realising that we are not powerless but, when combined in common organisation in the workplace, immensely powerful. As the last verse of the song puts it: “In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold; Greater than the might of armies, multiplied a thousand-fold.
“The union makes us strong”, the song tells us. Union, combination, the act of collective organisation in the workplace, at the site of capitalist exploitation: that is how we unlock and activate our strength and power.
But the history of the song is also a lesson about how we have to struggle for change within our own unions, and our own movement, as well as within society. Since 1915 the song has become adopted very widely as a kind of unofficial hymn of the whole trade union movement, but Chaplin was none too please that his song had been appropriated by union leaderships who clearly did not share its radical perspective. He would write, in 1968, that “when the labour movement ceases to be a cause and becomes a business, the end product can hardly be called progress.”
That is a sentiment that I’m sure will resonate with many people in the room. To transform society, we must also transform our movement, constantly organising to make our unions more democratic, more active, more responsive to the daily struggles of us, rank-and-file union members, organising in the workplace.
“Solidarity forever” is the song’s title and refrain. What does it signify, this word “solidarity”, this word that we hear so often in our movement that it can cease to have any meaning?
Is it simply expressing support for the campaigns of strikes of other groups of workers in other unions? Visiting picket lines, making donations to strike funds? It is all these things, but it’s more than that.
Solidarity is the foundational principle of working-class organising and resistance. Solidarity means: your struggle is my struggle. Solidarity, common organisation, common struggle, is our weapon. The bosses have their profits; they have their state, with its immigration controls, its police, its anti-union laws, its prisons, its courts. We have only solidarity. But, expressed in its highest form, this weapon is more powerful than any the bosses possess.
Our struggles can win. They can win material gains and improvements to our lives at work. But they can do more than this: they can change the world. Combined, developed, spread, animated by political ideas, and led by all of us as class-conscious worker-activists, refusing to be outcasts or mindless drones for a boss, they can replace a system run in the interests of profit with a system run in the interests of human need.
“We can bring to birth the new world from the ashes of the old”, runs the last line of the song’s final verse. Solidarity is our mechanism for doing that; our struggle aims to elevate solidarity from the organising principle of resistance to the governing principle of society.
Thank you all again for coming today. Today’s event has been a modest effort. For some of us, perhaps just the beginning of a journey into ongoing activism and organising; for others of us, a reminder of some fundamental lessons. It might seem overblown to close today by talking about changing the world, but we owe it to each other to have broad horizons. There is an organic relationship, acorn to oak tree, between the discussions we’ve had, the lessons we’ve learnt, and the links we’ve forged today, and our ability to catalyse and shape struggles that can change the world. Take the principles and lessons of today, and the song with which we’re finishing it, back into your workplace:
“Solidarity forever; the union makes us strong.”
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