A Movement That Sings (will never die)

Danny Blackman

As we don’t know any songs about trade union training (though doubtless some relevant parodies reverberated in the corridors of Clyde Cameron College from time to time), we offer you instead in this issue two very current Australian labour movement songs.
       Our first song is a reboot of that great labour movement favourite, Union Maid, written in 1940 by Woody Guthrie. When Sally McManus became Secretary of the ACTU in 2017, NTEU member Cathy Rytmeister rewrote the words as a tribute to Sally – the first woman to hold that office in the ACTU’s 90-year history.
       Cathy’s reboot version, Union Maid (Sally) is sung by a number of Australian union choirs, including the Sydney Trade Union Choir and the Brisbane Combined Unions Choir. Just as the original Woody Guthrie version changed over the years (an early third verse added by the Almanac Singers in the 1940s on the role of women unionists – to function as a Women’s Auxiliary to the real [male] trade union struggle – was replaced in the 1970s by a much more feminist verse by Nancy Katz)# there have been changes to the reboot version over its short life. Leadership struggles in the Coalition government resulted in the replacing of a specific reference to Malcolm Turnbull (‘the bosses’ pal Mal’) by a more general reference to ‘the bosses ‘n’ their pals’, and an initial reference to Ged Kearney in the last verse was changed in 2018 when Kearney achieved ALP preselection and was succeeded as ACTU President by Michele O’Neill.
       Our second song is the union choirs’ contribution to the ACTU’s 2018/2019 Change the Rules campaign, spearheaded by Sally McManus, which sought to convince the Australian public that the current industrial relations system was too heavily weighted in favour of employers and that legislative change was required to restore the rights of workers and their unions. When even the Reserve Bank was moved to comment that the absence of significant wage rises was seriously skewing the economy, it is hard to argue with the logic of the campaign. 
       Change the Rules Blues, written in 2018 by Queensland Nurses Union organiser, Annie Cowling, and the Brisbane Combined Unions Choir, details areas where workers’ rights need to be restored and provides body to the ACTU slogan. It is based on the Mean Call Centre Blues, by Maureen Lum and Peter Hicks of the Tasmanian Grass Roots Union Choir – a fine song which has been reinvented time and again as the Mean O’Farrell Blues, the Adani Blues and the Penalty Rates Blues, amongst others. Some songs just keep on giving.
       Change the Rules Blues has been sung by the Brisbane Combined Unions Choir and the Sydney Trade Union Choir (including, on one occasion, with visiting US labour movement singer George Mann at a union-sponsored concert at Sydney Trades Hall).

# Information about the historical evolution of Union Maid is drawn from Edith Fowke and Joe Glazer’s Songs of Work and Protest: 100 favorite songs of American workers, Dover Publications Inc., NY, 1973.

Union Maid (Sally McManus)

Reboot of Union Maid for Sally McManus, lyrics © Cathy Rytmeister 2017,*
original lyrics by Woody Guthrie 1940.

There once was a union maid, she never was afraid
Of the neo-cons and the alt-right nongs and the sleazy bosses who underpaid.
On the seven thirty Report, she told them what she thought:
That where an unfair law is found, we’ll always stand our ground.

This union maid was smart, she’d studied for her part.
She wouldn’t be bullied by Murdoch fools; she gave the workers hope and heart.
She helped us win our way when we struck for higher pay;
Turned up on time to the picket line, and this is what she’d say:               


Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union
I’m sticking to the union; I’m sticking to the union.
Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union,
I’m sticking to the union til the day I die.

This union maid called out to the workers round about
To remember those who went before, who fought and won and had some clout!
Wherever she appears, the workers stand and cheer!
To take the fight to the bosses ‘n their pals, we know we can trust our Sal! 

You workers who want to be free, just take a little tip from me:
Break out of that mould we’ve all been sold
and elect more women to take the lead!
There’s Sal, Michele and more, they’re fighting at the fore

Of a union movement proud and strong! So, hear us sing along:
Chorus x 2

*Lyrics reproduced by permission of Cathy Rytmeister

Change the Rules Blues

Lyrics by Annie Cowling and the Brisbane Combined Unions Choir 2018*

Well, our Unions are our living, we join because we care.
Our rights must be protected, so let’s change the rules we share.


We’ve got the blues!  Change the rules! We’ve got the blues! Change the rules!
Oh yeah, oh yeah, we’re gunna change the rules

Our right is to associate, secure our working rate.
Take action to get justice here, let’s change the rules we hate!

De doo doo doo doo…
What happened to the working wage? What’s hard with equal pay?
Big business wants to rule the roost, we wanna have our say!

Doo wop, wop, wop; a’singin’ doo wop, wop, wop
Regarding Health and Safety, the boss can’t set the bar.
We should all be safe at work, they’ve really gone too far!

De doo, doo, doo, doo….
Well, Sally is our leader, let’s back her all the way!
We Union members must unite so we can win the day!
Chorus                                     [Spoken]   Where are we going?

We’re going to the Union! The Union makes us strong.
We’ll fight for all our futures just like we do in song.           

Final chorus

Change the Rules!  We’ll beat the Blues! Change the Rules!  We’ll beat the Blues!
Oh yeah, oh yeah, we’re gunna change the rules,
Join up, and join the fight to Change the Rules!
Let’s fight to Change the Rules and beat the Blues! Oh Yeah!

*Lyrics reproduced by permission of Annie Cowling and the Brisbane Combined Unions Choir

  CORRECTION: In A Movement That Sings in Hummer vol. 11, no. 1 (2016) the choral arrangement of The Ballad of 1891 was incorrectly attributed to Doreen Bridges and Tom Bridges. Tom has pointed out that the arrangement is the original one written by Doreen  for the Unity Singers in 1951. Doreen also wrote the arrangement for The Ballad of Eureka, referred to in a footnote, but at a later date.