Singing All the Way to the Union

University of Chicago students don’t lose themselves in old protest songs—they find themselves by creating a new public sphere.
By Joe Grim Feinberg

In early 1909, just over a hundred years ago, the Spokane, Washington, branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) put out the first edition of its “Little Red Songbook.” The initial print run of ten thousand sold out in a month, and the all-time bestseller of labor literature was born. Around that time, the IWW got a reputation as a “singing union,” and if today’s hard-nosed labor militants find the label quaint, the employing classes in 1909 took it seriously enough.

Later that year, the same Spokane branch of the IWW embarked on a massive free speech fight. The IWW was hurting the business of local “employment sharks,” who took money from the unemployed in exchange for promises of jobs—a situation surely familiar to graduate students who pay tuition for the privilege of offering the university their labor. IWW agitators would arrive on street corners, call on the crowds not to pay for work, and inform them that the union could find them better jobs than the sharks could. Whether to get the attention of the scattered and scurrying people, or to drown out the Salvation Army bands that tried to disrupt these public meetings, or to rouse workers on the street who might just have a “Little Red Songbook” in their pockets, the IWW speakers would also sing. Public agitation was an essential part of organizing, and song was essential to agitation.

This fact was not lost on the employment sharks, who convinced the city of Spokane to forbid the IWW’s street meetings. Hundreds of IWW members and sympathizers from around the country descended into the Spokane streets, singing and speaking and heading off to jail, week after week. After more than a thousand arrests, with the prisons full and the police overwhelmed, the city finally rescinded the new law. (For more on the Spokane free speech fight, see Wanted: Men to Fill the Jails of Spokane! by John Duda.)

Free speech had been won, not by the bourgeois intelligentsia that usually gets credit for such things, but by the organization and performance-artistry of the working class. While much of the “free press” was busy condemning the unionists who spoke out of place and out of turn, the Spokane fight became the model for a whole series of free speech victories for labor, which by 1920 had played a crucial part in the founding of the American Civil Liberties Union and in establishing the at least plausible semblance of free speech that still exists in this country today.

The University as a Proletarian Public Sphere

Today, we still complain about limits on our free speech. Yet we no longer agitate, and we rarely sing. And graduate students do so least of all. Why should we risk our voices and our dignity on such emotional kitsch as a song? As academics, we save our art for articles. Why should we risk our reputations by raising our voices like crazies before an itinerant crowd? We prefer the classroom’s preregistered calm. Cynicism has become our reigning politics; our leading aesthetic is an ironic remove. We deliberate coolly over “hot topics” in our academic journals and our laptopfilled cafés. Only on a night of drunken karaoke, when we can later say that we were not quite ourselves, might we allow ourselves an errant (and apolitical) melody. We have lost the ability to say, yes, “The earth will rise on new foundations!” as the “Internationale” sweeps over a gathered throng. We have lost the ability—not only because we have lost the hope, but because we have lost the crowd.

Yet graduate students, no matter how quiet voiced and library prone, are in a special position to revive the proletarian publicness that was at the center of the old free speech fights. This is not only because we make it our life’s work to learn things that the public might want to hear us say but also because the campus quad remains one of the few places in our society where crowds can still be found—where there is actually a public to hear our voice. In this country now, there are almost no true public squares, and the streets, even when filled (on rare occasions) with pedestrians, are too busy for an agitator’s idle chatter. Protests, parties, and street musicians all require permits; trains permit no solicitation; benches allow no loitering; and what is left is private property. Even written and electronic media offer little room for public engagement. Academic journals are meant for experts debating details, not for intellectuals debating society. On the Internet, each person chooses a favorite site; no one engages the whole. Television news is little more than business. Newspapers are the same—if they have managed to survive at all. Without the need for any law decreeing it, as in Spokane, the space of publicness has been pushed into the dark, divided into so many subcultures and interest groups and e-mail lists.

Work and school take place in highly regulated spaces, where publicness can be won and sustained only in struggle. Nonetheless, work and school are among the only spheres of life left where people meet without being thoroughly filtered first according to ideology or hobby or aesthetic style. And the university,at the intersection of work and study, presents a unique site for the development of publicness. On the one hand, the university is an unusual kind of workplace, designed according to the ideal of an independent scholarly community driven by public debate, which is one reason why universities have quads, while factories and offices have only break rooms. On the other hand, the university community is not and has never been a purely detached world of the mind.

In its very origin, the university was also a place of work, a collection of guilds founded by medieval students and instructors to negotiate ideals of craft and realities of labor exploitation. From loose networks of precariously living teachers and students, divided into differently funded disciplines and institutions, deprived of rights in the foreign cities where they came to teach and study, the universitas magistrorum et scholarium was born: a universal community of masters and students, founded to gain and defend scholars’ rights to live decently while pursuing their chosen trade. By organizing, these fragmented academic workers combined to form a public, grounded in a professional collectivity whose rebellious esprit de corps is expressed so vividly in Europe’s old goliard and commercium songs. The university was born as a union.

To be sure, the university public sphere has always been limited by a tendency to hide itself from the world (campus quads, at least in the North American architectural model, have arguably served as much to keep out the rabble as to gather the community of scholars). In the process, academics both protect their paltry privileges and deprive themselves of the opportunity to give public value to their work. And since the traditional bourgeois public sphere is disappearing, with its critical press and debatefilled cafés, the proletarian public sphere may offer the university its last best hope to say something to a listening world. By organizing, we can create a space where our work takes on new social meaning. And there may be no better place to begin than with graduate student workers, who occupy that sector of the academy where labor and scholarship are hardest to separate.

A New Solidarity

Two and a half years ago, when graduate students at the University of Chicago first set out to form a union, our hopes of success were slim, overshadowed by a feeling that students at such an elite institution, so focused on building individual careers, would have little interest in joining the labor movement and recognizing themselves as part of a working class. Certainly no one imagined that our cerebral bunch would devote itself enthusiastically to public agitation.

But after several large rallies, parties, and public forums, we have a sizable and growing membership; we have the ears of the student body; we have the attention of administrators as well as labor and community organizers from our neighborhood. Students from separate disciplines and workers from separate jobs, who would rarely have interacted before, now come together at our events and in the pages of our quarterly newsletter. We have laid the modest beginnings of a new solidarity and a new public sphere.

The revival of publicness involves a two-sided process. On the one hand, we must build the kind of sociality that makes public engagement possible. By bringing people together on the basis of solidarity, and by establishing that our collective voice has power, we begin to create the conditions under which it makes sense to speak and sing in public. We would be ill-advised, however, simply to wait for the new sociality to arise. We may have to go out of our way to distribute fliers and to shout, even amid a potentially unsympathetic crowd. We may have to sing— as I have done—soft ballads telling the stories that all graduate students share, stories of being lured into what seemed a dream job, a story that ends with a new invitation: join now in union. And I hope we will ultimately face one of the greatest tasks of the university today: to bring the city into the quad, to bring our debates into the public and the public into our debates, so that the center of campus becomes a new, shared town square.

Joe Grim Feinberg is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Chicago and an active member of Graduate Students United, the University of Chicago’s recently formed graduate student union. He is also a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and is helping to edit a thirty-eighth edition of the union’s “Little Red Songbook.” His e-mail address is [email protected].



Thank you for an excellent article. I will share this with my social work students. It is an inspiration to us all. Community is one of the most important losses of the last thirty years. Unions are another.

Keep up your singing. We cannot have a revolution without songs.
L. H.