Rockin' solidarity


The Bones of Contention
Never Surrender Records/ICEM
Send US$18 c/- Labor Heritage Foundation, 815 16th St. N.W., Room 301, Washington, DC 20006

Review by Norm Dixon

"Is it really true what we're told? Is there 'no alternative' to cut-throat global competition? 'No alternative' to pushing down people's pay and pushing up their hours? 'No alternative' to throwing them out of work? No, it is not true. There is an alternative. It's called solidarity. And solidarity brings POWER. That is what these songs are about." — Not how most rock bands begin their CD album's liner notes. But the Bones of Contention are not your average rock 'n' roll band. They are proudly union and they kick (bosses') butt!

The Bones of Contention were formed in 1989, they boast, "to direct their creative talents to the struggles of the oppressed throughout the world".

Since then they have performed across the United States to support workers in struggle and causes that espouse freedom and justice.

In 1995, the Bones played for the delegates of the founding congress of the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions (ICEM), which represents 20 million affiliated workers worldwide. So impressed was the ICEM that it backed and distributed their first album, released on May Day last year.

The band is living proof that parts of the US labour movement remain dedicated to class struggle trade unionism to a degree that would make most Australian union officials blush.

Lead singer Joe Uehlein is president of the AFL-CIO endorsed Labor Heritage Foundation. The LHF's mission statement proclaims, "We base our work on the idea that music, visual art, drama, and other forms of cultural expression can be used to motivate, educate and unify working people in their struggles for justice in the workplace".

The LHF works with hundreds of US unions, at all levels, to build cultural activities into union organising.

While the Bones are clearly inspired by the example of the great labour organiser-troubadours of the past — Joe Hill (whose last will and testament is set to music on the album) and Woody Guthrie — and the radical wordsmiths of more recent times, they forgo the expected folk format for a toe-tapping, bum-wiggling blend of blue collar rock 'n' roll, electric blues, country rock and even rockabilly.

Opening track "Power", written by radical folkie John McCutcheon, is the ICEM's inspiring anthem and sets the album's theme. It urges workers to unite and organise globally to match the international power of corporations.

"There is power in the union/ There is power in our hands when we stand and fight together/ There is power in the union of many lands/ Come reach across the borders, come open up your eyes/ When we stand and fight together/ There is power when we organise."

In "Roll Right Over You", the Bones stand toe-to-toe with the bosses and spit in their eye: "You think some day you'll run this town the way you used to do/ You think you've got the game sewn up, but you haven't got a clue/ You think you're gonna get to have your cake and eat it too/ But we who believe in freedom, we who believe in brotherhood/ We who believe in the union/ we're gonna roll right over you."

Steve Magnusen's marvellously gritty, bar-room vocals are a highlight of this and several other tracks.

"Corporate Stomp" is a funny rockabilly swipe at corporate managers making a mint as they try to take back the bare minimum that workers earn: "I gotta scrimp and save just to get my lunch/ While the bosses seem a pretty wealthy bunch/ You know the CEO gets sixty grand a month/ Now when I retire, gonna buy me a big old van/ I'm gonna head down South and work upon my tan/ So I ain't gonna let 'em raid my pension plan."

"Overtime" describes the irony that while millions go without work, workers' physical and mental health is being damaged by increasing forced overtime and 12-hour shifts.

"We Just Come to Work Here, We Don't Come to Die" tells of the health and safety hazards workers face (and features the brilliant voice of Laurel Blaydes, who is also co-director of the LHF).

"Mean Things Happening in This Land", written by a black sharecropper in the 1930s, deals with the conditions faced by farm workers then and which still prevail.

The theme of solidarity and unity and the need to organise continues through rocking versions of "Which Side are You On", "Solidarity Forever", Woody Guthrie's "Vigilante Man", Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom" and the coal mining classic "Sixteen Tons" made famous by its refrain: "You load sixteen tons and what do you get/ Another day older and deeper in debt/ St Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go/ I owe my soul to the company store".

The Bones touch broader issues as well. "Harriet Tubman" celebrates the work of this freedom fighter during slavery times. Tubman helped organise the "underground railroad", a trail of secret hiding places that allowed slaves to escape north. Tubman went south 19 times, risking her freedom and her life, to help bring others out of slavery.

"Tiananmen" is dedicated to the democracy movement in China and those slaughtered at the Tiananmen massacre. The fight against war is the topic of "Season of Peace", written by Ki Sahn.

Power revels in the fact that workers united can change the world. Its motto can be summed up in the words taken from the constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World's Western Federation of Miners and set to music in "Step by Step": "Many stones can form an arch, singly none/ Drops of water turn a mill, singly none".

This album deserves to be widely distributed. Write and order a copy and ask your union (especially if it is affiliated to the ICEM) to order bulk copies.