On his groundbreaking new album, Phil Monsour makes union struggles rock – Green Left Weekly
Monday, September 25, 2017
One Song One Union
In August 2015, 97 wharfies employed by Hutchison Ports in Brisbane and Sydney awoke to emails and text messages informing them they were sacked. Not enough work to go around, the company said.
Within 24 hours, trade unionists had established community picket lines at both ports and the Maritime Union of Australia was in court seeking reinstatement orders. As news spread, supporters began making their way to the picket camps.
In Brisbane, one of the earliest to attend was activist-musician Phil Monsour. Like he’d done during the Children’s Hospital dispute in 2012, the Patrick waterfront lockout in 1998 and as far back as the SEQEB electricity workers dispute in 1985, Monsour was there with his guitar to show solidarity and contribute music to the struggle.
Standing on a concrete barrier next to the gates to Hutchison’s terminal, he played union standards and songs of his own, and spoke about the importance of workers sticking together. The sacked wharfies and their supporters responded warmly.
Monsour had been introduced to the crowd by the MUA’s newly-elected Queensland secretary, Bob Carnegie. In his speech, Carnegie emphasised that rank-and-file solidarity and resilience were essential to victory.
To beat the bosses, he said, the union had to stick it out “one more day than them”. It was a powerfully simple message and the words stuck in Monsour’s brain.
Within days of hearing the slogan, he had turned it into the title and refrain of a new song. “One More Day than Them” is a tribute to the fighting spirit of the Hutchison workers. The song transcends the particular events of its making to offer a universal message of inspiration to people resisting the power of capital.
Six months later, Monsour was on a picket line with his guitar again, this time outside the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in South Brisbane. An injured refugee child — Baby Asha — and her mother in the hospital were being threatened with relocation back to Australia’s infamous immigration detention centre in Nauru.
The community and unions had mobilised for a round-the-clock vigil to prevent their forced removal. Out of that experience Monsour wrote “Let Them Stay”. Again, he drew on the particular events to make a broader point, in this case about the hypocrisy and brutality of Australia’s offshore refugee processing regime.
Inspired by these two events, Monsour conceived an album that would feature new labour songs, each work commissioned by an individual union with lyrics reflecting the issues and experiences of its members.
The Queensland Council of Unions and six unions signed up for the project: the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), the Queensland Nurses and Midwives’ Union (QNWU), United Voice, the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU), the Queensland Teachers’ Union (QTU) and the Electrical Trades Union (ETU).
The album that resulted, One Song One Union, was launched in May. It features “Let Them Stay”, which Monsour dedicated to the Refugee Action Collective, and seven union songs: “One More Day than Them” (for the MUA), “Still Need a Union” (QCU), “Better Work Better Life” (QNWU), “One United Voice” (United Voice), “What Will Our Children Do?” (AMWU), “Stand Together” (QTU) and “Not for Sale” (ETU).
It also includes two covers Monsour regularly performs live — “Solidarity Forever” and the Warumpi Band’s “Blackfella Whitefella” — plus two other compositions of his own, “Who Killed Reza Berati?” and “Stand with Us”.
One Song One Union is a fascinating and absorbing CD that breaks new ground in the relationship between popular music and organised labour.
The folk tradition, both in its acoustic and electric forms, and the community-based choral tradition, boast rich histories of writing and recording union songs and supporting the struggles of working people. But even they have rarely witnessed such a systematic creative collaboration between musicians and trade unionists.
On the other hand, within Monsour’s own field, rock music, contributions to the labour cause have been rarer. When Bob Dylan went electric, he wrote great songs, but left behind his already tenuous connection to the union movement.
This seemed to confirm a pattern. Rock’s politics can be progressive, even revolutionary, but the detached and self-obsessed lifestyle associated with it tends to be at odds with the traditional collectivism of organised labour.
Above all, rock is an industry, controlled by moguls interested only in selling “product”. Folk has its commercial side too, but the quintessentially democratic nature of the acoustic form has kept it closer to its roots.
Purveyors of labour movement rock’n’rollhave been like flashes in the night sky. Rock Against Racism in Britain in the 1970s showed what was possible. And who can forget The Clash’s “Know Your Rights”?
Taking a more systematic approach, a few musician-activists like Billy Bragg and Alistair Hulett have cultivated the solidarity possibilities of punk’s DIY ethic. Hulett’s outfit Roaring Jack was arguably the political highpoint of this development.
These pioneers, however, failed to launch a tradition. Tellingly, after Hulett’s band folded he reverted to conventional folk as a solo performer. And Bragg’s music has always been closer to electric folk anyway. One can easily imagine his great labour anthem, “Power in the Union”, in the repertoire of a Woody Guthrie or a Pete Seeger.
So now Monsour has stepped forward, a trailblazer for the concept of rock’n’roll as a tool of union mobilisation. This courage, in the end, is what makes the songs on One Song One Union so different, surprising and fresh.
This is union music that packs a sonic wallop, delivered with an energy and verve of which Joe Strummer would have been proud. Even “Solidarity Forever” gets a punkish makeover here.
The tempo is upbeat and the choruses big and infectious; the songs are built on tight, insistent drumming combined with Monsour’s signature emphasis on guitar, bulked up with a driving brass section to create a sound not dissimilar to Hunters and Collectors in their heyday or the recent touring bands of Bruce Springsteen.
Of the few slower songs on the CD the standout is “Let Them Stay”, a stunning ballad in which Monsour’s aching vocals are accompanied by a single austere keyboard.
Probably the closest we have to a precursor for the One Song One Union project is Mark Seymour’s album Westgate, which included songs that emerged from his collaboration with the Victorian Trades Hall and the CFMEU. But whereas Seymour’s foray was tentative and his union references understated, Monsour’s project constitutes a total engagement.
It takes union collaboration to a new level, informed by Monsour’s lifelong commitment to working-class emancipation and his position as a worker-activist within the very struggles he writes about. This is music from the inside, and it shows.
The songs are constructed to be sung by unionists and not just at them. They are, in the deepest sense, songs of defiance, designed to lift the spirits and engage the passion of people involved in the struggles of the day.
They may be rock’n’roll, but they are also picket line songs, union hall songs, songs for collective participation, calling out for combined voices. They would make terrific soundtracks for union rallies or organising videos.
One Song One Union is a testament to the value of music in politics. It is also an important historical document, articulating our situation.
The songs tell of a workers’ movement on the defensive. Market forces push into our public services, wharfies are sacked in the night, wages stagnate, shifts are long and dangerous, refugees are murdered with impunity. “What will our children do?”, Monsour asks, echoing the fears of AMWU members whose jobs are disappearing.
But pessimism never swamps the recording. There is plenty of hope here. The Hutchison workers walk back through the gates. Baby Asha is allowed to remain in Australia.
Teachers and nurses hold the line in defence of the services they deliver. The ETU defeats another push for privatisation. The album resonates with the message of defiance. It celebrates our determination and resilience. It defines our heroism.
As Monsour sings in “Let Them Stay”:
Tales of heroes and sacrifice
Shared on the national day.
My heroes spend a night at a hospital
To stop a child being taken away.
One Song One Union is full of lyrical gems like this. Get a copy and play it at your next union meeting. Play it with the volume up.
New Song and Video – Voices Rising by Phil Monsour was commissioned by the Queensland Teachers’ Union for the GA Daughtrey Art Collection. The song features as a bonus track on the One Song One Union album special edition.
New album of contemporary trade union and solidarity songs featuring one song dedicated to each union.
This album came to life on two picket lines. The first at the Brisbane waterfront. The shipping giant Hutchison fired half its workforce by text message. One More Day than Them is inspired by the Maritime Union’s fight for the workers. After 100 days of picketing they defiantly walked back through the gates!
The second picket line at a children’s hospital – brave medical workers refused to discharge injured refugee child Asha into Australia’s infamous offshore detention prisons. Let Them Stay was written then. In a small victory, baby Asha and her family were allowed to remain, all be it, in community detention.
This album reflects this trade union resistance, with a song dedicated to each participating union. For a year I met with them and wrote songs to capture their defiant spirit. Themes often overlapped: the fight for safe and fair conditions, decent wages, secure jobs and respect. I hope this collection can play a part, however small, in the fight for justice.
Participating unions include the Maritime Union of Australia, the Electrical Trades Union, the Queensland Teachers’ Union, the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union, the Queensland Nurses and Midwives’ Union, United Voice and the Queensland Council of Unions.
Recorded by Joe Panetta Mixed and mastered by Joe Panetta Produced by Joe Panetta and Phil Monsour Wavelength Recording Brisbane 2012
hil Monsour: Vocals, Acoustic and Electric Guitars. Joe Panetta: Drums, Percussion, Bass, and Electric Guitar. Graham Perrett: Keyboards. Eddie Claxton and Ian Stenning: Trumpet and Flugelhorn. Kevin Skues: Trombone. Backing Vocals: Simon Monsour, Joe Panetta, Members of the Brisbane Combined Unions Choir: Kay Byrne, Marya McDonald, Annie Cowling, Denis Humes, Brian Prideaux, Denis Peel, David Tulip. Vicki Smyth, Janet Bailie, Annie Cowling (Better Work Better Life). Anna Dart, Ella Duncombe, Megan Thomson (Stand Together). Brass arrangements by Bryan Pearson and Graham Perrett.Insert photographs: Michael Oliver.Recorded by Joe Panetta. Additional recording Phil Monsour. Mixed and Mastered by Joe Panetta. Produced by Phil Monsour and Joe Panetta.
The One Song One Union album of songs began on two picket lines. The first was at the Brisbane waterfront where the shipping giant Hutchison had sacked half its workforce by text message in the middle of the night. The song One More Day than Them was written after listening to the great socialist trade union leader Bob Carnegie speak about the Maritime Union’s determined fight for the reinstatement of the sacked workers. After 100 days of picketing and protesting the sacked workers walked back through the gates.
The second picket line was outside a children’s hospital in Brisbane from which medical workers were refusing to discharge an injured refugee child back into one of Australia’s infamous offshore immigration detention prisons. During the more-than 10 day, around-the-clock picket we sang songs like Solidarity Forever as hundreds of workers from 16 or so unions gathered to support the action of the staff inside. The song Let Them Stay was written at this time. In a small victory, baby Asha and her family were allowed to remain in community detention in Australia.
The idea then developed to write one new song for each union. I met with unionists, gathering inspiration and writing songs that attempted to capture the spirit of their union in 2017. All the songs were recorded with a seven piece band and many include union members singing their unions song. Members of the Brisbane Combined Union Choir have also sung on a number of tracks.
The themes often overlapped: the fight for safe and fair conditions, decent wages, secure jobs and respect. The lyrics attempt to capture something of the universal flavour of labour struggles, while also expressing the particular ideas and concerns of the workers who inspired the songs. I hope the collection can play a part, however small, in the continuing fight for freedom, justice and equality for all, and help give voice to the coming struggles of working people.
Participating unions include the Maritime Union of Australia, the Electrical Trades Union, the Queensland Teachers’ Union, the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union, the Queensland Nurses’ Union, United Voice and the Queensland Council of Unions.
One Song One Union – Solidarity Forever
Please share this project with anyone who would be interested
Christchurch – Friday 7 April, 7PM
Knox Church Hall, 28 Bealey Ave, Christchurch Central.
Wellington – April 8th 6.30pm
Old St Pauls, 34 Mulgrave St, Thorndon Wellington 6011
Auckland – Sunday April 9 6PM
Dorothy Winston Centre, 16 Howe street Freemans Bay
Excited to be joining Rafeef Ziadah for multiple dates in Europe to promote the We Teach Life CD this spring. Including the International Literature Festival Dublin on 22 May.
See you there!
Saturday May 14 – 7.30pm
Venue: Coventry Ego Arts Cook Street Coventry, CV1 1JN
Sunday May 15 – 6pm
Venue: Birmingham Midlands Arts Theatre Cannon Hill Park Birmigham B12 9QH
Wednesday May 18 – 8pm
Venue: Cork An Spailpin Fanach – 27 – 29 South Main Street Cork.
Friday May 20 – 8pm
Venue: Sligo Hawk’s Well Theatre Temple Street, Sligo.
Saturday May 21 – 8pm
Venue: Limerick Belltable Arts Centre, 69 O’Connell St, Limerick.
Sunday May 22 – 8pm
Venue: Dublin, The Peacock, The Abbey Theatre, Dublin 1
Thursday May 26 – 8:00 pm
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Friday May 27 – 7:30
Venue: Bristol Palestine Museum 27 Broad Street, BS1 2HG Bristol
Saturday May 28 – 7:30pm
Geneva Literary Aid Society
Venue: Geveva 20 Rue Verdaine, 1204 Geneva (at Place du Bourg-de-Four)
Sunday May 29 – 7:30pm
Venue: Newcastle – The Cluny 1 36 Lime Street NE1 2PQ Newcastle upon Tyne