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4:24 am
Sat February 9, 2013

NYC Labor Chorus Tries To Hit Right Note, Attract New Voices

Originally published on Mon February 11, 2013 3:15 pm

Union membership is at its lowest point since the 1930s. New figures show a drop, and only about 11 percent of workers belong to unions today.

But these numbers don't deter the New York City Labor Chorus, which has been singing in praise of unions for more than 20 years.

Jana Ballard, the choral director of the labor chorus, is one of the youngest in the group. She's 38. The average age of the 80 members is about 65.

Ballard grew up in Kentucky and now teaches voice and chorus at La Guardia High School — often called the Fame school — in New York City. She was intrigued when this job opening appeared, but she wasn't very familiar with labor songs.

"Even though I didn't know this music, it really hit home with me, because I understand working hard," she says. "I understand the struggles of working people."

Still, there were difficulties coming to a group of mostly elderly people, some of whom had been together for two decades. She says she's a strict teacher and her fellow songbirds were elders.

"I had to separate myself from that aspect and say, 'These are singers,' and then as we got better, people would stop and listen and pay attention," Ballard says. "And that's what I kept telling the group, 'The better we sound, [the more] people are going to pay attention to what we are singing.' "

When you hear the words "New York City Labor Chorus," you might expect old renditions of "Solidarity Forever" and "Union Maid" — which they do perform — being sung by aging voices. But don't underestimate them.

Chorus President Barbara Bailey recalls the inception of the chorus, when a crew of people from different unions realized that most members didn't have any knowledge of their history.

"The art of singing was being lost," she says. "A lot of union members don't know labor songs and don't know too much about labor. And we felt this would be a way of reintroducing it to some and introducing it to others."

The chorus has traveled to Sweden, Wales and Cuba. It has played at schools and strikes.

Susan Zugaib, the chorus secretary and head of the alto section, says you don't have to belong to a union to be in the chorus. "All that we ask is that you have the values and you are union sympathizers," she says.

But now that unions are weaker and under assault, the chorus is really trying to emphasize their importance, she says.

"We are forgetful; we take for granted all the advances we have made as if they would have just been there without unions," Zugaib says. She lists the 40-hour workweek, the weekend, job security, sick days as unions' efforts.

Betty Reid, a 63-year-old postal worker, says when they sing, they educate. "People will come and they'll say, 'I never knew that; I wasn't aware of that,' because a lot of this stuff is not really taught," Reid says.

Jerry Gillia, a 75-year-old former teacher, says he's a realist. Unions have shot themselves in the foot sometimes and done some bad things, he says. Most people don't understand the good that unions have done, Gillia adds.

So the question arises: Does participating in the chorus propel the union movement?

"Honestly I don't think it makes that much difference," he says.

But he and his wife keep coming back. "It gives us a chance to kind of keep our hand in," Gillia says. "We're still part of the fight, a small part, but part of the fight for the things we believe in."

When you listen to the chorus's previous recordings, it has clearly improved a lot. Its version of "Rocking Solidarity" has a soloist who could be the star of a great gospel choir.

Despite this spirit, given the weakening of unions, can a new generation be attracted to these struggles and these songs?

Bailey notes that young people today often have two or three jobs, leaving them with no time to attend rehearsals. Yet to survive, she says, the chorus needs to attract a new generation.

"Somebody has to take over from us," she says. "I have been with the chorus some 20 years and somebody has to move into this spot."

It's not clear whether that will happen, regardless of the beauty of the music.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And the nation's postal workers aren't the only ones facing shrinking job prospects. Union membership is at its lowest point since perhaps the 1930s. Just over 11 percent of U.S. workers currently belong to a labor union. But a group of activists known as the New York City Labor Chorus is trying to make the labor movement resonate by giving voice to some old labor ballads. NPR's Margot Adler reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JANA BALLARD: Basses - ta. Tenors, ta, ta. Ready, and go.

NEW YORK LABOR CITY CHORUS: (Singing) Yes, you're going to make a friend of the workers...

MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: Jana Ballard is the choral director of the New York City Labor Chorus. She's 38, which among this group is young. The average age of the 80 or so members is about 65. Ballard grew up in Kentucky and now teaches voice and chorus at LaGuardia High School, often called the "Fame" school. She was intrigued when this job opening appeared. She never knew any labor songs.

BALLARD: Even though I didn't know this music, it really hit home with me because I understand working hard, I understand the struggles of working people.

ADLER: Still, there were difficulties coming to a group of mostly elderly people, some of whom had been together for two decades. I'm a strict teacher, she says, and these were my elders.

BALLARD: But I had to separate myself from that aspect and just think these are singers. And then as we got better, people would stop and listen and pay attention. And that's when I kept telling the group, you know, the better we sound, people are going to pay attention to what we're singing.

ADLER: Now, I'm going to confess - when I heard about the New York City Labor Chorus, I expected some old renditions of "Solidarity Forever" and "Union Made," and they do those songs. I thought aging voices, old songs. I was not prepared for what I heard at a simple rehearsal in an office at the headquarters of the United Federation of Teachers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "STAND UP FOR WORKERS")

CHORUS: (Singing) Some ask, why do we still have unions? Some ask, what have they done for me? Some ask, aren't they the workers' burden? Their time's come and gone. But we're here to disagree.

ADLER: Chorus president Barbara Bailey remembers the chorus started when a bunch of people from different unions realized that most union members have no knowledge of their history.

BARBARA BAILEY: The art of singing was being lost. A lot of union members don't know labor songs and really don't even know too much about labor and we felt that this would be a way of reintroducing it to some and introducing it to others.

ADLER: The chorus has traveled to Sweden, Wales and Cuba. They've played at schools and at strikes. You don't have to belong to a union to be in the chorus, says Susan Zugaib, who is the secretary and head of the alto section.

SUSAN ZUGAIB: All we really ask is that you have the values and that you are union sympathizers.

ADLER: But now that unions are weaker, under assaults, she says, they're really trying to emphasize their importance.

ZUGAIB: Because, you know, we are forgetful and we take for granted all the advances we've made as if they would have just been there without unions.

ADLER: Like the 40-hour week, the weekend, job security, sick days, she says. Betty Reid, a postal worker just turning 63, says when they sing they also educate.

BETTY REID: People will come and they'll say I never knew that, I wasn't aware of that, because a lot of this stuff is not really taught.

ADLER: Jerry Gillia, a former teacher, is 75 and in a wheelchair. He says he's a realist. Unions have shot themselves in the foot sometimes, done some bad things and most people don't understand the good they've done. As to whether singing in the chorus helps the union movement...

JERRY GILLIA: Honestly, I don't think it makes that much difference. I've thought about it and wondered how could we approach it to convince people and let them understand that the effect that the union movement had on this country?

ADLER: So why do he and his wife keep coming back?

GILLIA: It gives us a chance to kind of keep our hand in. We're still part of the fight, and a small part, but part of the fight for the things that we believe in.

ADLER: When you listen to the old CDs of the chorus, they've clearly improved a lot. Here they are at the rehearsal with their version of "Rocking Solidarity."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKING SOLIDARITY")

CHORUS: (Singing) They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn. But without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel could turn. We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn - it's the union, yes - the union makes us strong.

ADLER: Despite this spirit, can a new generation be attracted to these struggles and these songs, given the weakening of unions? Barbara Bailey notes that young people today often have two or three jobs, no time to come to rehearsals. Yet to survive, the chorus needs to attract a new generation.

BAILEY: Somebody has to take over from us. You know, I've been with the chorus, you know, like 20-something years, and somebody has to move in this spot.

ADLER: It's not clear if that will happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKING SOLIDARITY")

CHORUS: (Singing) ...the union makes us strong.

ADLER: Margot Adler, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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