Labor Day in America is a sad and strange thing. While most people in the country use this day off to mark the unofficial end of summer, hang out with friends and family at a barbecue, and take advantage of various online and in-store deals for shit they don’t need, the holiday has a more serious meaning.
Formally recognized by Congress in 1894 as a federal holiday, Labor Day was a way for people to remember the workers’ struggles over the years following the spread of mass industrialization. Back then, workers of all ages — even children — were forced to work six days a week and for extremely long hours while only earning pennies a day.
Strikes happened. People died. And as a result of even more struggles over the years, unions fought so you can now have a 40-hour work week, kids are able to get an education instead of work, and you get to enjoy a whole list of freedoms.
But the bosses won out in the end it seems, because Labor Day is now more about sales and consumption than workers’ rights.
To remember the men and women who stood their ground against powerful moneyed interests for better pay and wages (and to remind ourselves of the better conditions we should have today), here’s a list of 10 metal songs that hit at the heart of labor and the worker’s plight.
Panopticon – Black Soot and Red Blood
Meet them in the streets
Meet them in the hollers
Meet them in the hills and don’t back down, don’t back down
Fight for what is right, for every working man to earn his keep
Fight for what is right till they meet your demands…in Bloody Harlan
Growing up, Americans are barely taught about the labor movement outside of “there were strikes and good things came as a result.” The reality, however, is often bloodier than we learn.
In Panopticon‘s fifth album Kentucky, the American black metal band mixes bluegrass, Americana, and US black metal to tell the tale of “Bloody Harlan,” or the Harlan County War of 1931. In that incident, striking coal miners fought for almost a decade to be able to unionize, let alone get better working conditions and wages.
As a result, employers fired union members and evicted them from company homes before eventually hiring thugs and using local police to meet them with violence. Bombings, executions, and gunfights took place. Ultimately, the miners were able to form a union and fight for better conditions.
“Black Soot and Red Blood” deals with these skirmishes and the union members’ willingness to lay down their lives for their cause. It even includes samples of coal workers describing what they remembered from those times.
Power Trip – If Not Us Then Who
Take a look at your life, tell me to what do you aspire?
I want to know how far you’re willing to go
Can’t stop the force of ruin, this world will run through you
If not now, then when?
If not us, then who?
Now, we know this song is based on a quote made by the late civil rights leader and U.S. Representative John Robert Lewis about the struggle for equal rights, but this song by Power Trip off of *Nightmare Logic *easily fits within most social struggles. The line “If not us, then who” would fit just as well in an early 1900s’ coal miners’ picket line as it would in a civil rights march in the ’60s.
Many times, picketers, strikers, and union members would push their fellow workers into action by explaining that inaction only helped the bosses exploit them further. “If Not Us Then Who” can serve as a rallying cry for many social fights.
Mastodon – Workhorse
Like a workhorse stands for miles
Work for you, never get tired
Roll ’em up, it’s time to go
We’ll be back before it’s too long
It doesn’t matter how much you love your job, work sucks. This song by Mastodon, off the 2002 album Remission, equates modern wage work to slavery. It acknowledges that without work, you couldn’t live in a capitalist society, but it ultimately breeds a living condition where you wake up, go to work, go to sleep, and go back to work — hence the “we’ll be back before it’s too long line.”
When the band used to play this song live, Brent Hinds has been filmed introducing it by saying “this song is about work. Work fucking sucks.”
Indeed it does, Brent. Indeed it does.
Primitive Man – Commerce
Of the bottle
Of the socio-economic slavery
And runs my life
Colorado doom band Primitive Man effectively nail the damn near nihilistic existence of wage work with their track “Commerce.” Slow and brooding, this track hits on the desolation that many people face staring down the barrel of a senseless routine that many labor organizers fought to avoid.
The song talks about being “overworked, underpaid from a system that’s meant to fail us” which is something most people can relate to. When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, or working two jobs just to stay afloat and keep a roof over your head, you’re living a life that the folks behind Labor Day wanted to make sure never happened.
Dystopia – Stress Builds Character
I work my fingers to the bone just to survive
I gotta get money, so I can have a home
So I can breathe, eat, and live in this society
I don’t even like money
“Stress builds character” is about as close to a talking point as you’ll hear from some politicians in DC when it comes to things like student debt reform or the minimum wage. “Stress Builds Character” by Dystopia is all about how we’re forced to be miserable in a society that traps us with low or stagnant wages and rising costs.
Lines like “I can’t survive on this pay anymore” and “I need a raise, man” are immediately relatable to anyone that’s worked for minimum wage. All so they can just “breathe, eat, and live in this society.”
Corrosion of Conformity – The Moneychangers
Now in the matrix take your place.
They’ll tap your labor and your light.
Gain euphoria, from your paranoia.
Back in the days before Pepper Keenan or Karl Agell served as Corrosion of Conformity‘s frontman, the band was known as a punky crossover outfit fronted by bassist Mike Dean. During that time, they talked a lot about social and political problems. Yet when Pepper was off playing in Down, the band reunited under that original lineup and released a self-titled album in 2012.
In a return to their punk/stoner/crossover ways, the band put out “The Moneychangers,” a fast and to the point song that uses some religious imagery to decry how employers “set the bait” (aka a job) and when you think you’re blessed and say “yes” to the new gig, “that’s when you know the trap is set.” You’re theirs to exploit because unionization support in the U.S. has been gutted for so long.
Ozzy Osbourne – Working Class Hero
When they’ve tortured and scared you for 20 odd years
Then they expect you to pick a career
When you can’t really function, you’re so full of fear
A working class hero is something to be
Originally a John Lennon song, Ozzy‘s cover of “Working Class Hero” is a somber reminder that in its current form, you’re born into a society that puts you in your place and forces you to find your own path if you want to break the cycle.
Still, you can always get to the top if you’re willing to learn to “smile as you kill,” meaning step on everyone on your way up. Ruthless career advancement at all costs is not uncommon in today’s workplace.
Megadeth – Foreclosure of a Dream
Barren land that once filled a need
Are worthless now, dead without a deed
Slipping away from an iron grip
Nature’s scales are forced to tip
The heartland cries, loss of all pride
To leave ain’t believing, so try and be tried
Insufficient funds, insanity, and suicide
Megadeth has never been a band to shy away from current events and socio-political topics and in Countdown to Extinction, the whole album was one big middle finger to the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.
This song in particular, deals with a situation where the U.S. sanctioned Russia and refused to sell them our grain, creating a surplus that caved the price of farmers’ goods. Farmland decreased in value and ultimately family farms were foreclosed upon, with banks evicting families and selling those properties to the highest bidder — usually massive corporations. Dave Mustaine said as much in 1992.
“The government dictates everything to us. What it can’t get over on the black and Hispanic man, it gets over on the white. It’s about Reaganomics and how it took advantage of the real nucleus of America — the farmers.”
Skid Row – Slave to the Grind
You got me forced to crack my lids in two
I’m still stuck inside the rubber room
I gotta punch the clock that leads the blind
I’m just another gear in the assembly line-oh no
The noose gets tighter around my throat
But I ain’t at the end of my rope
A rager of a song from New Jersey’s own Skid Row, “Slave to the Grind” is an anthem standing up against the doldrums and unfairness that comes out of working a wage slave job. It’s about how people like your Jeff Bezoses and Elon Musks of the world don’t actually give a shit about you or your fellow employees.
Yet you’re never truly “at the end of your rope” in this track. Be your own person, find your own way in life, and you can get out of that “rat race” is the name of the game in this classic song.
Rush – Working Man
Well, I get up at seven, yeah
And I’ll go to work at nine
I got no time for livin’
Yes, I’m workin’ all the time
It seems to me
I could live my life
A lot better than I think I am
I guess that’s why they call me
They call me the workin’ man
Technically this isn’t metal, but if you have a problem with Rush then you’ve got a problem with me, eh.
Rush’s “Working Man” is the perfect worker’s anthem, talking about how our lives of constantly working to make someone else richer while you trade away your days can be soul sucking. You’re a laborer and because you don’t have a way to earn the profits made for the things you make, you can always feel that “I could live my life a lot better than I think I am.”