As Unions Shrink, Labor Movement Lives On In Song At Camp Kinderland

Sep 3, 2018

The hopes and dreams of the labor movement have long been expressed in song. Unions are less powerful than they once were. But in the Berkshires, a group of young activists are working to keep one labor movement song alive.

The song, sung by Paul Robeson and others, about a man named Joe Hill, has stood out because it’s about a real person. Hill was a miner and labor activist believed to have been framed on a murder charge. He was shot to death by firing squad.

Early in the 20th century, when Joe Hill was trying to get workers to join the union, working conditions were appalling. The hours were long, and workplaces were dangerous. Unions could affect change, but only if their membership was large.

Michael Richmond is a professor at the Shepard Broad College of Law in Fort Lauderdale. And he’s an expert in music of the labor movement.

“Music provided a powerful tool to recruit new members,” Richmond said. “When people sing, they remember the message of the song.”

The message of Joe Hill was clear: the work you do on behalf of unions will outlive you. It’s a message understood by the kids at Camp Kinderland, a summer camp in Tolland, Massachusetts.

Camp Kinderland’s motto is “Summer camp with a conscience since 1923.” It was founded as a retreat for children from New York City's tenements whose parents were affiliated with The Workmen's Circle, a leftist Jewish organization. The camp promotes social justice and activism, and has -- not surprisingly -- been a target of conservatives through the years.

The 14-year-olds at Kinderland sing on the porch outside the dining hall named after Pete Seeger.

 

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Their cabin -- it’s called Joe Hill. And they get the power of the song. One camper cited Hill’s last words, “Don’t mourn, organize.”

Many of the campers are third- and fourth-generation Kinderlanders. Some know the song from their parents, who work with unions.

At a typical summer camp, there are color wars with paintball fights and Capture the Flag.

Camp Kinderland instead does a Peace Olympics, a three-day event built around a theme. One year, the theme was unions.

Camp counselor Shiori O’Neil said the teams competed in sports. But in the run-up to the event, they made murals, and wrote songs and skits to teach other campers about their adopted unions.

“There were four teams: United Farm Workers, United Auto Workers, United Miners and then the Sanitation Workers Union,” O’Neil said. “I was on the United Auto Workers. I remember our mural showed a fight for the auto workers in the ’60s or ’70s. I remember the United Farm Workers sticking with me.”

 

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Cindy Zingher, the camp’s executive director, said Kinderland raises activists.

“What were’re trying to teach, always, is about social justice and activism,” Zingher said. “When kids finish Camp Kinderland, they become teachers, educators, social workers, labor leaders. They’re all doing things for the betterment of the world.”

There used to be a lot more camps like this around the country, but now there are just a handful. And unions themselves are shrinking.

In 1954, about a third of American workers were union members. Now it’s about 10 percent. Some think the recent Supreme Court decision limiting the power of public sector unions may be a death knell for labor.

“They’re trying to get rid of labor unions. So we want to be fighting for them,” Zingher said.

No question: Joe Hill would be proud.