“We’re gonna roll, we’re gonna roll, we’re gonna roll the union on,” sang a group of more than 20 University of Maryland graduate students marching arm in arm through The Clarice Performing Arts Center the evening of Nov. 8.
Illuminated by the purple atrium lights, the Graduate Labor Union Singers drew the attention of several students staying late as their voices swelled during the group’s inaugural meeting.
The Singers are a group of this university’s graduate students who learn and practice singing popular union songs. The choir, which was founded this semester, is affiliated with the Graduate Labor Union, a graduate student organization lobbying for collective bargaining rights for graduate workers at this university.
Ethnomusicology doctoral student Jackson Albert Mann, who led the practice, said the idea for the group came from his research on music and U.S. trade unions.
“I’ve been involved with the organizing committee of the union drive for graduate workers here for a while now,” Mann said. “It was just something I had expertise in and I was like, ‘I should do it.’ Especially because I think today it’s not as common for trade unions in the U.S. to really have much of a cultural life.”
Fellow ethnomusicology doctoral student Allie Pecoraro said the event had a “great turnout.”
She added that it seemed like many students who attended felt comfortable singing at the event.
After Mann informed the crowd about the origins of the song, “Roll the Union On” by union organizer John Handcox in the 1930s, the group began to practice it themselves.
While practicing, the crowd began to make slight alterations to the lyrics of the song to include specific references to the fight for collective bargaining at this university.
The lyric, “If the boss is in the way, we’re gonna roll it over him,” was changed to replace “boss” with mentions of university President Darryll Pines, “the deans” and “UMD.”
In an email to The Diamondback Monday, a university spokesperson said the university is “not familiar with this effort but we encourage graduate students to bring topics for discussion to one of our upcoming open forums.”
Pecoraro said she was inspired by the choir’s lyric changes and their enthusiasm. Creating lyrics is important for building confidence and solidarity for the labor movement, she said.
History and library science graduate student Rigby Philips said once she heard Mann was forming a choir, she was “gonna be the first one there.”
“It was a really exciting way for me to kind of express myself creatively, which I don’t get to do a lot, and then combine that with my interest in labor and activism,” Philips said.
Pecoraro, who researches protest music in social movements, said music can serve different purposes in the labor movement.
For Pecoraro, one of the main purposes of music in labor movements and protest is not only to build solidarity between people in places like rallies but also in spaces where people are get to know one another.
Mann said one of his goals with the choir is to build a cultural event for graduate students that doesn’t involve drinking.
Mann said many cultural events for graduate students involve drinking or socializing at bars, and he wanted to create another option that is more interactive.
Another goal Mann has for the choir is to teach people about trade union history through its music.
“Like the beginning that I did here, I did like a short kind of impromptu lecture about, like, this song has a history of the specific union,” Mann said. “Through learning about the songs, we also learn about the history of trade unions and labor unions in the U.S.”