Solidarity now and forever: Tacoma labor honors the man who wrote Solidarity Forever

By Don McIntosh, Associate Editor, The Northwest Labor Press

TACOMA, Wash.—This Labor Day — like every Labor Day the last 18 years — a crowd will gather beside a gravestone in Tacoma to honor the man who wrote the words to Solidarity Forever.

Ralph Chaplin.

Solidarity Forever — sung to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic — is the most famous anthem of the American labor movement. Ralph Hosea Chaplin wrote it in 1915 after witnessing the bloody struggles of striking coal miners in West Virginia.

At the time, Chaplin was a poet, writer and cartoonist for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) a radical anarchist-influenced union of miners and loggers.

Where the Battle Hymn says “his truth is marching on,” Solidarity Forever ends its refrain with “the Union makes us strong.” Today it’s sung at union meetings, rallies, and on picket lines in the United States and other English-speaking countries.

Chaplin was one of the IWW’s leading lights, and was one of about 100 IWW members who went to prison under the Espionage Act of 1917 for opposing U.S. involvement in World War I. He was released after serving four years of a 20-year sentence, and went right back to labor activism.

Chaplin lived in Tacoma for the last decade of his life. There he worked as an archivist for the Washington State Historical Society and served as editor to the newspaper of the Pierce County Labor Council. He died in 1961 and was buried beside his wife at Calvary Cemetery in Tacoma.

The annual graveside observance began nearly 40 years later, in 1999. It started with a pledge a local labor leader made to a dying member. Phil Lelli, the longtime leader of International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 23, promised Local 23 member T.A. “Tiny” Tronson he wouldn’t let Chaplin’s place in labor history be forgotten.

That year and every year since then, the Pierce County Labor Council has sponsored the memorial. It features songs, stories, and the display of an artifact — a tin cup Chaplin scratched his name on when he was in jail on the Espionage Act charges.

“Foremost in our mind,” says Labor Council Secretary-Treasurer Patty Rose, “is that he always stood up for workers in their struggle.”

Source: PAI