In this regular interview series, American Rights at Work spends some time off the clock with notable workers’ rights leaders, supporters, experts, and organizers.
Are unions punk rock? We think so, and so does Mike McColgan, the lead singer of the popular punk band the Street Dogs. Mike’s work as a union firefighter and pressman have shaped the riveting working class anthems he’s written and performed in bands like the Dropkick Murphys, and now with the Street Dogs. We’ve been blown away by their music for years and will see them on Monday in concert in D.C. at the Black Cat. You can also catch the Street Dogs live on their Wreck the Halls tour, pick up one of their many recordings, or watch them in action performing in Madison as part of the historic protests against collective bargaining attacks in Wisconsin. Read our interview with Mike to learn more about what inspires his passionate political stances, powerful lyrics, and lifelong fight to champion unions…
American Rights at Work: What was your first job? What was your first union job?
Mike McColgan: In my early 20s I had my first experiences with the labor movement and became aware of how unions ran and how collective bargaining worked. I worked for the Boston Globe as a pressman and became a union steward there. Later on I was a member of AFSCME, and then, as a fireman for the Boston Fire Department, I became a member of the International Association of Fire Fighters.
ARAW: What inspired your song “Up the Union?”
MM: The late great Senator Ted Kennedy was one of the chief architects of the legislation [the Employee Free Choice Act]. I always followed Kennedy closely so when we were writing songs for our latest self-titled album, I just felt inspired to write a song about that. I’ve always kinda been frustrated with how people would want to be a in a union and hit so many road blocks, and threats of retaliation, and being fired. So that’s why we wrote the song and we put it out there. It’s one of our biggest songs when we play live; it gets the biggest response.
ARAW: What would you say to your fans who don’t think unions are relevant or a positive force for change? What can we do to turn that around?
MM: I would say take a look at the wealth disparity in the United States right now… Take a look at the numbers and tell me you don’t need organized labor or an advocate for the worker… Companies don’t make anything in America anymore. I think one of the biggest solutions for a turnaround is to manufacture things in America, make things in America and jobs obviously would be created. I think the one of the most frustrating things for me recently was the GOP blocking votes on legislation, like the American Jobs Act. I mean its just blows my mind that they would get in the way of getting Americans back to work, build infrastructure, use American resources…it seems obstructionist, it seems shortsighted, and self-serving … It’s clearly a need now more than ever for the labor movement to become stronger and to do more organizing.
ARAW: What do you think of the Occupy Wall Street movement?
MM: It’s good to see that the labor movement has affiliated with the Occupy movement. It has a clear and concise message to the 1 percent that this kind of system is not sustainable and that there has to be better wealth distribution and that we can’t continue to outsource what’s left, and there isn’t much left, of the American Dream. We’re at a very, very critical point for the middle class in the history of the United States.
ARAW: What are some of your favorite songs about work and working people?
MM: One of the most inspiring and poignant songs for the worker and the labor movement is Billy Bragg’s “There’s Power in A Union.” After hearing that song, I would genuinely feel empowered. Also Woody Guthrie’s recordings are also well, really really powerful. And more recently Tom Morello of the Nightwatchmen has a song called “Union Man” and that’s poignant and powerful. And that’s a guy who gets out there and helps out the labor movement in a variety of different capacities.
ARAW: How do you like to spend your time “Off the Clock” – when you’re not working and recording and touring?
MM: Working my ass off to survive like everybody else, that’s as honest as I can be. What puts me kind of in a unique position, and I’m not tooting my own horn or saying I’m better than anybody or that I’m the greatest thing since sliced bread, is that I’m in a punk rock group. But we barely get by. We have enough just to barely pay the bills. When I’m not on the road, I’m working another job. So what we talk about, what we advocate for is real. In the band or outside of the band, we’re on the front lines, and I don’t want any special recognition for that. My heart, my soul, my body, my spirit, I just know it’s the right thing to do, and even if it became readily apparent that the battle was lost, I’m gonna go down swinging and never surrender.
Thanks to Mike for taking the time to talk unions with us!
Photo courtesy of the Street Dogs.