Julie McCall

Julie McCall (born circa 1946) is an American union activist and writer of folk and pop song parodies.

“As a labor union activist who uses music to motivate, inspire, and rally workers, Julie McCall is unique: She does not accompany herself on the guitar, she does not perform as a solo act, and she does not compose her own music. Her specialty is adapting folk songs or well-known pop tunes. She teaches them in a short time to union members at a strike or a rally, and almost immediately everyone can sing a song that tells the workers’ story with humor and fighting spirit. McCall’s trade union began in 1974 when she was a twenty-eight-year-old clerk at the Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C. She helped organize other workers into Local 722 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). She also became, in turn, a shop steward, a member of the executive board, and business manager of the local. She began to use adapted melodies several years later. As she describes it, ‘We had a rally coming up to put pressure on the hospital to sign an improved union contract. We had trouble generating interest in our meetings, so a group of us wrote a series of song parodies and satirical skits about the hospital. That was in 1980. Prior to that I had done a few picket line songs during a strike by the nurses.’ …[McCall’s] background did not indicate that she would become active in unions. She was raised during the 1950s in Middletown, Ohio, a conservative, anti-union town. Her parents were teachers and also anti-union. Other influences prevailed, however. ‘I was inspired,’ she says, ‘by the political and social messages I heard in the folk music of the 1960s while attending Ohio State University. Those messages made a lot of sense to me. Later, I found myself using ‘music with a message’ in my work with the union.’ …McCall has written scores of songs. Just give her the principal issues in a strike or contract dispute, and in an hour or two she will come up with lyrics set to a catchy tune that will be more effective in building workers’ solidarity than any rousing speech made by a union leader. I asked her to describe her most satisfying experiences in using music to build union solidarity: ‘In May of 1994 I did a song-writing workshop at the international convention of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees. I taught a group of twenty of those railroad workers who had never written a song before to write a song parody. They performed it in front of the entire convention of four hundred delegates. The place went wild, and we were called back to do the song again to close the convention. The members who write the song were very nervous about performing it the first time and were astonished when people sang along, applauded and whistled, and danced in the aisles. One of the other most moving moments for me was in 1989 when I heard the striking Pittston coal miners in West Virginia sing the Christmas parodies from the colorful songbook I had put together for them with the aid of Mike Konopacki, a top labor cartoonist artist. The miners had asked for the songs so they could go ‘caroling’ at the homes of coal company executives. I wrote a half-dozen parodies of well-known Christmas tunes. The Labor Heritage Foundation printed them in a colorful booklet, and it was distributed to the miners. The miners sang the songs in the snow and cold at the executives’ homes, on the picket line, and in the union hall. The music helped to lift their spirits during a grim Christmas season.’ …McCall does not think of herself as a musical star performing before huge crowds of cheering workers. She thinks of herself as a teacher. ‘Most of the union members I work with have better voices than me,’ she explains, ‘and they are better acquainted with the local problems than I am. My stuff is simple and direct. All they need are two things to make them good performers—one is technique and the other is confidence. I teach the technique, and once they grasp that they readily develop the confidence to perform effectively before their fellow workers.’ One outstanding example of Julie McCall’s teaching efforts is the program she developed with the paraprofessional division of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Her experience with paraprofessionals (‘paras’) began in 1987, when AFT organizer Tom Moran asked her to develop a workshop, ‘Say It in a Song or Skit,’ for their annual conference held in Washington, D.C. The show that workshop participants put on for two hundred delegates on ‘Solidarity Night’ was so popular that it was being continued at workshops ten years later. The event gets bigger and better. Some workers are so fired up from the experience that they return to next year’s conference with new songs and skits already prepared. McCall has led dozens of programs across the country, but she is especially enthusiastic about working with paras. ‘I have rarely seen the kind of excitement and spirit engendered by the paras,’ she says. ‘The crowd is always on its feet, clapping, dancing, and singing along.’ …the kind of enthusiasm Julie McCall generates.”

—Joe Glazer, Labor’s Troubadour (2001)

Foul Ball
I'm Dreaming of a Fair Contract
Lean on the Union
My Union
My Union Stands by Me
Punch It In Is All We Do
Rudolph, the Union Reindeer
We're Gonna Get a Union at Avondale
Your Nursing Heart