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Burst of song at PEF convention in step with workers’ struggle to be heardKay-singing

By SHERRY HALBROOK

When delegates to PEF’s 40th annual convention took their seats last October in Lake Placid to hear the secretary-treasurer’s report on the union’s finances, they got more than they expected.

Braced for a complex, numbers-based outline of income versus expenses in a year interrupted by a U.S. Supreme Court decision that eliminated agency shop fees for public-sector unions, no one expected PEF Secretary-Treasurer Kay Alison Wilkie to burst into song, but that is exactly what she did.

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Not only did she sing to them, Wilkie sang her own original lyrics to an old-time union tune:

“Which Side Are You On, PEF?”

Come all of you PEF workers

Good news to you I’ll tell,

Of how our federation

Lasts 40-plus years so well!

(Chorus:)

Which side are you on?

Which side are you on?

Which side are you on, PEF?

Which side are you on?

Oh PEFers can you fight back?

Oh tell me if you can!

Will you sign up and COPE today?

So TOGETHER WE WIN OUR STAND!

(Chorus:)

Which side are you on?

Which side are you on?

Which side are you on, PEF?

Which side are you on?

“It was fun because it was completely unexpected,” Wilkie said. “Like any good folk song, the tune and the lyrics are simple and easy to learn, so by the time I got to the second chorus, the whole room sang along with me.”

She added that several people came to her later and asked for copies of the lyrics she had written and sung.

Wilkie said the lyrics had come to her mind because they perfectly describe the turning point for every member and former feepayer posed by the court decision handed down in June 2018 in the case of Janus v. AFSCME.

That decision forces every public employee in New York and other states to decide whether or not they want to be dues-paying union members. Those thousands of individual decisions will add up to whether workers will continue to have effective voices in determining the terms and conditions under which they work.

Wilkie, who is originally from Iowa, said she grew up in a family with a strong affinity to folk music and advocacy on public issues, such as labor and civil rights.

“My father, Richard Wilkie, was a friend of folk singer and songwriter Pete Seeger. Dad wrote many songs about sailing on the Hudson River to raise awareness of the need for environmental conservation,” Wilkie said.

The tune Wilkie paraphrased for her song at the PEF Convention was called “Which Side Are You On” and those early labor lyrics were written by Florence Reece in 1931 in the hours after she and her children were terrorized when their home was invaded and ransacked by a group of men hired by owners of coal mines and led by the sheriff of Harlan County Kentucky. They were searching for Florence’s husband, Sam Reece, because he was a leader of the United Mine Workers effort to organize local mine workers.

When union leaders were caught, they were often jailed, brutally beaten or even killed. That violent struggle between mine owners and workers during the Great Depression went on until 1939 when the UMW was finally recognized as the bargaining agent for most of the mine workers in Kentucky.

The words Florence Reece wrote have been rewritten many times by various singers and songwriters. The music, itself, is thought to be taken from an old Baptist hymn called “Lay the Lily Low,” or possibly from the ballad titled “Jack Munro” – about a famed Canadian labor leader — that uses “Lay the lily low” as a refrain.

“It is so simple, anybody can do it,” Wilkie said. Citing the role of folk songs in the civil rights movement and even in the 2016 Women’s March in Washington, she said, “Music can be a very powerful and unifying force. It has an uplifting effect on those who are singing and marching together.

“We have so many creative and talented people in PEF, I hope this might inspire them to create their own unique ways to express the value of unions and how we win when we work together,” Wilkie said.

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