Utah Phillips’ love of labor earns him an award
“I was singing labor songs and telling labor stories when very few were,” said Utah Phillips, who for more than 40 years has chronicled the past by singing and telling stories at union meetings, concert halls and festivals across the country.
For his nonstop efforts, Nevada City resident Phillips will receive the Western Workers Labor Arts award at the 17th annual Western Workers Labor Heritage Festival in Burlingame.
Phillips is embarrassed to discuss his numerous awards, but he talks easily about this one because it’s an opportunity to promote organized labor.
“Labor has a noble and beautiful history mainly passed on by elders, which has been denied students in the curricula process,” Phillips said. “I spent a good part of my life seeking out those elders. Many of them are very old and poor, living on short money, who led these extraordinary lives which can never be lived again. I inherited their songs and stories and, in turn, that’s what I put in the world.”
“Utah’s been a dedicated advocate for workers’ rights through his poetry and music,” said David Winters, the Labor Heritage Festival nonprofit organization coordinator. “He’s well loved by many people; he’s very entertaining and very insightful about government policies and the lives of poor people and conditions around the world.”
Held annually just before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the festival has two aims: to honor the late civil rights leader’s commitment to workers’ rights and to help strengthen the labor movement through artistic expression of workers.
The labor movement is second nature to Phillips; his mother worked as an organizer for the Congress of Industrial Organizations during the Great Depression.
His mother encouraged Phillips to look at sources other than those used at school.
“My mother took my brother’s and my school history books and said to, instead, use the alternative history book “We the People” by Hubberman to write reports,” Phillips reminisced. “If I got a passing grade based on that book, she thought I was too tame.”
Phillips was fascinated with what he learned early on from listening to workers.
“It’s through talking to my elders about their lives and struggles,” Phillips said, “I’ve come to understand that things like Social Security, Workman’s Comp, minimum wage and the eight-hour day were not gifts from enlightened management but were fought for, bled for and died for by American workers from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.”
Phillips could have sung about more mainstream subjects. However, he was determined to earn his living by passing on what workers told him.
“This information can’t be found in U.S. history books. Part of my task is to give students an opportunity to discover who they really are and where they really came from as children of the working class,” Phillips said. “Hopefully, they will then become motivated into changing their workplace, just as their elders did, into a place that’s prosperous and humane.”
Phillips doesn’t just sing about labor issues; he is just as active in unions. As well as belonging to Industrial Workers of the World for 44 years, he’s a lifetime and charter member of American Federation of Musicians, Traveling Musicians Local 1000 and a member of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union Local 598 in Sudberry, Ontario, and the Canadian Auto Workers unions.
Phillips received a Lifetime Service to Labor Award from the American Federation of Musicians in 1997.
“To think I’m Utah’s president is humbling,” said acclaimed folk singer John McCutcheon from Charlottesville, Va., who heads the federation.
McCutcheon, performing at Community Radio Station KVMR’s nightLIVE! Concert Thursday night in Nevada City, lunched at Phillips’ house to catch up on union business.
McCutcheon credits Phillips with motivating him to become a musician.
“I heard Utah talk about unionism and class, and the way music worked in the world as a force, at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee in 1972,” McCutcheon said.
“It was connect the dots. It all began to make sense that this is who I am. …
“It’s absolutely appropriate Utah’s getting the Western Workers Labor Arts award,” McCutcheon added. “We named our award after Utah Phillips.”
Utah Phillips will receive a Western Workers Labor Arts award Sunday at a 7 p.m. benefit concert for workers at Union Halls, 1511 Rollins Road, Burlingame. Concert performers are Phillips and Betty Mae Fikes, one of the Freedom Singers who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Tickets are $10 and $15 and are available by calling (831) 426-4940 or at the door.
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