Liner Notes

We Ain’t Gonna Give It Back

Twelve of the songs in this collection were originally released in 1989 on Joe Glazer’s label, Collector Records. Another three were recorded in the 90s and two were recorded in 2016. This recording represents some of the songs I have written from my experience in the labor movement over the past 40 years or so. It is dedicated to all the good people I have met along the way who continue to lend their hand to an undying struggle, a struggle in which the people who stand by you are as much reward as the struggle’s promise. Singing for the labor movement has been and continues to be an immeasurable honor. It has made my heart beat stronger.

The Songs

This Old Town is a song about Waterloo, Iowa, where I began my working life.

Massachusetts is a song about the cost of capital flight. Anyone who has been effected by this kind of experience knows there are ought to be a law.

One of my first factory jobs was working at the Waterloo Register Company. It was here that I learned the most common of all occupational hazards: tedium. That’s what the gigantic machines in The Pressroom produce.

The Centralia Massacre took place in 1919 in Centralia, Washington.

I wrote Ballad of Labor Law as an entry to a contest for the best song about labor law reform. Where does one begin? The United States has among the most anti-union labor laws in the industrial world. Since some of those laws make our most powerful weapons and tactics illegal, some say we’d be better off with no laws at all. Maybe. Maybe not. But the fact is that if we rely on the laws instead of our own collective strength, we aren’t much of a movement.

In a way Saturday is a song about class consciousness. Some say American’s don’t have class consciousness. You know what TGIF means? It’s a term that has no meaning to the ruling class.

You Must Pay the Rent is a melodrama in two acts. A cross between “Norma Ray” and “Waiting For Godot”.

Go Down Pittston is a song about the great miners’ strike in the early nineties against the Pittston Coal Group, who thought they were about to kill off the UMWA. The labor movement from across the country supported the miners, who sat down, sat in, stood firm and fought bravely and brilliantly on every front. In the end the union prevailed and let the world know the labor movement was not dead.

There were women miners in that strike. It’s a Dirty Old Hole is about the pride and extra struggle it must take for a woman who goes to work in the mines.

We Won is five verses of famous labor victories over the years. I (and others) just keep adding verses. A victory for labor always means a victory for all workers. That’s why it is a movement.

Illinois is a War Zone concerns the strikes and lockouts against Staley and Caterpillar in the Central Illinois town of Decatur in the mid-nineties. At one point one in four blue-collar workers in the city was on strike or locked out.

I recorded 500 Scabs and 500 Soldiers with my comrades in Shays Rebellion, Tim Hall, Susan Lewis and Janet Stecher on our album, Daniel Shays Highway. It’s a song about the Hormel Strike in Austin Minnesota. The strike split the union movement because the local union, P-9, opposed its parent union’s demand to end the strike. That strike was the packinghouse workers’ Alamo. For all intents and purposes, the unions in the meat packing industry were crushed during the 1980s.

Carpal Tunnel is a song about a common affliction in the meatpacking trade. It’s gotten worse since they broke the unions because the line has gotten faster.

They Locked Your Old Man Out is about the lock out of workers by Lockheed in Seattle in 1986. The workers stood by and watched hundreds cross their picket line to take their jobs. At least a dozen suicides resulted from this event. Something scabs don’t think abut when they cross the line.

Don’t Come Into These Woods (With Scabbin’ On Your Mind) was written during the strike against the huge lumber conglomerate, Weyerhauser in Washington and Oregon. A “Gyppo” is an independent, prone to crossing picket lines when the chips are down.

I’m Gonna Join The Union is a song about an epiphany that workers sometimes experience.

The Triangle Fire was inspired in part by reading a collection of poems by Chris Llewellan called “Fragments from The Fire” about the infamous industrial disaster of 1911.

There Is A Strike In South Africa Today is about the great miner’s strike that took place on the eve of the fall of apartheid.

We Ain’t Gonna Give It Back was written in 1981 for a strike against Ma Bell. Younger listeners may not know that before the age of cell phones, Ma Bell was the nickname for AT&T, the only game in town. The great Ewan MacColl told me that he and Peggy Seeger sang this song to hundreds of thousands of miners during the great British Coal Miner’s strike of 1984. They put the song on their last album before Ewan died.


All songs composed and performed by John O’Connor. John plays guitar and banjo. Devlyn O’Connor sings lead on “It’s A Dirty Old Hole”. John and Annie Quest sing harmonies. Lisa Brande plays fiddle. Susan Lewis sings all other female harmonies, except Tret Fure sings harmonies on “We Won” and Tim Hall, Susan Lewis and Janet Stecher sing harmonies on “500 Scabs and 500 Soldiers”. Tim also plays banjo on this song. Phil Block plays fiddle on “Massachusetts”, “Saturday”, “They Locked Your Old Man Out” and “Triangle Fire”. On “Ballad Of Labor Law”, “Go Down Pittston” and “It’s A Dirty Old Hole” Paul Dedell plays guitar, mandolin and piano. On “Illinois Is A War Zone” Bill Tomzak plays saxophone, Jim Campbell plays bass and Randy Kovitz plays drums. On “Centralia Massacre” and “We Won” Colin McCaffrey plays bass and percussion and Tret Fure plays guitar. On all other songs Phil Rosenthal plays guitar, banjo, mandolin and bass.

“Ballad Of Labor Law”, “Go Down Pittston”, “It’s A Dirty Old Hole” and “Illinois Is A War Zone” were recorded and mixed in 1995 at Avocet Studios in Bernardston, MA by Podlesney. “Centralia Massacre” and “We Won” were recorded by Colin McCaffrey in 2016 at the Green Room in East Montpelier, VT. All other songs, except “500 Scabs” were recorded and mixed at American Melody Studios in Guilford, CT by Phil Rosenthal.

%d bloggers like this: