A Musical Celebration of the Meaning of Labor


The Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company Performs in Las Vegas


by Leila Rosen and Sally Ross

Raising a glorious noise for workers
The Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company/GCC-IBT sings "Workingfolk, Unite!" at its Las Vegas performance on June 24, 2006.

On June 24th, 2006, at the Founding Convention of the Graphics Communications Conference of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, hundreds of delegates from the US and Canada witnessed something new in culture, education, and labor history, and they welcomed it with applause and cheers.

Getting Down to Business
      (Left to right) Timothy Lynch (President, Teamsters Local 1205), Derek Mali and Kevin Fennell sing "Sixteen Tons" in Las Vegas on June 24, 2006.

This was Ethics Is a Force! — songs about labor, sung and commented on by performers from the Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company. The event took place in Las Vegas at the convention center of the Riviera Hotel.

What makes unions great — and beautiful? Why have so many union jobs been lost? What’s really wrong with the economy? What’s the cause of economic injustice? How can economics be kind and efficient? As the performers commented on 11 songs — which they sang with often sweeping power, and with depth and pizzazz — they gave the answers to those questions!

Their basis was Aesthetic Realism, the philosophy founded by the educator and poet Eli Siegel.

“You are our reminder — for the whole convention — of what we’re here for. It’s not just your talent — it’s what you’re saying!” Thomas Jolley of Cleveland, Tennessee, said to the performers later.

Wayne Bailey of Local 22C in Portland, Maine, spoke about how “informative” the presentation was “but it also reaches down into your heart.”

The company sang such labor classics as Which Side Are You On?, Joe Hill and Solidarity Forever. They also sang songs that haven’t been thought of as about labor, but which, they showed, are. And in every instance, through their comments and performance, the meaning of those songs came forth in a new, vivid way.

“It was great,” Anthony Caifano of New York’s Local 1L told the cast.

“Everybody loved it!”

The Fight in Economics & in Every Person

One of the singers was Timothy Lynch, President of Teamsters Local 1205 and an Aesthetic Realism associate. Early in the presentation he said “Aesthetic Realism shows what the big fight is within the self of every individual person and explains that it’s also the fundamental matter in economic history. It’s the fight between contempt for the world and respect for it. Contempt is getting ‘an addition to self through the lessening of something else.’ And one of the awful things human contempt has made for is economics based on profit: on seeing people in terms of how much money you can get out of them; how much wealth you can get from their labor while paying them as little as possible. The history of unions has really been a history of people fighting against this contempt, and for respect.”

There was the Rodgers and Hart song Ten Cents a Dance. It is, said Carrie Wilson, who sang it, “a soliloquy telling the inward sorrow of a girl who works in a dance hall. She stands for the effect of economic ill will: her long hours of work are to provide profit for someone else.”  Here are the opening lyrics:

      I work at the Palace Ballroom, / But, gee, that palace is cheap;
When I get home to my chilly hall room / I’m much too tired to sleep.
      I’m one of those lady teachers, / A beautiful hostess, you know,
One that the Palace features / At exactly a dime a throw.

Introducing the song, Ms. Wilson said “In his ‘Goodbye Profit System’ lectures of the 1970s, Mr. Siegel explained that we’ve reached the point in history when economics based on contempt for human beings no longer works.”

This failure of profit economics is with us today. We see its effects, as (for instance) employers, in their quest for profit, are depriving millions of Americans of health benefits; trying to force union give-backs; cutting American jobs and sending those jobs overseas where they can pay workers much less. The performers quoted Eli Siegel as saying: “There will be no economic recovery in the world until economics itself, the making of money, the having of jobs, becomes ethical; is based on good will rather than on the ill will which has been predominant for centuries....Ethics is a force like electricity, steam, the atom — and will have its way.” [Goodbye Profit System: Update, Definition Press]

The Economy Needs What a Song Has

The Company explained that what an economy needs in order to be successful is the same thing that makes a song beautiful. They quoted this Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

For example, there are the opposites sameness and difference — and they are at the basis of the song Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

“We need,” said Kevin Fennell, who sang it, “to see that a person different from us has feelings as real as our own, deserves the same things we deserve—just as notes in a song are different, yet each is as real as another, and needed for the song to be.” 

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? makes vivid the fact that “for one person not to have money and another to have it is the most outrageous and artificial difference in the world.”

The Only Source of Wealth

Timothy Lynch sang Paul McKenna’s very funny song The Union Buster, to the delight and recognition of the audience. “Nobody knows it more than we do down there,” a retired pressman from Local 527 in Atlanta commented later about the intense effort to break unions.

Yet, the Theatre Company said, “Despite all the union busters, what Eli Siegel explained in the following great statement is the most powerful fact about economics”: “The most important thing in industry is the person who does the industry, which is the worker. That…can never change. Labor is the only source of wealth. There is no other source, except land, the raw material.”

“You Hit the Nail on the Head”

When “Ethics Is a Force!” concluded to a standing ovation, GCC President George Tedeschi expressed to the delegate body his pride in having invited the Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company to the convention.

The GCC videotaped the event, and one of the cameramen, Francis Vincent (Local 720, International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees), said of Ethics Is a Force!: “It was inspirational! You hit the nail on the head.”

“Eli Siegel must have been some person! He had his finger on what is happening,” stated John Heffernan, President of Local 2N in New York:

The Aesthetic Realism Foundation is a not-for-profit educational foundation based in New York City. To find out more about “Ethics Is a Force!” and Aesthetic Realism itself, call 212-777-4490 or go to www.AestheticRealism.org.

Leila Rosen and Sally Ross are both New York City high school teachers.




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