I first heard this song on Pete's album I Can See a New Day, which I acquired during my first year of college. I loved the passion Pete brought to the lyrics, and the way his twelve string guitar clanged like a bell on the second round of the song. The clip above is of a performance in Australia in 1964. I next heard it on the Byrds' first album, Mr. Tambourine Man, in a cover version that featured the group's ethereal harmonies and jangling Rickenbacker guitars. The Byrds changed one word in the song. Where Pete sang, true to the words written by Welsh coal miner turned teacher and poet Idris Davies*, "Who robbed the miner?", the Byrds asked "Who killed the miner?" The notes to I Can See a New Day said the song was about a strike, while those to Mr. Tambourine Man claimed it was about a "mining disaster". I suspect the folks at Columbia, the Byrds' label, mandated the change because they thought a song about a disaster was less politically sensitive than one about a strike.** Then again, maybe they just thought "killed" was more compelling than "robbed".
Now, for a rousing Labor Day anthem, here's Billy Bragg:
This was made at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival last year; thanks to shrewsburyfolkfest for the clip.
Addendum: Will Van Dorp sent me this clip of Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman doing "Union Town":
*The notes to the Byrds' album credited the lyrics to "I.D. Ris Davies".
**To be fair, Columbia was also Pete's label for some of his albums, including I Can See a New Day, which included "robbed" and the strike reference in the notes. But a Seeger album was made for a niche market of hard-core folkies, presumably mostly of leftish political views.