Labor posters – on into the 21st Century – still proclaim: ‘Joe Hill never died.’ On November 19, 1915 labor organizer, songwriter, cartoonist Joseph Hillström, aka Joe Hill, was shot to death in front of a Utah firing squad. He was thirty-six years old. He referred to his death as “an organizing job.”
Joe Hill chose to be a martyr for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), known commonly as the Wobblies. He summarized the IWW goal in the acronym with which Hill closed all his letters:
One Big Union. In his biographical novel, Joe Hill, Wallace Stegner described the Wobblies as more religion than labor organization. With as many as 155,000 members worldwide in the early 20th Century, their power was as much in their solidarity and commitment as in their numbers. They lived by their mantra, ‘Harm to one is harm to all’ committing themselves to any labor struggle, anywhere, anytime. Outsiders labeled them socialists, anarchists or revolutionary unionism. In practice every laborer was their brother and every boss their enemy.
Encountering a labor camp in the Sacramento Valley where workers were paid a dollar a day for twelve hours of picking produce, forced to pay for the water they drank, families living in squalid conditions, Hill blended in with the workers, chatting them up in small groups, finally convincing them that a mass strike was their only recourse to improving conditions. Beaten, shot at and run out of town, he claimed victory knowing he had stirred a few more souls to the cause.
He hopped trains, hiked back trails, slept in culverts and box cars. He worked when he needed to — to blend in and to pay his way. “Never took a dollar from the IWW” he bragged. He was in the thick of it from San Francisco to LA, from Seattle to Denver. Salt Lake City, his last stop, was both a good place to hide and an opportunity to organize the Utah miners.
As for the claim that ‘Joe Hill never died’ you need only look at the current struggle workers have with McDonald’s, Burger King, Walmart — still fighting for a living wage. Just today (2/7/18) a tweet from Mark Ruffalo:
“McDonald’s can afford to pay a living wage. It does in other places, and hasn’t gone out of business or experienced skyrocketing prices. It’s greed, not need, that keeps their wages at the poverty level.”
The IWW battled the wage system. They decried the inhumanity of capitalism. Their cause lives on, as right and righteous as ever. Today the richest 1% of the American population own 37% of the country’s total wealth, and the next 19% owned 50.5%. The bottom 80% of the population own 15%. Jeff Bezos is worth $100 billion, yet Amazon employees’ pay is substandard (compared to warehouse workers nationwide).
In 1917 two years after Joe Hill’s execution the Russian Revolution succeeded in its efforts to create a socialist state, a workers state. Ultimately over the course of the 20th Century, they and many others fell to the greed-inspiring lure of capitalism. Their failure was not in the message but in its mean-to-an-end brutality. In the last century workers across the globe have gained power. Their gains have all been achieved by unity, by the kind of organizing that Joe Hill inspired. U.S. laborers now face the very real threat of a White House accessible and accountable only to the rich. They need unity now more than ever.
The ultimate goal – One Big Union – is still just a dream – a dream kept alive by Joe Hill’s immortal spirit. Joe Hill’s Last Will & Testament:
My will is easy to decide,
For there is nothing to divide.
My kin don’t need to fuss and moan –
“Moss does not cling to a rolling stone.”
My body? Ah, if I could choose,
I would to ashes it reduce,
And let the merry breezes blow
My dust to where some flowers grow.
Perhaps some fading flower then
Would come to life and bloom again.
This is my last and final will.
Good luck to all of you.
Thank you, Wallace Stegner, for reminding me. [1909 – 1993]