Monday, September 07, 2009

Labor Day: Joe Hill

On this Labor Day, let us take a moment to commemorate Joe Hill, the early labor leader, rabble-rouser and songwriter who remains an inspiration to union members and workers throughout the world.

He was born Joel Hagglund in Sweden on October 7, 1879, the fourth of six children. His parents loved music, often leading the family in song and passing their musical interests on to their children. When Joel was nine his father, a railroad conductor, was killed in an accident and the Hagglund children were forced to leave school in order to support the family. Young Joel found employment in a rope factory, and later became a fireman on a steam-powered crane. His mother died in 1902, and soon after Joel and a younger brother emigrated to America.

Landing in New York, Joe Hill worked his way across the country performing a series of odd jobs, eventually settling down for the time being in San Pedro, California. There, he joined the Industrial Workers Of The World and became active in the union's organizing efforts. The IWW's goal was to unite the working class worldwide into "One Big Union", and Hill became known throughout the West for his dedication towards that goal. In 1911 he went to Tiajuana as pae of a band of radicals seeking to liberate Baja California from Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz. The next year he was active in a coalition that fought a decision by San Diego police to close the downtown streets to meetings, and later that year participated in a rail workers' strike in British Columbia. Back home in San Pedro, he was arrested in June 1913 while participating in a dockworkers' strike; in Hill's words, he was "a little too active to suit the chief of the burg".

Hill's biggest contribution to the labor movement was as a writer of songs that inspired workers throughout the country fighting for their rights. He would take the popular melodies of the day and outfit them with original lyrics that sought to inspire workers and spur them to organize for their rights. In this manner, Hill wrote "The Tramp", "There is Power in the Union", "Rebel Girl", "Casey Jones: Union Scab", and "The Preacher And The Slave", which coined the term "pie in the sky".

Early in 1914 Hill was working at the Silver King Mine near Salt Lake City. On January 10, butcher and retired police officer John G. Morrison's shop was attacked by two armed men covering their faces with red bandannas. Morrison fired his pistol and wounded one of the attackers, who in turn shot and killed Morrison and his son. Later that night, Joe Hill showed up at the door of a local doctor asking to be treated for a gunshot wound he said he received while in a fight over a woman. Police searched Hill's hotel room and found a red bandanna; that, along with the wound and his reputation as an IWW organizer, was enough to have him arrested for the murders of the Morrisons.

At his trial, Hill steadfastly maintained his innocence in the murders. He refused to name the woman whose company he had been in that evening, which would have provided him with an alibi. Some have speculated that Hill risked a murder conviction in order to preserve the reputation of a married woman. The prosecution's star witness, Morrison's 13-year-old son Merlin, who had originally told police "That's not him at all" when he first saw Hill, testified that Hill was the murderer. The jury only took a few hours to find him guilty.

A worldwide effort began to exonerate Hill. Helen Keller, AFL president Samuel Gompers, the Swedish minister to the United States, and President Woodrow Wilson all spoke to the governor on Hill's behalf to no avail. To the last, Hill claimed that the state of Utah was framing him due to his IWW activities. In one of his last letters, he wrote to IWW leader Bill Haywood, "Goodbye Bill: I die like a true rebel. Don't waste any time mourning, organize!" Joe Hill was executed on November 19, 1915; his last request, reportedly to the firing squad, was "Fire!" Hill's body was transported to Chicago, where more than 30,000 paid their respects. Afterward, his body was cremated, and the ashes sent to labor leaders around the world and in every state except Utah.

Over the years, the labor movement's great songwriter has himself been commemorated in song. "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night", written in the 30's, became something of a standard, and has often been performed by Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, and Joan Baez, among many others. During the 60's Phil Ochs, in the manner of Joe Hill himself, wrote lyrics that celebrated Hill's life and set them to the melody of the folk ballad "John Hardy". Billy Bragg, one of the most socially conscious performers of our era, brings the memory of Joe Hill back to life.

Hill's final will and testament has long been a source of inspiration to activists throughout the world:

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? - Oh. - 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.

Happy Labor Day.

(Crossposted at Pole Hill Sanitarium.)