Socialist Worker

Where working men are out on strike Joe Hill is at their side

Issue No. 1695

Where working men are out on strike Joe Hill is at their side

By Hazel Croft

JOE HILL was murdered by the US state in November 1915. His "crime" was to be an activist and songwriter for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or the Wobblies as they were popularly known. Tens of thousands of workers across the US sang Joe's songs. The US ruling class took its revenge on Joe by framing him for murder and then executing him by firing squad.

But Joe's spirit lived on in the songs he had written. They continued to inspire workers on picket lines throughout the 20th century. The Wobblies were formed in 1905. They were at the forefront of the struggles of the US working class at the beginning of the 20th century. They aimed to unite workers into one big union. They concentrated on organising unskilled and immigrant workers who had been ignored by the skilled workers' unions of the time.

The IWW organised strikes, protests and sit-ins. They attracted tens of thousands of unskilled workers into their ranks, especially recent immigrants from Europe, along with black and women workers. Joe Hill was himself an immigrant into the US. He was born Joel Haagland to a poor family in Sweden in 1879. He emigrated to the US in 1902 at the age of 23. He thought America offered the promise of a better life, as did millions of other poor Europeans.

That dream turned to dust. The vast majority of immigrant workers faced poverty, exploitation and racism. Joe's first job was cleaning spittoons in saloons in New York. He spent the next eight years working at any job he could, from stacking wheat and laying pipes to working on the docks. He saw how the bosses tried to turn workers from different ethnic groups against each other. He was fired from at least one job for trying to organise his fellow workers. He changed his name to Joe Hillstrom, later shortened to Joe Hill, to avoid being put on a list of agitators.

HE JOINED the IWW in 1910 when he was a docker in San Pedro. He threw himself into political activity. He helped organise strikes and agitate for free speech. He wrote, "The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things in life." Above all Joe used the talent he had for writing songs to build support for the Wobblies.

Joe's first song was "Casey Jones, the Union Scab". He wrote it in 1911 to help the fight of railway workers on the South Pacific Line. The song was printed on coloured cards which were sold to help the workers' strike fund. Joe became a frequent contributor to the Wobblies' Little Red Song Book, which aimed "to fan the flames of discontent". He would pen lyrics relevant to workers to the tunes of popular songs and hymns. His song "The Preacher and the Slave" was sung to the tune of a Salvation Army hymn:

'Long haired preachers come out every night Try to tell you what's wrong and what's right, But when asked how 'bout something to eat, They will answer with voices so sweet: You will eat, bye and bye, In that glorious land above the sky: Work and pray, live on hay, You'll get pie in the sky when you die.'

He believed the songs were a way of convincing people who spoke many different languages about the need for the union. One reporter commented on the songs on the picket line during the 1912 Lawrence textile workers' strike, "I shall not forget the curious lift, the strange sudden fire of the mingled nationalities when they broke into the universal language of song."

Joe captured the potential power of the organised working class: 'There is a power, there is a power, In a band of workingmen, When they stand, hand in hand, There's a power, that's a power, That must rule in every land, One Industrial Union Grand.'

JOE MOVED to Utah in 1913, where he helped the IWW organise a strike by 1,500 miners at the Utah Copper Company. The workers were demanding a nine hour day and a 25 percent wage rise. The Copper Company, which was financed mainly by the Mormon church, hired armed thugs to attack the picket line. But the bosses could not beat the strikers and were forced to recognise the union.

The copper bosses and the Utah establishment wanted revenge. They seized their chance in January 1914 when two masked men shot the owner of a grocery shop, former policeman John Morrison, in Salt Lake City. The Utah establishment framed Joe for the murder. Police kicked down Joe's door and arrested him. As Joe reached for his trousers, the police shot him in the hand, claiming he was reaching for a gun. Joe had been shot and wounded in a separate incident on the same night as the murder of Morrison.

Joe's gunshot wound was the only evidence linking him with Morrison's murder. The one witness to the shooting, Morrison's 13 year old son, could not identify Joe. The trial was a sham. The prosecutor made it clear throughout the trial that Joe's real crime was his union militancy. He told the jury to enforce the law so that "anarchy and crime shall be pushed back beyond the pale of civilisation". The jury found Joe guilty and the judge sentenced him to death. THE IWW launched a campaign to defend Joe. They organised meetings and protests around the country.

They produced thousands of leaflets and a special Joe Hill edition of the Little Red Song Book. Workers from across the US sent protest letters. One telegram read, "Ten thousand organised painters in Chicago demand there is a stay of execution for Joe Hill." A Salt Lake City newspaper reported, "The governor is being flooded with letters, telegrams, cards and petitions against the execution. The communications come largely from labouring men, socialists, IWW members and labour organisations throughout the country."

He wrote one of his most famous songs, "The Rebel Girl", while he was in prison awaiting execution. It was a tribute to IWW member Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and a call for women to get involved in the union. He urged Elizabeth Gurley Flynn "to be sure to locate a few more Rebel Girls like yourself, because they are needed and needed badly". In September, just before a last minute stay of execution, Joe wrote to Solidarity, the IWW's newspaper, "Tomorrow I expect to take a trip to planet Mars and, if so, will immediately commence to organise the Mars canal workers into the IWW."

He told the board of pardons, "I want a new trial or nothing. If my life will help some other workingman to a fair trial, I am ready and willing to give it. If by giving my life I can aid others to the fairness denied me, I have not lived in vain." The authorities rejected his plea for a new trial. The night before the state murdered Joe, a man called William Busky signed an affidavit saying he had been in a brawl with him at the time of the murder. This proved Joe Hill's innocence and it was telegraphed to the governor of Utah. He ignored it.

ON THE morning of the 19 November, Joe was strapped into a chair and gunned down by the firing squad. The Utah Copper Company thanked the governor for his handling of the case. Some 30,000 workers attended his funeral in Chicago. A local paper reported, "The red flag floated unmolested at every turn. No creed or religion found a place at the services. There were no prayers and no hymns, but there was a mighty chorus of voices joining in songs written by Hillstrom." The Irish socialist Jim Larkin told those gathered, "Joe Hill was shot to death because he was a member of the fighting section of the American working class, the IWW."

Joe's last words to the IWW before he died have inspired socialists ever since: "Waste no time in mourning, but organise our class and march to victory."


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Sat 6 May 2000, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1695
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