Labor Icon Joe Hill—The Man Who Never Died

One hundred years ago, workers were fighting for the middle class, organizing for One Big Union; today they’d likely call themselves “The 99 Percent.” Songs united their movement and unified their actions, and many of those songs were written by a Swedish immigrant who called himself Joe Hill. In 1915, Hill was executed by firing squad—most claim it was because he had a red union card in his pocket—but he remains “The Man Who Never Died.”

This Wednesday, October 26, we will sing the songs of Joe Hill, accompanied by local musician Hali Hammer, carrying Hill’s vision of labor solidarity into our century. William B. Adler, author of a new Joe Hill biography described in The New York Times that he “saw the book as a murder mystery, and I saw myself in the role of gumshoe.” Adler will answer questions and share stories from his book of the man and the myth, Joe Hill.

Join us to celebrate this working-class hero. Songsheets, wine, and snacks will be on hand to aid the celebration, and books will be available for purchase and author signature. If you’re the type who likes to prepare, brush up on your lyrics here. And let us know if you’re coming (if you’re not on Facebook, email rgraham@berkeley.edu)!

From Adler’s book:

Workers of the world, awaken!

Rise in all your splendid might;

Take the wealth that you are making,

It belongs to you by right.

No one will for bread be crying,

We’ll have freedom, love and health.

When the grand red ?ag is ?ying

In the Workers’ Commonwealth.

The grand red ?ag belonged to their union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). A union, yes, but it might better be described (in its own vernacular) as a loose confederation of workstiffs and bindlebums:

hard- rock miners and muckers, timberbeasts, lint- heads, shovel stiffs and straw cats, fruit tramps, dock wallopers, pond monkeys, sewer hogs, and stump ranchers. They called themselves Wobblies, though no one is sure why.

The IWW’s heyday lasted for only a brief, electrifying moment at the dawn of the twentieth century: when industrial capitalism was new and raw and brutal, and when the union’s vision of a new worker- controlled order— an “industrial democracy”— seemed, if not on the verge of becoming reality, not preposterous either.

The idea of industrial democracy was as subversive as it was simple:

“plain folk running society for their own bene?t,” as one historian distilled it; “socialism with its working clothes on,” as William “Big Bill” D. Haywood, a founder of the IWW, liked to say. More explicitly, the program called for all workers to form industrial unions under the scarlet- and- black standard of the IWW, the “One Big Union.” Eventually the IWW would call a general strike. Capitalism would screech to a halt like traffic on the West Side of Chicago on that Thanksgiving morning. Industrial unions would take over the machinery of production in the United States, not for pro?t but for the public good. From there, the workers’ commonwealth would ripple across the oceans.

…the Wobblies struck a deep, responsive chord among hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised and unskilled laborers, particularly in the raw, extractive industries of the West, where the economy was unstable, the jobs were transitory, and workers saw themselves regarded by employers as beasts of burden devoid of humanity.

 “We have been naught,” the delegates to the 1905 founding convention sang. “We shall be all.” Wobblies sang in jails, on picket lines, in ?elds, factories, and mines, in train yards and city streets and hobo jungles. The very act of mass singing seemed to embolden and inspire people of varied backgrounds— emigrants from different parts of the world, who spoke different languages, whose skins were of different color— to unite under the IWW ?ag for the common goal of social and economic justice. “They had never heard the song before,” the novelist B. Traven wrote of a group of strikers, “but with the instinct of the burdened they felt that this was their song, and that it was closely allied to their strike, the first strike of their experience, as a hymn is allied to religion.

They didn’t know what the IWW was, what a labor organization meant, what class distinctions were. But the singing went straight to their hearts.”

A Swedish émigré named Joe Hill wrote their songs. Not all of them, of course, but it was he, says the historian Joyce L. Kornbluh, who “more than any other one writer, had made the IWW a singing movement.”

The songs were scathing critiques of capitalism— blunt, de?ant, satirical, wry, cocky— and distinctly Hill.