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I can’t say I ever dreamed about Joe Hill, the legendary songwriter and Industrial Workers of the World member. But on the hundredth anniversary of the verdict in a Salt Lake City court that would put him before a firing squad sixteen months later, he is once again in my waking thoughts.

It was probably Joan Baez singing about Joe Hill that first drew my attention to him. (No, I wasn’t at Woodstock, but I saw the film and listened to the record album.)

“The copper bosses killed you, Joe,

They shot you Joe,” says I.

“Takes more than guns to kill a man,” said Joe,

“I didn’t die.”

My sister brought home a 1968 Phil Ochs album, “Tape from California,” with his ballad about Joe Hill’s life. Like Joe Hill did so many times, Ochs put new words to a familiar tune, in this case the English folk song, “John Hardy,” which had also been used by Woody Guthrie for his “Ballad of Tom Joad.”

Ochs described Joe’s arrival in New York as an immigrant from Sweden, how he took up with the IWW “cause the union was the only friend he had,” and how he began writing songs to raise the spirits of union members.

Now, the strikes were bloody and the strikes

Were black as hard as they were long

In the dark of night Joe would stay awake and write

In the morning he would raise them with a song

The IWW – known as “The Wobblies” for reasons that remain a bit obscure – had a revolutionary vision of a single union that would unite workers across lines of race and national origin, across lines of gender, across industries, and even across borders to take away power from the capitalist class and put it in the hands of workers. As the final phrase of “Solidarity Forever,” a labor anthem written by an IWW member puts it, “We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old when the union makes us strong.”

The Wobblies believed in direct action, especially strikes, as the primary means for achieving power in the workplace and in the larger society. Their “anarcho-syndicalist” approach contrasted with the socialists who put up candidates for election.   But the radical movements of the early twentieth century found much in common. Eugene Victor Debs, for instance, was present at the IWW’s founding convention in 1905.

Joe played the fiddle and other instruments, but is not remembered as a musician. He was, however, a decent cartoonist and a brilliant lyricist, who took popular tunes and substituted new words.

Phil Ochs sang:

He wrote his words to the tunes of the day

To be passed along the union vine

And the strikes were led and the songs were spread

And Joe Hill was always on the line

The late folksinger and song-writer Utah Phillips used to say the IWW songwriters  used hymns because they had pretty tunes and wrote new words “so they’d make sense.” In that vein “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” becomes “Dump the Bosses Off your Backs.” The Doxology becomes,

Praise boss when morning work bells chime,

Praise him for bits of overtime,

Praise him whose wars we love to fight,

Praise him fat leech and parasite.

Joe Hill’s most famous song, “The Preacher and the Slave,” is a send-up of a hymn often sung by Salvation Army bands on street corners. During the free speech fights, when IWW members who were barred from using the same street corners to proselytize for the “One Big Union” took to the streets in acts of mass civil disobedience, Joe converted “In the Sweet By and By,” to “You’ll get pie in the sky when you die (that’s a lie).”

It was Joe Hill, who “more than any other one writer, had made the IWW a singing movement,” according to Joyce Kornbluh, editor of Rebel Voices: an IWW Anthology. His songs, and others, were printed in The Little Red Songbook, new editions of which the IWW would put out from time to time. The publication’s was designed so workers could easily fit it in their pockets and take it out on picket lines or in jail cells. (I’m proud to say I have a song in the 38th edition, on sale from the IWW.)

“A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over,” Joe wrote in a letter from his prison cell. “I maintain that if a person can put a few cold, common sense facts into a song, and dress them … up in a cloak of humor to take the dryness off them he will succeed in reaching a great number of workers who are too unintelligent or too indifferent to read a pamphlet or an editorial in economic science.”

In addition to “The Preacher and the Slave,” Joe Hill is remembered for “There is Power in a Union,” “Casey Jones: Union Scab,” and “The Rebel Girl,” a song inspired by Concord native Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

Joe Hill on Trial for Murder

When John Morrison, a Salt Lake City shopkeeper, and his son Arling were killed at their store on January 10, 1914, Joe Hill was living and working nearby. A victim of a never-explained gunshot wound received the same night, Hill was arrested and charged with the crime.

“In reality, there was virtually no evidence to suggest that the police had the right man,” writes William Adler, in an excellent biography, The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon. “The state’s case was entirely circumstantial and leaned heavily on the theory that the younger

Morrison, in the moment before he had died, had fired the shot that had torn Hill’s chest. But the prosecutor could not prove that Morrison’ gun had been fired, let alone that Hill had been at the store. Nor could the state show a motive, or produce the murder weapons, or elicit testimony that positively identified the defendant. In short, the state failed to meet Utah’s statutory standard for a cased based on circumstantial evidence; that the chain of proof ‘be complete and unbroken and established beyond a reasonable doubt.’”

Hill insisted he had been with a woman that night and would not divulge her identity out of a sense of honor. Whether he had a naïve faith that the American system of justice really did put the burden of proof on the prosecution, or whether in some sense he desired martyrdom, he failed to mount an effective defense. “Like many Wobblies,” Adler writes, “Joe Hill was principled to the point of recklessness.”

Adler holds that Joe Hill chose “apparently came to believe, consciously or unconsciously, that he could better serve the union by dying. And later, once it was clear that he would not be getting a new trial, he perhaps came to see his death as necessary, or at the very least as valuable propaganda for advancing the cause of industrial unionism. The cause needed a martyr, someone to incite his fellow workers, to inspire them not to mourn but to organize, and he cast himself in that swaggering role.”

Adler says “The irony of Hill having taken on the role of good soldier in the class war was as inescapable as the penitentiary. For he was on trial for his life for a crime that had nothing to do with politics. Yet his prosecution, baseless as it was, in the end was about nothing but politics: about a partial judge … abetting an ambitious prosecutor to make the case that State of Utah v. Joseph Hillstrom was as much a class action against the IWW as it was a murder trial.”

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, “Utah was the first state to resume executions after capital punishment was reinstated in the United States in 1976, when Gary Gilmore was executed by a firing squad on January 17, 1977.” It is also the only state that has used a firing squad in recent times.

Many more rebels have been jailed on trumped up charges since Joe Hill’s day. And as has become terribly clear, plenty of people have been sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit. Since 1973, 140 people have been exonerated and freed from death row. How many innocent people are still under sentence of death is impossible to know, but a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimates it could be more than 4% of the death row population.

As for Joe Hill, “Death imbued his life with meaning,” Adler concluded. “What, after all, attests more powerfully to a righteous cause than the willingness to die for it?”

On June 27, 1914 Joe Hill was found guilty of the murder of John Morrison. He was killed by a firing squad on November 15, 1915.

Phil Ochs:

Yes, they lined Joe Hill up against the wall
Blindfold over his eyes
It’s the life of a rebel that he chose to live
It’s the death of a rebel that he died.

Ochs may have gotten a few facts wrong, but hey, it’s a folksong, and it worked for me.

The song Joan Baez sang at Woodstock is from a poem written by Alfred Hayes in 1934.  The labor icon appears in a dream.

“Joe Hill ain’t dead,” he says to me

“Joe Hill ain’t never died,

Where workingmen are out on strike,

Joe Hill is at their side.”

Yours for the O.B.U.

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Bread and Roses

labor day 2012 09 03 014

Memorial Unveiled at Bread and Roses Festival

Labor history is about struggle, not just victories, says historian and labor activist Dexter Arnold.  But the victory of workers 100 years ago in Lawrence MA is still worth remembering and celebrating.

“In January, 1912, 20,000 workers, mainly Southern and Eastern European immigrants, nearly half of them women, walked out of the mills and walked intolabor day 2012 09 03 008 history in a strike that captured national attention, won important economic gains, and created a new pattern of labor activism in Lawrence,” Brother Arnold said this afternoon at the unveiling of a monument dedicated to what has become known as the “Bread and Roses Strike.”  Uniting across lines of language, gender, and ethnicity, workers won improved wages after going on strike when textile mill bosses cut their pay.

Memory of the 1912 strike animates the annual Bread and Roses Festival that draws thousands to a Lawrence park, just a few blocks from the mill buildings where workers wove wool fabric.  This year’s festival, in the centennial year of the historic strike, had special significance for the activists, historians, civic leaders, and artists who have kept the festival going.  And where else would you hear a high school girls choral group sing “God Bless America” and “The Internationale” in the same set? labor day 2012 09 03 028

“Outsiders marveled at what was happening on the streets of Lawrence,” Arnold said of the nine week strike that rocked Lawrence a hundred years ago. “They marveled at the cooperation among members of different ethnic groups, at the workers’ enthusiastic militancy and effective organization, at their determination and courage in the face of brutal repression.”

The walkout was not spontaneous, according to Arnold, but followed agitation by militant members of the Industrial Workers of the World.  In fact, one thousand Italian workers attended an IWW-organized meeting the night before the strike began and voted to strike if pay was cut.  The IWW sent in experienced organizers later, and the strikers received tremendous support from workers in other communities. 

“Solidarity was crucial but the strike was won on the streets and in the neighborhoods of Lawrence” Arnold said.

An injury to one is still an injury to all

The importance of community mobilization is just one of the lessons we can learn labor day 2012 09 03 049 from Lawrence.  Steve Thornton, a Connecticut labor activist who has been researching IWW history in that state, highlighted another: the importance of organizing immigrants and low-skilled workers.   The American Federation of Labor, the dominant labor organization of the early 20th century, focused on native born, skilled workers, ignoring most of the women and immigrants in the workforce.  Lacking the vote, they found their voices in the workplace through direct action, which Thornton called “an under-utilized tool in our toolbox.”

“People’s victories come first and foremost from people’s movements,” Thornton said, not from elections or legislation. 

Of course, if all you knew of the labor movement came from this morning’s Labor Day Breakfast in Manchester you might draw the opposite impression.  This is an election year, and nasty, anti-union politics have nearly prevailed in New Hampshire over the past two years.  And while Brother Thornton might be right that victories come from movements and direct action, big defeats can come at the ballot box.  Election of anti-labor candidates in November will pave the way for backwards motion that would need years of organizing to reverse.  So perhaps it was fitting that the breakfast felt a bit more like a political than a labor rally.  The stakes are high indeed.

 

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“There’s mean things happenin’ in this land” go the lyrics of an old protest song labor day 2011 09 05 032 written by John Handcox, an organizer with the Southern Tenant Farmers Union during the Great Depression.  When Tom Juravich performed it this afternoon at the Bread and Roses Festival, none of the people singing along could have missed the song’s topical nature.  If we listen to the economists, the Great Recession has been over for two years, but even members of that often detached profession acknowledge that the economic “recovery” is leaving thousands of people behind. 

With state and local budget cuts sending public sector workers to the unemployment offices, where they are joined by hospital workers and staff of nonprofit agencies whose employers have lost public funding, life is getting pretty mean.  In my state, legislators are adding injury to insult by trying to impose new laws to reduce or eliminate the rights of workers to have a voice in the affairs of their workplaces.   Mean things, indeed, are happening in this land.

My friend Jan says it shouldn’t require two PhDs to explain how the erosion of workers’ rights and labor standards is related to the reduced clout of organized labor, but it can be useful to have academic research that proves the obvious.  A recent article by Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld in the American Sociological Review uses equations and statistics to show the correlation between the decline in union membership from 1973 to 2007 with rising income inequality in the USA.  “Unions helped institutionalize norms of equity,” they say, “reducing the dispersion of nonunion wages in highly unionized regions and industries.”  In other words, wages go up across the labor market when unions are strong.  When employers and their political allies succeed in busting unions, it’s not only the former union members who lose out. 

According to Western and Rosenfeld, de-unionization is responsible for one-third of increased wage inequality among men and one-fifth among women.  (Other causes include educational inequality, technological change, and trade, they say.)

Today’s Labor Day Breakfast in Manchester brought together  union members, lmark mackenzie labor day 2011 allies from social justice groups, and friendly politicians, all united in efforts to stem the growing income gap by stopping the assault on unions.  Mark MacKenzie, President of the NH AFL-CIO, praised public safety and utility workers who performed their jobs during the recent tropical storm and said, “We want a New Hampshire that cares about people, that cares about the middle class.”  Governor John Lynch, who vetoed the “right to work for less” bill and the bill eliminating the state’s minimum wage, received more than one standing ovation and encouragement to seek a fifth term. 

That the moderate Lynch is seen as such a vital champion is an indication of how mean things have gotten.   Speaker of the House Bill O’Brien and the ALEC/Tea Party faction that controls the legislature is determined to overturn the right-to-work veto. Legislative committees are ready to go to work on dismantling pubic sector collective bargaining and privatizing state departments.  More than a dozen more anti-union bills are already on the agenda for the 2012 legislative session. 

If we want to preserve the middle class, it might behoove us to remember how the labor movement got started in the first place.  That’s one reason to attend the annual Bread and Roses Festival in Lawrence. The festival takes its name from a major textile strike that broke out in 1912 when 20,000 workers went on strike to protest cuts in wages and hours. 

In the words of the festival’s sponsor,

For nine weeks in a bitterly cold winter, over 20,000 workers, mostly new immigrants, dared to challenge the mill owners and other city authorities. Thousands of picketers, many of them women, faced state militia armed with guns and clubs. But the strikers were generally peaceful. The two fatalities were both of strikers. A cache of dynamite, first attributed to the strikers, turned out to be planted by mill owners and their friends in a clumsy plot to discredit the strikers and their radical union, the Industrial Workers of the World. Observers were impressed by the strikers’ inter-ethnic cooperation, their soup kitchens, the important role of women, and their reliance on song to bolster their spirits and express their beliefs. Some women strikers reportedly carried banners proclaiming “We want bread, and roses too”, symbolizing their fight both for subsistence and for dignity. Although the use of the phrase here has never been documented, the “Bread and Roses Strike”, symbolizing the fight for subsistence and dignity, has stuck as the name for this seminal event.

The strikers won public sympathy, drew on solidarity from workers in other communities, and won the strike.   According to Steve Thornton, a union organizer steve thornton @ bread & roses from Hartford, 200,000 workers saw their wages rise because employers feared they would face similar strikes otherwise.  (Western and Rosenfeld would say the Break and Roses strike helped “materialize labor market norms of equity.”)  Speaking in the festival’s labor history tent, Steve said the 1912 strike inspired unions in Connecticut and spread the concept of industrial unionism, an alternative to the craft unions of the American Federation of Labor that so easily led to divisions among workers in the same workplace.  

The IWW also spread the concept of free speech, which Steve said really meant little “until unions won it.”  Their practice was to insist on holding public rallies in public places, even when public officials denied them permission.  Sometimes they ended up filling the jails, not just the streets.  

The IWW slogan, “an injury to one is an injury to all” is due for a comeback.   It would help if we can find some sociologists to prove it’s still true.

 

 

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