November 19 marks the 100th anniversary of the execution of Joe Hill, the iconic labor troubadour and troublemaker. The anniversary is being marked by events from Sydney, Australia, to Berlin, Germany, by soapboxing and concerts across the United States, and by the release of a new, expanded edition of The Letters of Joe Hill published by Haymarket Books, including all of Joe Hill’s surviving articles, letters, poems and songs.
Like millions of immigrants today, Joe Hill lived much of his life in the shadows. He worked the odd jobs available to immigrants, living much of his life on the road. He was press-ganged into rescue work following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, had to talk his way out of deportation when he returned to the United States after joining other Wobblies who fought alongside the Magonistas in the Mexican Revolution, and was routinely harassed by police as an agitator, but also because he was poor. And he was judicially murdered at age 36 by authorities who cared not one whit that he was innocent of the charges against him.
Today, as a result of biographies by William Adler and Gibbs Smith, we know a great deal about Joe Hill’s life, and about the sordid conspiracy that took it from him. But his fellow workers recognized a century ago the crime that was being perpetrated. Hundreds of thousands joined protests, wrote letters, and passed resolutions demanding Joe Hill’s release. Thirty thousand workers thronged his funeral in Chicago, and his ashes were scattered the whole world over.
During his five years as a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, Joe Hill wrote dozens of songs and several articles and poems for the IWW press. He served as strike committee secretary during an IWW dockworkers strike in San Pedro, California, and traveled to British Columbia to lend a hand during the IWW’s Fraser River strike of railroad construction workers, writing songs that bolstered morale along the legendary 1,000-mile picket line.
The new edition of his letters restores the full text of two letters excerpted in the first edition (edited by labor historian Philip S. Foner), published on the 50th anniversary of his execution, adds 16 letters and other writings discovered since that edition was published, and all of his surviving songs. (The new edition includes new material and expanded notes by former IWW organizer and General Secretary-Treasurer Alexis Buss, and a preface by rock guitarist and singer Tom Morello.) It is far from complete – no letters survive from Joe Hill’s first eight months in jail, and very few of his pre-arrest letters have been saved. (Four surviving postcards sent to a fellow Swedish immigrant turned up only decades after Hill’s execution. The cards were sent care-of the Sailors Union hall, and evidently carried in his seabag for years. Much of Joe Hill’s correspondence was surely lost by recipients who did not realize its historical significance, or destroyed – like the transcripts of the judicial proceedings against him – by officials who did.)
27 Ways of Striking
When the San Pedro dockworkers called off their strike in 1912, Joe Hill wrote:
The I.W.W. has 27 different ways of striking and after we have tried the remaining 26 varieties the Stevedoring Companies may be willing to grant our demands.
We pulled out about 600 men … and the tie-up would have been complete had it not been for 10 or 12 of my-country-‘tis-of-thee stiffs with sick wives, and lots to pay installments on, and other similar excuses. They are strongly in favor of an increase in wages, but when it comes to making a fight for it – Oh No! Nothing doing!
Striking on the job, Joe Hill believed, was essential to winning better conditions. In an article he wrote from prison for the International Socialist Review, he returned to this theme:
If every worker would devote ten or fifteen minutes every day to the interests of himself and his class, after devoting eight hours or more to the interests of his employer, it would not be long before the unemployed army would be a thing of the past and the profit of the bosses would melt away so fast that they would not be able to afford professional man-killers to murder the workers and their families in a case of strike.
The best way to strike, however, is to ‘strike on the job.’ First present your demands to the boss. If he should refuse to grant them, don’t walk out and give the scabs a chance to take your places. No, just go back to work as though nothing had happened and try the new method of warfare.
When things begin to happen be careful not to ‘fix the blame’ on any certain individual… The boss will soon find that the cheapest way out of it is to grant your demands. …
Striking on the job is a science and should be taught as such. … It develops mental keenness and inventive genius in the working class and is the only known antidote for the infamous ‘Taylor System.’
The aim of the ‘Taylor System’ seems to be to work one-half of the workers to death and starve the other half to death. The strike on the job will give every worker a chance to make an honest living. … It will stop the butchering of the workers in time of peace as well as in time of war.
What We Want
True freedom, Joe Hill realized, could come only through an organized working class recognizing its common humanity, organizing its solidarity, and acting in its own behalf. His songs ridiculed those who thought themselves better than other workers because of their craft or ethnicity or race. In “Scissor Bill” and other songs he takes on racism and jingoism. Hill condemns police brutality in his very first article published in the Industrial Worker, “Another Victim of the Uniformed Thugs,” a subject he returned to in several songs.
In many of his letters and songs, Joe Hill urged the organization of women. His 1913 song “What We Want” couples the organization of “the sailor and the tailor and the lumberjacks” with “all the cooks and laundry girls,” “the trucker and the mucker and the hired man, and all the factory girls and clerks. Yes, we want every one that works in one union grand.”
Hill wrote about the billions spent on guns and ammunition while millions live in misery (indeed, his very last song, written on the eve of his execution, condemned the human cost of the war then raging in Europe), the homeless chased from town to town, sweatshops and temp jobs, and the plight of workers condemned to the scrap heap once the bosses had extracted every last bit of profit.
But he also wrote of hope, of the possibilities for a better world.
Sitting in prison awaiting execution, Joe Hill was asked to write a song about the plight of the growing numbers of unemployed workers forced to turn to soup kitchens for their sustenance. His song, “It’s a long way down to the soupline,” is not content to bemoan the plight of the jobless. No, “Bill and sixteen million men responded to the call, To force the hours of labor down and thus make jobs for all. They picketed the industries and won the four-hour day…” This cheerful ditty about unemployment ends like this:
The workers own the factories now, where jobs were once destroyed, By big machines that filled the world with hungry unemployed. They all own homes, they’re living well, they’re happy free and strong, but millionaires wear overalls and sing this little song.
Joe Hill never died
So says the song written two decades after his execution, and sung since then the whole world over. Joe Hill’s legacy lives not only in his songs, many of which continue to be sung, but also in his advocacy of a labor movement that recognizes our common humanity, that organizes across borders and divides of race and gender; that empowers workers to recognize their common interests, and to act in their own behalf; and that holds fast to a vision of a better world.
If the workers take a notion, they can stop all speeding trains;
Every ship upon the ocean they can tie with mighty chains.
Every wheel in the creation, every mine and every mill,
Fleets and armies of the nation, will at their command stand still. …
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 for bread will be crying, we’ll have freedom, love and health;
When the grand red flag is flying in the Workers’ Commonwealth.’”
(Workers of the World Awaken, written in the Salt Lake City prison in September 1914)