Monday, November 16, 2009

The Man Who Didn't Die

The Man Who Didn't Die


By Dick Meister


It's Nov. 19, 1915, in a courtyard of the Utah State

Penitentiary in Salt Lake City. Five riflemen take

careful aim at a condemned organizer for the Industrial

Workers of the World, Joe Hill, who stands before them

straight and stiff and proud.


"Fire!" he shouts defiantly.


The firing squad didn't miss. But Joe Hill, as the folk

ballad says, "ain't never died." He lives on as one of

the most enduring and influential of American symbols.


Joe Hill's story is that of a labor martyr framed for

murder by viciously anti-labor employer and government

forces, a man who never faltered in fighting for the

rights of the oppressed, who never faltered in his

attempts to bring them together for the collective

action essential if they were to overcome their wealthy

and powerful oppressors.


His is the story of a man and an organization destroyed

by government opposition yet immensely successful. As

historian Joyce Kornbluh noted, the IWW made "an

indelible mark on the American labor movement and

American society," laying the groundwork for mass

unionization, inspiring the formation of groups to

protect the civil liberties of dissidents, prompting

prison and farm labor reforms, and leaving behind "a

genuine heritage ... industrial democracy."


Joe Hill's story is the story of perhaps the greatest

of all folk poets, whose simple, satirical rhymes set

to simple, familiar melodies did so much to focus

working people on the common body of ideals needed to

forge them into a collective force.


Remember? "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."


Ralph Chaplain, the IWW bard who wrote "Solidarity

Forever," found Hill's songs "as coarse as homespun and

as fine as silk; full of laughter and keen-edged

satire; full of fine rage and finer tenderness; songs

of and for the worker, written in the only language he

can understand."


Joe Hill's story is the story of a man who saw with

unusual clarity the unjust effects of the political,

social and economic system on working people and whose

own widely publicized trial and execution alerted

people worldwide to the injustices and spurred them

into corrective action.


It's the story of a man who told his IWW comrades, just

before stepping in front of the firing squad: "Don't

waste any time in mourning. Organize!"


Hill's comrades aimed at nothing less than organizing

all workers into One Big Union regardless of their

race, nationality, craft or work skills, calling a

general strike and wresting control of the economy from

its capitalist masters. The revolutionary message was

presented in the simple language of the workplace, in

the songs of Hill, Chaplain and others, in the

streetcorner oratory and in a tremendous outpouring of

publications, including a dozen foreign-language

newspapers which were distributed among the many

unskilled immigrants from European nations where unions

had similar goals.


Workers were told again and again that they all had the

same problems, the same needs and faced the same enemy.

It was they who did the work, while others got the

profit; they were members, all of them, of the working

class. To aspire to middle-class status, as the

established labor movement advocated, would mean

competing against their fellow workers and chaining

themselves to a system that enslaved them.


Organized religion also was a tool of enslavement, to

keep the worker's eye on that "pie in the sky" while he

was being exploited in this world. Patriotism was a

ruse to set the workers of one nation against those of

another for the profit of capitalist manipulators.


IWW organizers carried the message to factories, mines,

mills and lumber camps throughout the country, and to

farms in the Midwest and California.


The cause of radical unionism to which Joe Hill devoted

his life was lost a long time ago. The call to

revolution is scarcely heard in today's clamorously

capitalist society. Labor organizations seek not to

seize control of the means of production but rather to

share in the fruits of an economic system controlled by

others. Yet Joe Hill's fiery words and fiery deeds, his

courage and his sacrifices continue to inspire

political, labor, civil rights and civil liberties activists.


They still sing his songs, striking workers, dissident

students and others, on picket lines, in

demonstrations, at rallies, on the streets and in

auditoriums. They echo his spirit of protest and

militancy, his demand for true equality, share his

fervent belief in solidarity, even use tactics first

employed by Hill and his comrades.


Hill emigrated to the United States from his native

Sweden in 1902, changing his name from Joel Haaglund,

working as a seaman and as an itinerant wheat

harvester, pipe layer, copper miner and at other jobs

as he made his way across the country to San Diego,

translating into compelling lyrics the hopes and

desires, the frustrations and discontents of his fellow workers.


In San Diego, Hill joined in one of the first of the

many "free speech fights" waged by the Industrial

Workers of the World against attempts by municipal

authorities around the country to silence the

streetcorner oratory that was a key part of the IWW's

organizing strategy.


Not long afterward Hill hopped a freight for Salt Lake

City, where he helped lead a successful construction

workers' strike and began helping organize another free

speech fight. But within a month, he was arrested on

charges of shooting to death a grocer and his son and

was immediately branded guilty by the local newspapers

and authorities alike. Ultimately, Hill was convicted

on only the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence.


Hill had staggered into a doctor's office within an

hour after the shootings, bleeding from a chest wound

that he said had stemmed from a quarrel over a woman.

The prosecutor argued that the wound was inflicted by

the grocer in response to an attack by Hill, although

he did not introduce into evidence either the grocer's

gun or the bullet that allegedly was fired from it. He

did not introduce the gun that Hill allegedly used and

did not call a single witness who could positively

identify Hill as the killer. But he easily convinced

the jury that the murders were an example of IWW

terrorism and that since Hill was an IWW leader and had

been arrested and charged with the crime, he was guilty.


As Hill's futile appeals made their way through the

courts, Gov. William Spry of Utah was swamped with

thousands of petitions and letters from all over the

world asking for a pardon or commutation. But he would

not even be swayed by the pleas for mercy from the

Swedish ambassador. Not even by the pleas of U.S.

President Woodrow Wilson.


The governor paid much greater attention to the views

of Utah's powerful Mormon Church leaders and powerful

employer interests, particularly those who controlled

the state's dominant copper mining industry. They

insisted that the man they considered one of the most

dangerous radicals in the country be put to death.


Joe Hill's body was shipped to Chicago, where it was

cremated after a hero's funeral, the ashes divided up

and sent to IWW locals for scattering on the winds in

every state except Utah. Hill, with typical grim humor,

had declared that "I don't want to be caught dead in Utah."


Even in death, Hill was not safe from the government.

One packet of his ashes, sent belatedly to an IWW

organizer in 1917 for scattering in Chicago, was seized

by postal inspectors. They acted under the Espionage

Act, passed after the United States entered World War I

that year, which made it illegal to mail any material

that advocated "treason, insurrection. or forcible

resistance to any law of the United States."


The envelope, containing about a tablespoon of Hill's

ashes, was sent to the National Archives in Washington,

D.C. It remained hidden there until 1988, when it was

discovered and turned over in Chicago to the men who

presided over what little remained of the Industrial

Workers of the World, shrunken to only a few hundred members.


The Post Office apparently had objected to the caption

beneath a photo of Hill on the front of the envelope.

"Joe Hill," it said -- "murdered by the capitalist

class, Nov. 19, 1915."



Portside aims to provide material of interest

to people on the left that will help them to

interpret the world and to change it.



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