Don’t Mourn – Organize! – The 100 Year Anniversary of the Execution of Joe Hill

by Brendan Maslauskas Dunn/Love and Rage

“Don’t mourn – organize!” These were the powerful words written in a letter to fellow union agitator Big Bill Haywood by the revolutionary immigrant troubadour Joe Hill in 2015. Or so the story goes. Hill was falsely accused of a murder in Salt Lake City, Utah during a period in US history known as the first Red Scare. Joe Hill was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), popularly known as Wobblies, the revolutionary union that sought to organize the unorganized. This included unskilled laborers, industrial workers, farm workers, immigrants, women, Black and Asian workers, all workers into “one big union” and unite as one class to usher in a “cooperative commonwealth” to take the place of the brutality and inequality of the capitalist system. Joe Hill was, in a sense, the voice of the Wobblies.

Hill, whose birth name was Joel Emmanuel Hägglund, emigrated from Sweden to the United States in 1902 with his brother Paul in search of a better life. What he found however was a system of exploitation, of poverty and massive inequality. He became a migrant worker and traveled from coast to coast, hopping trains, working any job he could find and struggling just to get by. He lived in New York City, moved to Cleveland and eventually to the West Coast. It was there where he joined the IWW.

The IWW was established in 1905 with the goal to organize the unorganized. Wobblies organized large scale strikes in the knitting mills and textile industry on the East Coast. Timber workers joined the ranks of the union in the Pacific Northwest. Irish immigrants, white and Black workers joined en masse on the waterfronts of Philadelphia. In the Deep South, Wobblies started the fight for integration as they organized white and Black workers into the same organization. Agricultural workers and migrant workers in the Midwest, miners from coast to coast and ship workers across the oceans joined the union. The union sprouted up in Canada, Mexico, South America, Australia and workers even signed up across Asia and Africa. It was a moment in history when anti-colonial and revolutionary movements erupted around the world and Wobblies were right in the whirlwind.

The IWW was also active right here in the Mohawk Valley. Irish revolutionary and Wobbly James Connolly called the Mohawk Valley home once. In Little Falls, immigrant workers from Italy and central Europe staged a bitter strike, fought back against police violence and braved political persecution during the Free Speech Fights that took place in town in defiance of ordinances that were passed to make it illegal for Wobblies and socialists to speak in public. In Schenectady, 3,000 Wobblies staged the first sit-down strike in US history at General Electric. In Utica, the famous Italian immigrant Wobbly and anarchist Carlo Tresca came to the city to participate in the national convention of the Italian Socialist Federation and later on to lead a raucous march of several hundred Italian radicals of every stripe to a theater where Italian fascist Giuseppe Bottai, an honored guest of the city, to confront him and, quite literally, chase him out of town. Wobblies organized workers in Utica and frequently met at a local hub for radicals at the corner of Mohawk Street and Bleeker Street in the building that houses Garro’s Drugs today. It was a common sight to witness several hundred activists on any given night arguing over the finer points of revolution, anarchism and socialism out in the intersection. Utica was also visited by famous radicals like Emma Goldman, Hubert Harrison, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Big Bill Haywood among others. There were cities and towns across the whole nation that mirrored the kind of revolutionary activity here in the Mohawk Valley.

Wobblies preferred direct action on the shop floor and short-lived strikes to make change rather than taking political action. They organized across industries and as a class rather than the more conservative AFL approach of organizing workers by craft and trade which only served the bosses’ strategy to divide and conquer workers. Wobblies created a unique working class and revolutionary culture that brought in the radical beliefs of anarchists, socialists and syndicalists as well as the cultures of countless European immigrants, Asians, Mexicans, as well as white and Black workers. They felt that the best way to create “a new world in the shell of the old” was through general strikes and workers collectively leveraging their power where it existed: economically and through their jobs. Most Wobblies loathed elections and the whole electoral process, seeing it as a painfully slow way to make change, rigged by the rich and ultimately authoritarian as it reinforced a system of hierarchy and exploitation, even under the most labor friendly and socialist government. A better world could never be voted into being. It had to be fought for through the organization of workers into one class, and through the general strike where workers would stop all industries and eventually take it over themselves and run it democratically. Joe Hill was fiercely attracted to these ideas.

Hill was a laborer, a mine worker, a union agitator and organizer, and a dreamer. He became a voice for the union through his music. In some cases, he took popular tunes of the day and changed their, at often times religious, lyrics into revolutionary anti-capitalist ones. Some of his more well-known songs were “The Preacher and the Slave,” “The Rebel Girl,” “There is Power in the Union,” “The Tramp” and “Casey Joins – The Union Scab.” His songs were sung on picket lines, in union halls, in the famed Free Speech Fights of the IWW, in the fields, the factories, the mines. His music and his ideas were a threat to the established order.

In an atmosphere of increased repression against socialists, anarchists, syndicalists, Wobblies and other radicals, Joe Hill would became one of many untold casualties in the US government’s war against the radical left. In the 1910s criminal syndicalism laws were passed to make it a crime to be an anarchist or revolutionary unionist. Wobblies were rounded up and thrown in prison on trumped up charges, law enforcement spied on and infiltrated various radical movements, IWW union halls were raided by mobs and police officers alike, radicals were deported, sent into hiding, tortured, lynched. It was an all-out war and Joe Hill became one of its most famous casualties.

During a robbery in 1914 in Salt Lake City, two masked gunmen shot and killed a store owner. Joe Hill, who was working as a laborer in a mine locally, was an easy scapegoat. He was an immigrant and a Wobbly –  a well-known one at that. The trial was wrought with inconsistencies and controversy and occurred in an atmosphere of anti-radical hysteria: within only a few hours the jury decided Joe Hill was guilty. While awaiting his execution, Hill wrote a letter to the IWW secretary Big Bill Haywood saying, “Goodbye Bill. I die like a true blue rebel. Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize.” He also wrote a poetic and powerful last will to Haywood.

My will is easy to decide,
For there is nothing to divide.
My kin don’t need to fuss and moan,
“Moss does not cling to rolling stone.”

My body? Oh, if I could choose
I would to ashes it reduce,
And let the merry breezes blow,
My dust to where some flowers grow.

Perhaps some fading flower then
Would come to life and bloom again.
This is my Last and final Will.
Good Luck to All of you,
Joe Hill

When he was put in front of a firing squad, he yelled out for the executioners to fire. Even at the moment of his death he resisted the notion that anyone could be a master over him. His music has been sung in union halls, picket lines, strikes and protests in various movements since then. His music comes from a long tradition of protest music that includes slave songs, blues, the folk revival of the 1960s and hip hop in the 1980s and 90s. His message of rebellion can be heard in the lyrics of musicians ranging from Bob Dylan to Tupac Shakur. Joe Hill’s union still exists to this day and holds on dearly to the original revolutionary ethos of the organization. Long before the Fight for Fifteen campaign started, Wobblies were busy organizing fast food and low wage workers in the Starbucks Workers Union and the Jimmy Johns Workers Union. Wobblies were also instrumental in starting and launching Occupy Wall Street in 2011.

Joe Hill is not an American martyr, nor is he a Swedish martyr. He is a martyr for migrants, for immigrants and for the working class the world over. While the forces of reaction and repression in the world today, whether in the form of ISIS bombings, politicians calling for curbs or limits to refugees fleeing war zones, or in the other, greater form of terrorism launched by Western planes and armies on entire populations in the Middle East, may deter us from standing up, speaking out, and organizing, Joe Hill’s life, his death, his words and his music remind us that no matter what happens, we need to continue in our struggle, in our organizing for a better world.

We can see this new world taking shape locally at the grassroots, nationally and internationally. We can see it in the movements for immigrant and refugee justice, any union or worker struggle, in movements to end wars between nations. The spirit of Joe Hill, and of all the martyrs who gave their lives for the cause of freedom, dignity and revolution lives on in the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore, in the strikes at Mizzou and in the fast food industry, in the Rojava Revolution in Kurdistan, in the Lumad communities of the Philippines, in the struggle for Palestinian liberation, in the student movement of South Africa, at the borders of Europe, in the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico. Wherever there is struggle, wherever people are fighting for a better world, we can see Joe Hill and all of our martyrs live on.

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