If legendary labor activist Joe Hill were alive today — and some contend that he is — he would have plenty to say about the state of the American worker. And the country, if it listened, would have plenty to learn.
Hill, who was executed in Utah 100 years ago this month, was an unapologetically radical union organizer whose rough-hewn songs and poems matched the brutal working conditions endured by tens of millions of Americans in the early 20th century. While his lyrics might at first sound anachronistic to contemporary audiences, their underlying spirit speaks directly to the experiences of far too many in our often unforgiving 21st century economy.
“Would you have freedom from wage slavery… Would you from mis’ry and hunger be free,” from Hill’s 1913 anthem “There Is Power in a Union,” could easily have been inspired by the thousands of truck drivers who haul goods to and from the nation’s largest port in Los Angeles.
November 19 marks the 100-year anniversary of Joe Hill’s execution by a Utah firing squad for a sensationalized Salt Lake City double homicide. Hill, a 36-year-old Swedish immigrant, was an itinerant laborer and union organizer for the Wobblies – the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Today most historians view Hill’s arrest as a police frame-up and consider his trial and execution as, at the least, a politically motivated miscarriage of justice, if not outright judicial murder.
Hill’s mythic stature continues to serve as the soul of the struggle for workers’ rights and economic equality, and interest in his life shows no sign of abating — a phenomenon that is reflected in the ongoing yearlong series of exhibits, book events and concerts commemorating his death.
Joe Hill, of course, was no ordinary organizer but also a poet and balladeer whose knack for taking a well-known hymn or folksong,