Saturday, May 27, 2017

Union Workers Memorial Day Joe Hill Tribute


Joel Emmanuel Hägglund, who Anglicized his name to Joseph Hillström, and eventually as Joe Hill, was an immigrant from Sweden who, like so many during the sporadic employment of the sweeping depressions of the early 1900's, was an itinerant worker, known at that time as a tramp.
 
In his travels from mine to mill and back again, Joe learned English, and he learned some other things too. He learned of the rampant injustice of unrestrained free market capitalism that made a few men wealthy beyond measure, and left the masses destitute, without hope, and powerless.
 
Joe would use his acquired knowledge of capitalism to organize workers into the Industrial Workers of the World union everywhere he went. And he did it in part, by using songs and poetry and cartoons that were published in the Industrial Worker newspaper. 
 
One such song was Where the Fraser River Flows:

Fellow workers pay attention to what I'm going to mention,
For it is the fixed intention of the Workers of the World.
And I hope you'll all be ready, true-hearted, brave and steady,
To gather 'round our standard when the red flag is unfurled.
CHORUS:
Where the Fraser river flows, each fellow worker knows,
They have bullied and oppressed us, but still our union grows.
And we're going to find a way, boys, for shorter hours and better pay, boys
And we're going to win the day, boys, where the river Fraser flows.
For these gunny-sack contractors have all been dirty actors,
And they're not our benefactors, each fellow worker knows.
So we've got to stick together in fine or dirty weather,
And we will show no white feather, where the Fraser river flows.Now the boss the law is stretching, bulls and pimps he's fetching,
And they are a fine collection, as Jesus only knows.
But why their mothers reared them, and why the devil spared them,
Are questions we can't answer, where the Fraser River flows.
You can listen to the song as performed by Utah Phillips here:

 
Joe's words and cartoons touched workers and inspired thousands to organize until 1914, when he was shot by a close friend and fellow countryman in a fight over a girl. Unwilling to turn his brother in when he sought medical attention, authorities and mining bosses in Utah seized upon the opportunity to have him charged with the murder of  a store owner and his son, despite having no motive, and relatives of the victim who testified that Joe Hill was not among the murderers.  
 
Despite international calls for clemency, on November 19th, 1915, guards walked Joe Hill to a chair in the Utah prison yard and secured him to it. When Deputy Shettler, who led the firing squad, called out the sequence of commands ("Ready, aim,") Hill shouted, "Fire — go on and fire!"
 
Joe Hill's bullet riddled body on display


Minutes before his state sponsored murder, Hill had written a note to Big Bill Haywood, of the Western federation of Miners and IWW leader, saying, "Goodbye Bill. I die like a true blue rebel. Don't waste any time in mourning. Organize... Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the state line to be buried? I don't want to be found dead in Utah."
 
 
 
Joe Hill's actual last will and testament:
 
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-
 
 
All working people's movements are built upon a foundation of genuine sacrifice. Power does not give itself up. The rich do not roll over and play dead. Not then. Not now. Not ever. Never have. Never will.
 
Countless men and women like Joe Hill sacrificed everything so we could inherit a world where workers at least had basic rights, and hope for the future, and opportunities to provide for our families and ourselves, even in sickness and retirement.
 
This Memorial Day Weekend, it is more important than ever to remember labor's martyrs like Joe Hill, and recognize that the history of the working class in America has been paved upon a road of blood and sacrifice. Thousands have perished fighting an unjust system. Thousands still die here every year at work in America, desiring only to provide for themselves and their families.
 
We stand today upon a precipice in time. We as a people shall either descend into an abyss where the working classes once again know only pain and suffering, devoid of medical care or fair wages, or protections under the law, or we shall rise up and emerge stronger than ever before, pushing forward into a world where our children and grandchildren can live well, work safely, and look forward to spending quality time with their own grandchildren in their retirement years.
 
A lot has changed in the one hundred years since Joe Hill was murdered by the copper mining bosses in Utah. A lot of things have remained the same though. The resources of a nation and a world are still dolled out by politicians to a handful of men wealthy enough to bribe them for the privilege.
 
Those men still amass unfathomable fortunes to the peril of the masses. Those men will still stop at nothing to amass those fortunes, grinding up the bones of everyone else in a machine designed to strip every man, woman and child of their labor, their dignity, and eventually, their lives. As I write this, Congress works toward eliminating healthcare for millions of Americans. States are repealing minimum wage protections advanced by localities. Labor protections of every kind are being stripped away, as capitalists seek to unravel a hundred years worth of labor advances.  
 
Men like Joe Hill had to sacrifice their all to earn the privileges we inherited. We had only to vote and to call our Congressional delegations and keep them accountable, but we failed miserably to do even that much. Luckily, for our own children and grandchildren, the answer remains right in front of us still. We still have the power over capitalists and Congress alike, and it is, as it always has been, right there, just as Joe Hill said it was a hundred years before...
 
 

 

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