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article image'I dreamed I saw Joe Hill’ last night among people in Wisconsin

By Carol Forsloff     Feb 18, 2011 in Politics
Madison - Wisconsin’s labor movement is front page news today, but while workers demonstrate on Madison’s streets, the story of Joe Hill relates the violent history and types of stories that have identified the history of the labor movement in this country.
Labor has taken to the streets in Madison, union members in great numbers, to oppose Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s bill to dismantle collective bargaining and maintain what it says are essential rights. In doing this, workers are said to be continuing an American tradition.
The complexity of the union movement, and the tyranny of opposition towards it, is often told in the patterns of the life of Joe Hill. This folk figure hero happened to be, according to historical accounts, a man of many sides. He was active in the labor movements as a socialist. His pronouncements and his involvements brought him notoriety, just like the labor movements in which he was involved. The protests resemble those that occurred during the time of Joe Hill.
Hill was a vagabond of sorts. According to accounts of his life, he stretched his personal boundaries to maintain himself while working for the cause. The hero badge put on him by the unions has been tarnished in perspective of that time.
Hill was born in Sweden in 1882 and came to America in 1902 and became a socialist in 1910. He settled in California where as a singer of songs he wrote his own as well as a songbook. Some of those songs were social protest ones and used at union demonstrations.
About his nature Hil’s biographer, Franklin Rosemont, has pointed out: "Hill contributed to the IWW cause primarily as wordsmith and artist rather than as organizer or soap-boxer. He loved to draw and his cartoons show that he carefully studied the work of such pioneering exemplars of the cartoonist's art as F.B. Opper and Rube Goldberg. He played piano, accordion, guitar, and banjo, and clearly enjoyed the popular music of his day."
Conflicting stories soon developed over what happened next to Joe and why. He lived near where a robbery-shooting had occurred and was arrested for the crime when he arrived a doctor’s office with a bullet in his lung, that he said happened when he was shot during an argument with a woman. The doctor turned him into the police.
Rosemont’s narrative describes what happened next. “The police chief of San Pedro, who had once held Hill for thirty days on a charge of "vagrancy" because of his efforts to organize longshoremen, wrote to the Salt Lake City police: "I see you have under arrest for murder one Joseph Hillstrom. You have the right man... He is certanly an undesirable citizen. He is somewhat of a musician and writer of songs for the IWW songbook."
What happened then has formed part of the conflicting beliefs about Hill’s beliefs and work with the unions, as the biographer continues:
Leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World argued that Hill had been framed as a warning to others considering trade union activity. Even William Spry, the Republican governor of Utah admitted that he wanted to use the case to "stop street speaking" and to clear the state of this "lawless elements, whether they be corrupt businessmen, IWW agitators, or whatever name they call themselves"
The Hill biography continues with its description of what happened at the trial that took place in Salt Lake City. At the time none of the witnesses identified him, the bullet that hit Hill was not found in the store. Furthermore, neither was any of Hill's blood. Hill had been accused of going to the store to steal, and yet no money had been taken. Furthermore, a gunman was heard to say, "We've got you now," a statement the defense used to argue Hill had been set up. With no previous connection with any of those involved in the crime, Hill was nevertheless found guilty of murder.
He was executed by firing squad on November 19, 1915, this union folk hero of history. Rosemont tells us this, "Nearly all historians have come to recognize as one of the worst travesties of justice in American history. After a trial riddled with biased rulings, suppression of important defense evidence, and other violations of judicial procedure characteristic of cases involving labor radicals, Hill was convicted and sentenced to death."
The labor movement stories have produced different views of worker movements people have today. The fact is as labor has diminished in power and in numbers, it has done so as corporation power grew. Divisions also occurred among the several states about right to work as well. Louisiana, for example, is one of those without the union groups. It also has the lowest wages and remains one of the poor states in the country.
Collective bargaining is a way for people to organize and to present their grievances and needs. It is the core of unionism. It was only when collective bargaining opened up spigots allowing workers to address their needs, America developed its middle class, historians relate. Some of those who twisted those spigots were men just like Joe Hill.
More about Joe Hill, labor movement, Unions, history of unionism, Wisconsin
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