Thursday, November 19, 2015

Joe Hill, martyred 100 years ago

19 November 2015, is the 100th anniversary of the execution of labor activist Joe Hill.  Joe Hill became something of a folk hero and legend (and a martyr) after he was executed for a murder he probably didn't commit, mainly because he was part of the Industrial Workers of the World (also known as the "Wobblies").  He was killed to silence his voice.

If you value the standard 40-hour week, and the standard 8-hour work day, overtime pay, paid sick leave, unemployment benefits if you are involuntarily separated from your job, and company-paid health insurance for full-time employees, especially if you retired with a company-provided defined benefit pension plan, then you have an obligation to support the American labor movement and to respect the men and women who made great sacrifices for the sake of all American workers.

You can look down on Wisconsin's striking teachers with disdain if you wish.  You can believe that they just don't realize how good they have it, but the truth?  They know how exactly how good they have it, and they know that they can keep what they have only if they are willing to organize, cooperate, and fight for it. The right to bargain collectively (as a "union") wasn't handed to them gratuitously.  Just like the fair labor standards, wages, and retirements we all have. Unless we have the backbone to defend them, they will be steadily eroded until they no longer exist.  Power never yields without a fight.  And America's workers need to realize that nothing being taken from them now is being done so as a final measure, or as a temporary measure.

We owe the fighters.

I'd like to recognize one of America's great heroes of the struggle for America's workers.  Joe Hill became something of a folk hero and legend (and a martyr) after he was executed for a murder he possibly did not commit.  Circumstantial evidence did seem to implicate Hill, but he was executed mainly because he was part of a labor movement, the Industrial Workers of the World (also known as the "Wobblies").  He was killed to shut him up.  That's how serious the fight for fair labor standards and safe working conditions is.

Joe Hill was executed at the Utah State Penitentiary in Salt Lake City by five riflemen.  He is said to have stood before them straight and stiff and proud.

And his last word was spoken defiantly:  "Fire!"

And before his death, he wrote to a friend and fellow labor organizer, "Don't waste any time in mourning. Organize."

Here's an interesting twist to his story:

Some of Joe Hill's ashes were sent belatedly to an Industrial Workers of the World organizer in 1917 to be scattered in Chicago.  The envelope was seized by postal inspectors who were acting 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."  Even after his death, they were afraid of Joe Hill.

The envelope, containing only a few grams of Hill's ashes, was sent to the National Archives in Washington, DC, where it remained hidden 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.  The caption read:

Joe Hill – murdered by the capitalist class, November 19, 1915.

Even after his death, they were afraid of Joe Hill.

You know, most of us are faced, at least once in our lives, with a decision that requires a great deal of courage ... I'm thinking now of a father, who had to decide to remove his wife and my mother from a respirator in 1991.   But most of those decisions won't bring us fame or fortune, notoriety or renown, they are just what they are ... decisions that have to be made.   And they are no more difficult, and our choices no more courageous, than those that we read about in history books.

All of us, regardless of our circumstances, should be prepared to meet life's challenges with resolve and with courage.

We remember Joe Hill today because Joe didn't whimper.

 Joe Hill (1879–1915)

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