Remembering Joe Hill

On the 100th anniversary of the execution of labor organizer and songsmith Joe Hill, Alexis Buss, contributor to the book The Letters of Joe Hill, speaks on Hill’s life, work, and legacy.

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Story Transcript

DHARNA NOOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Dharna Noor joining you from Baltimore.

[Music]

NOOR: That was Joe Hill, or The Ballad of Joe Hill, written by Alfred Hayes and performed by Paul Robeson. On November 19, 1915, 100 years ago today, Joe Hill was executed by the state of Ohio for a crime he did not commit: the murder of a grocer and his son. Joe Hill, also known as Joseph Hillstrom to some, was a Swedish-American labor activist and organizer with the IWW, or the Industrial Workers of the World. He was also a songsmith who wrote about the issues faced by working people.

Here to discuss Joe Hill and his legacy is Alexis Buss. Alexis served six terms as the general secretary treasurer of the Industrial Workers of the World, and she also worked as a union organizer specializing in direct action strategies. She compiled the centenary edition of Haymarket Books’ The Letters of Joe Hill. Thank you so much for joining us today, Alexis.

ALEXIS BUSS: Thanks, Dharna. Thanks for having us on.

NOOR: So Alexis, most historians agree that Joe was framed. There was even an appeal to then-Utah governor from the president then, Woodrow Wilson. How did they come to this conclusion? Why is it so obvious that he was framed, and why was he executed if he didn’t commit this crime?

BUSS: Sure. Well, let me take your second part first. Joe Hill was executed because he was a union organizer. He was a known member of the Industrial Workers of the World. That union, which was highly effective at organizing the most low-income, vulnerable workers, was despised by the copper bosses and the politicians of Utah. And it was a frameup in retaliation for his organizing. Police actually arrested the likely person who committed the crime that Joe Hill was executed for, and let him go. And that guy was a career criminal. He later went on to be part of Al Capone’s mob. He looked similar to Joe Hill, but Joe Hill suffered the consequences in what’s widely regarded, even at that time, as a frameup trial.

NOOR: I think one of the most striking things about this compilation, this book, is the ability to see how involved Joe still was from prison. I mean, he’s locked up for a year and he’s still writing letters to his comrades, and still writing protest songs, documenting methods of protests and theories. Were there any attempts to silence him while he was in prison?

BUSS: I think more Joe probably self-censored. He did not write about sensitive matters, but moreover Joe probably had a misplaced faith in the system, that he only came to realize was misplaced a little too late into it. So at his hearing he represented–at his preliminary hearing he represented himself. It was only late in the game when he’d already been sentenced to death that he got outside legal help, accepted it from the union, that he implored not to spend too much money on his case. He really wanted them to continue organizing and doing what they could for workers such as himself, and keep up the organizing.

It’s not clear that the authorities censored his words while he was in jail. And he wrote four songs, some of his best-known songs, while he was incarcerated. And the union was able to get them out and disseminate them.

NOOR: And another really cool thing about what’s shown in these writings in the book is how much Joe fought for not only labor rights, but for gender inclusivity. He’s declaring his admiration for the Wobbly Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and talking about how women workers are the most oppressed. And then there are the songs about fighting racism, about police brutality. Do you think that Joe Hill was ahead of his time?

BUSS: I think he was part of an organization that was pioneering, in a lot of ways. But I don’t like to use the words ahead of its time. It was–it tried a lot of great stuff. And I don’t think that it was marching to the beat of its own drum or anything. It was right–what working people needed. And let’s not forget, this IWW was doing multiracial organizing, including women. And not just including women, putting women organizers at the front of its organization. At the turn of the last century. This is at at time when Woodrow Wilson was showing Birth of a Nation, the KKK propaganda movie, in the White House and inviting people to see it.

So I think what we can learn, 100 years out, is that there are always voices saying let’s have more democracy and more equality, and more justice. And we have to tune into those voices and hear where they are, and amplify them. So it’s not that everyone was wrongheaded 100 years ago. It’s that the IWW and Joe Hill histories come to show that they were right. And that what was going on in the presidency was wrong, and what was going on in the prevailing culture was wrong.

NOOR: And what do you think that Joe would think today, if he could see the state of America and the state of the labor movement, of the left, of the working class?

BUSS: I think Joe Hill would be very excited to see there’s still a lot of fight in the working class and the workers of this country, and I think he’d be just as disappointed as many workers with the state of labor rights. When Joe Hill was doing his organizing, unions were considered a conspiracy by the law. Now we have union–a rate of unionization that is just slightly higher than when Joe Hill was doing his organization, was doing his organizing. And the methods that Joe Hill and his union advocated are still just as relevant. So when you can’t rely on the law to protect and advance your rights, you take direct action, and you work with your fellow workers not just on the job, but in your communities. And you organize to uplift everyone.

NOOR: Sometimes when we speak about these really seminal folk artists, and specifically within the labor movement, there’s this tendency I think amongst people to say this is a lost art, that we’ve lost the art of the protest song. Do you think that we have Joe Hills today, these truly radical musician organizers?

BUSS: Yeah. Well, I–absolutely. I think there are a lot of musicians that kick ass for the working class. For the book that we’re releasing, with Joe Hill’s letters, Tom Morello wrote an excellent forward. He is holding the flag of working class labor anthems high. I had the pleasure of attending a concert that he organized with Joan Baez, who took up the mantle from Paul Robeson and popularized The Ballad of Joe Hill at Woodstock. It was a pleasure to have Boots Riley from The Coup there. He’s another working class voice that speaks truth to power, and yeah, I think we have a lot of great examples today.

NOOR: So clearly in the death of Joe Hill we still have much to preserve. Thank you so much today for coming on and joining us to talk about this, Alexis.

BUSS: Thank you.

NOOR: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

End

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