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Violence lurked beneath the songs, however. The IWW sought to destroy private ownership of property, and red flags flew over its demonstrations. (Remnants of the IWW eventually morphed into a faction of the Communist Party USA.)

Mr. Adler shows himself to be a prodigious researcher in his reconstruction of the grocery store shooting that put Hill (now using the name Joseph Hillstrom) on trial for his life. The grocer managed to fire a shot at the robber before dying. Hill had suffered a gunshot wound the same night, the provenance of which he refused to explain.

But was Hill actually wounded by the odd man out in a love triangle? Mr. Adler turned up a letter written years later by the woman involved that supports that theory. He surmises, convincingly, that Hill refused to testify to avoid embarrassing her. Hill also had his eye on martyrdom, which he certainly achieved.

In the early 1970s, when the “new left” was clamoring for the fall of capitalism, I interviewed George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO. The onetime plumber scoffed at the revolutionary rhetoric. “Look,” he said, “you abolish capitalism, like these people want, and you abolish labor. Tell me, how many union members are there in the Soviet Union, or Cuba?”

• Joseph C. Goulden’s books include biographies of labor leaders George Meany (AFL-CIO) and Jerry Wurf (AFSCME).