- - Friday, September 23, 2011

Bloomsbury, $30, 435 pages

At anti-war rallies in the 1960s and ‘70s, ragtag leftists rejoiced in belting out a song they learned from such “progressive” folk singers as Joan Baez and Pete Seeger:

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night

Alive as you and me.

Says I, “But Joe, you’re ten years dead.”

“I never died,” says he.

“I never died,” says he.

It seemed doubtful that any of these peaceniks, if cross-examined, could explain the subject of the song, other than that he was “sort of a kind of labor guy” who fought “the Establishment” and hence deserved iconic status.

Reading this book over the Labor Day weekend, one could not fail to muse that indeed Joe Hill might finally be dead. The American labor movement, segments of which once lionized Hill, is moribund, with membership growth only in public-sector unions - that is, people on government payrolls. President Obama made the obligatory (for a Democratic politician) Labor Day speech in Detroit before a meager crowd eager to yowl approval of the class-warfare theme he is honing for his re-election campaign. But I saw nary a flicker of the intensity that marked the short life of Hill, the Swedish-born radical of the early 19th century.

So, who was Joe Hill, and why did he achieve fame - however fleeting - on the far-left fringe of labor? As William M. Adler records in a very readable biography, Hill achieved a semblance of fame - and mortality - by being executed by a state firing squad in Utah in 1915 after a murder conviction in the deaths of a grocery store owner and his son in a robbery attempt.

But was Joe Hill guilty? Through meticulous research, Mr. Adler provides strong evidence that the case against Hill was flimsy and the chief reason he was brought to trial was because “he had a Wobblie membership card in his pocket.”

“Wobblie” was the proud name adopted by members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a turn-of-the-century movement aimed at (as described in its own vernacular) “workstiffs and bindlebums, hard-rock miners and muckers, timberbeasts, lint heads, shovel stiffs … dock wallopers, pond monkeys, sewer hogs and swamp ranchers.” (Whence the term “wobblie?” Lore, perhaps apocryphal, credits a Chinese cook in a railroad camp as pronouncing the initials “Eye Wobble U, Wobble U.”)

The Wobblies owed their existence to the cruel divide between workers and their bosses during an era when capitalism was at its worst. Workplace laws were nonexistent; children went into the mines as young as 8 or 9. Men and woman toiled as many as 16 hours a day in textile mills.

Hill, born Joel Hagglund in Sweden, lost his father to an industrial accident at age 8 and came to the United States in his teens. He did odd jobs, spent several months with rebels fighting the Porfirio Diaz dictatorship in Mexico and drifted into the IWW.

As Mr. Adler writes, Hill found his niche as a songwriter. Business used Salvation Army bands to drown out oratory at labor rallies. The nascent unions responded with music of their own. Mr. Adler writes, “His songs were so popular because of his singular talent for boiling down complex social and economic issues into darkly funny parodies.” For instance, Hill ridiculed the Salvation Army for telling the jobless to have faith in God and capitalism, retorting that “you’ll get pie in the sky when you die.”

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).



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