Joe Hill Narrative Script
By Ken Verdoia
Joe Hill Quote:
I die with a clear conscience. I die fighting...Not like a coward. But mark my words, the day of my vindication is coming.
In a prison cell in the American West on a November night in 1915, a solitary figure raced against time. In the final hours of his life, he scrawled message after message, saying goodbye to friends and strangers. His legal battle had been the most controversial of its time. His death sentence was the subject of protests around the world-- reaching to the White House. And even before he faced his firing squad, his legend had reached near-mythic proportions. His life. . .and his death. . .would challenge the American values of fairness and justice. And would provide a rallying cry for defiant workers for generations to come.
Joe Hill Quote:
I die like a true rebel. Don't waste any time mourning---organize!
(Music: America the Beautiful)
Emma Lazarus Quote:
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.--Emma Lazarus, 1888.
The American nation was awash in a tidal wave of immigration when Lazarus's words were fixed to the Statue of Liberty in the first years of the Twentieth Century. More than one million people a year were leaving their homelands to start anew in the United States.
Opportunity was the main reason. And Americans just don't realize the kind of poverty that the Europeans, particularly the Southern Europeans, had to endure.
Narrator: In this time of open doors and dreams of endless opportunity the first image of the man who would become known as Joe Hill comes into focus. Born Joel Haagland in Sweden, he sailed to New York in 1902--landing on Ellis Island at the age of 22 or 23.
I see him as simply an example that was repeated millions of other times by other people. I mean, clearly his family was poor. They couldn't survive economically. And America seemed like a place to come that was a lot of opportunity and hope. And so he and his brother came to America. And they were filled with all the idealism of thhe then immigrant. They were hopeful and optimistic and wide-eyed about the possibilities of America.
But the reality was life was tough for them, across the boards, all the immigrants. Germans, Irish, Italians. Everybody had a difficult time of it. And most of the people that came here found that the dreams of streets lined with gold were a chimera. They were like the seven cities that everybody sought, but could not find.
Joel Haagland's first job was cleaning spittoons in saloons of New York's lower East Side. A unique vantage point for observing a rising anti-immigrant sentiment that was gripping the nation.
The immigration was coming primarily from Eastern Europe and Asia. And those were people who did not fit the stereotype of the old guard, of Anglo-Saxon Protestant background. ..And they were viewed culturally as inferior. In religion they were not Protestant. They were Catholic, they were Orthodox Christians or they were Jewish. From that point forward, Americans are increasing in their perception of being under siege by those who are inferior, by those who are racially inferior, who are presenting religious challenges to the old guard.
And Americans really--most of them -- despised them. They thought they were the flotsam of the world because they were so poor and uneducated.
Anti-immigration leagues started to form throughout the nation. Initiatives started to make their way through Congress to block the huddled masses from passing through the Golden Door.
They were afraid they would somehow be overrun. That--in old newspapers they always said, they used the words "The Immigrants Would Take Over," "The Foreigners Would Take Over." And also, they feared two more things. One, that these new people were anarchists. And secondly, that they would seduce their daughters.
A yawning cultural and economic chasm had opened in America. An estimate of the day said that five percent of the population controlled ninety percent of the nation's wealth. As the class of dispossessed immigrants grew larger---the chasm widened---resulting in deeper suspicions and sharper opinions.
Madison Grant Quote:
They may adopt the language of the True American. They may wear his clothes, they may steal his name...And they are beginning to steal his women. But they seldom adopt his religion, or understand his ideals.--Madison Grant, Trustee of the Museum of Natural History, New York.
Without job skills for the burgeoning industrial economy...without the benefit of language to bridge a yawning cultural chasm, many immigrants felt they had fallen into a sub-class that lived beneath the streets paved with gold.
It wasn't unusual for immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe to refer to the Americans as the White People. And the kind of classified themselves that way.
They were not considered white. And on labor gangs, they were segregated. They could not rent in certain areas of towns. There were demonstrations against them.
They felt themselves as indentured servants. And although not consciously, subconsciously felt as though they were slaves to the people that they worked for.
But even in the lowest paying jobs, the influx of immigrants to the American workforce was deeply resented. The resentment extended to self-described champions of the working man, such as Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor.
Samuel Gompers Quote:
Both the intelligence and the prosperity of our working people are endangered by the present immigration. Cheap labor... ignorant labor...takes our jobs and cuts our wages.--Samuel Gompers.
There were few champions for workers at the bottom rung of the labor ladder in the first years of the Twentieth Century. The jobs most often taken by immigrants were the unskilled, heavy-lifting jobs in the booming industries of steel, railroads and mining. Labor agents under contract to large employers would travel to europe to recruit immigrant labor with promises of high pay, comfortable homes, and a piece of the American dream. In the uneven days before unions, ethnic groups were often brought in to break strikes. Greeks would replace striking American workers. Italians would replace the Greeks. Slavs would replace the Italians. With little safety regulation or oversight, mining in particular was a dangerous--even deadly--way of life. And the lives of miners could be considered one of the costs of doing business.
They were disposable even in a sense that we don't dispose of recyclable garbage, in the sense that they were not recycled.
One of many examples of the delicate balance of life was found in the mining camp of Scofield, Utah on May first of 1900. Three hundred men entered the Winter Quarters mine that day. Many were immigrants...nearly one hundred were newly arrived workers from Finland. A company-paid inspector had declared the mine safe the month before.
Thick, choking coal dust had ignited. A rolling wall of flame incinerated dozens of men before they could move. Others were torn apart by the explosion. Dozens died when trapped in pockets of deadly carbon monoxide gas.
The first man brought out from the mines by a rescue team was alive---but so badly burned he begged his rescuers to kill him. He died within minutes. Over two hundred miners died--including more than sixty of the Finnish workers. Twenty young boys under the age of twelve died as well. Some immigrant families lost the entire male side of their clan. Fathers--uncles--brothers--sons, all dead in one moment.
Bodies were stacked like cord wood in the local schoolhouse and church. Coffins had to be freighted in because of the lack of wood. Scofield's Finnish Lutheran minister conducted one enormous graveside service as the cemetery population tripled in one day. The pleasant valley coal company provided a suit and coffin for each dead miner- - -paid the surviving widows five hundred dollars- - -and agreed to forgive the dead miner's debts at the company store.
For people such as my grandfather on my dad's side who came here from Croatia. There was a joke in the mines that if there was a cave-in, save the mule. Because its hard to train a mule to go into a hole, but there are always plenty of bohunks--which was a pejorative term for Croatians. There were always plenty of them to go into the hole.
Beyond the risk posed by accidents and explosions--mining could also exact a heavy toll on those who were able to stay on the job.
Andrew Roy Quote:
The lungs become clogged from inhaling coal dust. The body and limbs become stiff and sore. The mind loses the power of thought. after twelve years the lungs are black. The miner dies at 35 of the miner's consumption. The men are dying by inches, and the world knows not.---Andrew Roy.
Hundreds of miners in Butte, for example, contracted lung disease. Well, once they had that illness, there was nothing to help them. They just had to lose their job, and live however they could. well, if you're a miner and you no longer mine, what in the world are you going to do?
Every minute of each day in the life of an immigrant worker could be owned by the mine company.
First off, they were your employer. Secondly, they were your landlord. You bought groceries from the company store. They really reached into every aspect of a person's life. Even if you're making high wages, you're going to continue to be in debt if you're paying 95 percent of your check to the company town or store or whatever. 95 percent is 95 percent.
In many mine settings, such as the Bingham Canyon Mine of Utah at the turn of the century, the company left the workers to provide for their own housing--resulting in stunning problems with hygiene and disease.
There were streams running at the side. One of sewage and one of water. And the manager, whose name was Gemal said "Well if we did build them boarding houses, they would prefer to stay where they are." That was the general view of immigrant workers. Time and again industrialists said "You cannot mine coal without a machine gun." And that's exactly what they would do.
It was through this landscape of an unskilled working class of immigrants that Joel Haagland drifted for eight years. From road crews to timber camps to loading docks on the California Coast, the Swedish immigrant passed through America. The idealism of the early days had vanished.
He turns away from being a naive, hopeful person to a more hardened person. A person who realizes that things aren?t going to happen unless you make them happen. That just being cooperative isn?t going to get you anywhere. You've got to stand up and defend yourself and defend other people who are in your condition.
Somewhere along the line he fell on the wrong side of the law or a company, and changed his name--apparently to avoid being put on a list of troublemakers.
People are blacklisted. You know, it follows them around. "Don't hire so-and-so, he's a union man." "Don't hire this person, he's an I-W-W. He's an agitator. He's a troublemaker."
Joel Haagland disappeared--to be replaced in name by Joseph Hillstrom. And Joe Hillstrom became a wobbly. . .the nickname for members of the Iindustrial Workers of the World, the I-W-W. The wobblies were a determined, rag-tag, idealistic and aggressive collection of dispossessed workers with the lofty goal of tearing down the economic free-market structure of the united states. a goal they laid out at their founding in Chicago in 1905.
The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people. . .and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things in life.
It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism!?--Industrial Workers of the World Constitution.
They were very militant, very radical. And they honestly believed they could build a new society within the shell of the old society, and thats what they intended to do. And they intended to do it with the most uneducated, the most recent immigrants, the most unskilled people. So it was a very revolutionary approach.?
The wobblies organized confrontational strikes...and filled the air with fiery rhetoric against big business, the government and the existing social order. Far more aggressive than any other branch of the fledgling union movement, the I-W-W vowed to use sabotage and even violence to tear down the system.
Thomas G. Alexander:
They were perceived as a threat to the status quo. They were perceived as anarchists. They were perceived as people who are not adverse to using violence to achieve their ends.
When a bomb detonated at the strongly anti-union Los Angeles Times building in 1910, killing some workers and knocking the paper off the street, blame immediately centered on the I-W-W.
San Diego Union Quote:
Hanging is none too good for them, and they would be much better off dead. They are absolutely useless in the human economy. they are the waste material of creation, and should be drained off in the sewer of oblivion to rot like any other excrement.--The San Diego Union.
Wobbly strikes from Massachusetts to Washington State turned violent. . .with government heeding the call of business to restore order.
And no matter what state you're looking at, in the united states during this time, the police always took the side of business, and whenever there was a strike, the police weighed in with police power. . .and were not just talking about harsh words. They used billy clubs, they used weapons, firing on those who were in striking lines. And so the United States had basically a unilateral attitude toward labor unions which was negative and regarded them as a form of sedition, a form of treason if you will.
Again the economic and social chasm spread wide. people on both sides felt the future and the very soul of the nation were at stake. At least one mine owner felt strikes did more than challenge stability---they challenged the natural order.
George F. Baer, Mine Owner:
The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for. Not by radical labor agitators, but by the christian men to whom god has given control of the property interests of the country. Pray earnestly that right may triumph, always remembering that the Lord God omnipotent still reigns, and that his reign is one of law and order.--George F. Baer.
The I-W-W-led strikes increased as the world drew close to war in the years after 1910. The wobbly picket lines would be filled with songs of defiance. . .songs of organizing. Many times, they were the songs of Joseph Hillstrom:
He was dealing with a bunch of people who couldn't even speak the same language. And how do you organize people and get them to do something in unison if you can't communicate, and the songs were one way to do that.
His songs are very direct, they're very easy, they're repetitive at some times. He uses popular tunes of the day and hymn tunes, which are easy to sing. He takes music and makes it the instrument of convincing people ideologically that they need to belong to the union. And it's very direct:
Workers of the world awaken. Break your chains, demand your rights. All the wealth you make is taken, by exploiting parasites. Shall you kneel in deep submission from your cradle to your grave. Is the height of your ambition to be a good and willing slave?
Well that's pretty straight forward stuff. That's not great poetry and that may not be great art, but-boy-its pretty well gives you the ideological version of the I-W-W's account of early twentieth century corporate capitalism.
Hillstrom had been introduced to music as a child growing up in Sweden. He played the violin, could work a piano, and would pick out tunes on a guitar. Simplicity was the key as the songs were passed along the I-W-W network. As the songs were passed, so too was the songwriter's name simplified. Wobblies throughout the nation shared the songs of Joe Hill. Hillstrom and Hill would be used interchangeably for the rest of his life.
A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once. But a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over. And I maintain that if a person can put a few common sense facts into a song and dress them up in a cloak of humor, he will succeed in reaching a great number of workers who are too unintelligent or too indifferent to read. --Joe Hill.