Interview: John Sillito
John Sillito is a professor at Weber State University. He has done extensive research on the trial of Joe Hill and the early labor movement in Utah and the West
Following is a full transcript of producer Ken Verdoia's interview with Sillito:
Q: Generations later, there is the sense that every immigrant after 1900 had this pull- yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps positive experience. How accurate of an assessment is that of what the southern European, eastern European immigrant experienced in this nation after the turn of the century?
A: Well, there's obviously a lot of diversity in the immigrant experience, even to the point that you really have to understand it almost on the individual level. And many immigrants enjoyed that kind of upwardly mobile life.
In the late 19th and early 20th Century, wages were rising, the standard of living was rising, but so was the cost of living. And the economic downturns during that period of time were frequent too. And workers and immigrants were primarily industrial workers living in the city. Immigrants didn't have the kind of social net that you and I know exists in the United States today.
So is there some truth to that upwardly mobile sort of view of immigrants and "pull yourself up by the bootstraps"? Yeah, there's a lot of truth to it in some instances.
On the other hand, many immigrants suffered tremendously. Couldn't speak the language, were frequently victimized by labor agents and others. Many immigrants didn't come to the United States to pull themselves up by the bootstraps at all. They came as single men to the United States to earn money to send back home and, ultimately, go back home themselves. Had no intention on -- on living here for a long time. Were recruited in their native land to come here to provide that unskilled labor that this huge, industrial machine in the United States, you know, depended on in the late 19th Century.
So there's some truth to it, but there's a lot of variation to it as well.
Q: This is an era that predates the well-established safeguards that now exist for workers. So how might we best characterize the type of work that someone might do in underground hardrock mining?
A: Hard. Long work. Reasonable pay, but -- but very difficult work. Dangerous work. Many workers were injured on the job in the mines and elsewhere.
Eugene Debs tells the story that when he went on the railroad in 1879, he joined a crew of 16 workers that day. And five years later, he was the only worker that still had all of his fingers, both of his eyes or, in fact, his life. So it was dangerous work. There were no safeguards. The unions were not organized to protect working people.
The chances of being victimized by the system were very, very high. It was difficult work. And, you know, when you could no longer work, you were certainly not of any value to the mine. Hundreds of miners in Butte, for example, contracted lung disease. Well, once they had that illness, there was no -- nothing to help them. They just had to lose their job and -- and live however they could. Well, if you're a miner and you no longer can mine, what in the world are you going to do? And that's a condition that really continued into, really, almost our time.
Throughout the '20's and '30's and into the '40's, it was still the same thing. People were paid well to work the mines in Carbon County and elsewhere, where my family comes from. On the other hand, the rate of injuries were high, and if you could no longer do the job, you weren't a very valuable commodity to an absentee landlord who owned that mining company.
Q: The turn of the century seems to be a pivotal time in attempts to organize labor.
What are the motivating factors among the rank- and-file workers that lead them to consider banding together?
A: What are the motivating factors?
A: Well, many of the same reasons I was just talking about. The danger on the job; they want to band together to -- to protect themselves, have insurance benefits. Funeral benefits. One of the major things that unions offer working people are funeral benefits. Health benefits, other kinds of things.
But the main thing that I think is motivating working people to band together is simply strength in numbers. That you have much -- a much better chance of fighting against the system if you are united, if there is a certain level of solidarity. And it's not easy to do, because these workers represent dozens of different languages and lifestyles and -- and cultures and religions. There's antagonism between workers that -- that is separate from any antagonism they may have with the system. So there's a number of things like that will bring working people together to realize that only when they are working in a collective organization in a group do they have any chance of -- of having an effect against the much more powerful corporation.
Living in company towns where the company owns everything about their lives, they need to have some kind of an organization that helps them, you know, deal with that huge power over their lives. And, obviously, there are different kinds of unions. The American Federation of Labor organizes primarily skilled workers. Very few, maybe 5 per cent of the total working force in the United States is a member of an AF of L union in, say, 1895, 1900.
The IWW and the Western Federation of Miners and others organize fewer workers than the AF of L does too. So the number of working people, even, that are in unions is very small. It takes another generation for the unions to really reach a kind of a -- a level of maturity where they really become a major force in American life.
Q: After the first decade of the new century, there are some flash points. The Industrial Workers of the World are intimately involved with that. What is the reaction of management, of mine owners, of manufacturer owners to this emerging labor movement, particularly the Wobblies?
A: Well, they're threatened by it. These are people that talk about very specific kinds of goals. They talk about overthrowing the capitalist system. They talk about the workers owning the mines, not absentee owners in New York or somewhere. They talk about better working conditions and safer working conditions. They talk about profit ought to go to the working class, not to the owning class. These are very threatening kinds of attitudes on the part of workers in terms of -- as far as the mine owners and the owners of industry generally are concerned. And they seem to be serious about it.
And so the owners will turn to labor detectives and will turn to strike breakers and scabs to break the power of the unions.
Now, I'm not suggesting to you that the IWW or any union is so powerful that they dominate any particular industry. But, obviously, from the perspective of a miner owner or a mine manager, if they're not around, it makes their life a whole lot easier and their job a whole lot easier. And there's the real efforts to -- to convince working people not to organize. People are blacklisted. You know, when it follows them around, "Don't hire so and so, he's a union man. Don't hire this person, he's an IWW. He's an agitator, he's a troublemaker." So they're a threat. And mostly -- in some ways, it's mostly a verbal threat. But in many ways, it's a real honest-to-goodness, practical problem that they have to deal with in their -- in their business.
Q: The Wobblies also, in their literature, advocate quite open sabotage against those owners who refuse to accede not to demands.
A: They were very serious about taking direct action. Whether that would be violent action is somewhat up to interpretation. Their rhetoric gets a little carried away at times.
The examples that you can find of violence perpetrated by the IWW are pretty small. But the rhetoric is pretty strong: General strike. Direct action. Build a new society in the shell of the old. Take control of production at the point of production. Throw the bosses off you back. Get a job.
Joe Hill's song about the Preacher and the Slave suggests to the capitalist owner that he ought to get a job and it would be good for him to work for a change.
These are very direct, in-your-face kinds of -- of ideological kinds of arguments. And they're made in the atmosphere of a pretty violent response on the part of labor and management as well.
You know, after Joe Hill was arrested, for example, you see editorials here in Utah and elsewhere around the country that say, in effect, "There's no need for justice, no need for the legal system. The only legal system we need is a length of rope or some -- or some -- a firing squad." These people are threats to everything we hold dear in our society and should be dealt with as such.
And so the level of rhetoric in terms of violence on the part of the IWW, it's high. But the level of rhetoric that you're hearing in response to them is pretty violent as well.
Q: Many people in Utah would assume that this state was far removed from labor issues. Again, that would seem to be a pretty inaccurate broad brushstroke. What's the reality?
A: Well, the reality is there were some very important strikes in Utah in the period prior to the Joe Hill case, 1912, 1913 at Tucker and Bingham. They were important strikes. They were violent strikes. They worried the owners of those industries. They mobilized working people. So there were strikes.
Obviously, the situation in Utah is different than it is in other places of the country. But there were plenty of working people working in a variety of industries, the mines were one -- but other kinds of industries where there were unsafe conditions, unsanitary conditions, long hours, short pay, no real benefits to the job. So the labor situation in Utah was unique and yet, in some ways, it was similar to the labor situation around the country.
And just like the AF of L nationally was split over what tactics to use -- for example, the AF of L will basically argue that capitalism is something that's never going to go away. And so the role of workers is somehow through unions to work within the capitalist system. The IWW says that's not the issue at all, capitalism is the problem. "We need to overthrow capitalism and move it out and take control."
And working people on the job or wherever, in the factory or in the mine or wherever, are hearing that kind of argument from both sides. And they're looking at their paycheck or they're looking at their expenses and they're saying, "Well, I'm making more than I ever made, but I'm also paying a lot. And I'm working in a plant that's unsafe.
So in some ways, the conditions are unique and some ways they're the same. It's always a question of wages, working conditions, hours and benefits, regardless of industry, regardless, really, of time.
Q: You made a very quick reference to the notion of the company town. And in that setting, how a worker and his family literally could almost be owned from morning through night by the mechanism of the mine.
A: Well, it could extend to just about every level. First off, they were your employer. Secondly, they were your landlord. You bought your groceries from the company store. They -- they constructed the church in your community, they constructed the schools, the houses, everything. They really reached into every aspect of a person's life. And, obviously, so long as you worked for the company, you could live there. If you no longer worked for the company, then you couldn't live in a company town and enjoy those benefits.
You know, there were many people who saw the company towns -- not so much here, but elsewhere around the country -- as real reforms. An institution that would make the lives of working people better, that, in fact would reduce some of the insecurity of what it was to be a worker in late 19th and early 20th Century America.
And I'm sure there were many well-intentioned people in that period of time. On the other hand, whenever somebody else controls that large a part of your destiny, that's got to rankle, that has to bother you, that has to make you uneasy and feeling dependent and feeling insecure and feeling that you better tow the line or things could be -- you know, things could be really bad for you and, more importantly, for your family.
Always in debt one way or another. Even if you're making high wages, you're going to continue to be in debt if you're paying 95 per cent of your check to the company town or store or whatever. 95 per cent is 95 per cent. And so you really are in a very precarious position, I think.
Q: Let's turn to the life of Joe Hill. What do we know about what might bring Joe Hill to join the IWW?
A: Well, you know, we don't know a lot about Joe Hill's early life. We know he was born in Sweden and he immigrates somewhere around 1905 or 1903, somewhere in there. We know he was at San Francisco during the earthquake because he sent postcards back. But we really don't know a whole lot about Joe Hill's early days in the United States.
And Joe Hill was not very forthcoming. Whenever pressed for biographical information, he would say, you know, "Why waste the paper? I mean, there are more important things to deal with than -- than -- than where I came from." You know, "I -- I'm a citizen of the world," he said, "I was born on a place called Planet Earth and the details really don't matter that much."
So our knowledge of Joe Hill in that period of time is very sketchy. We think that it's most likely he joined the IWW in 1910. And I'm sure, working the kind of jobs he worked, the first years he was in the United States, he worked in the bowery, he worked on the docks, he worked all kinds of unskilled, semi-skilled jobs.
That's where the IWW was making it's strongest appeal for workers, unlike the AF of L, which was primarily a union for skilled workers. The IWW was willing to organize unskilled, semi-skilled workers, men and women, regardless of race or color, regardless of industry. Belong to one big union. There are only two kinds of people in the world," the IWW would argue, "those people who work and those people who don't." And if you work, it doesn't matter what you do, you ought to belong to the IWW. I'm sure that had great appeal to -- to Hill.
Some historians believe that Hill inherited a certain amount of idealism from his growing years in -- in the old country, a certain amount of what we might call altruistic or naive idealism, and that he saw the discrepancy between what America said it believed in and what America really practiced. And these historians will argue, for example, that that's part of the reason he takes the strategy he takes in the court case, that he is simply trying to prove America needs to be good, to be true to its assertion of justice for all and equal rights and innocent until proven guilty.
So we don't know a lot, but we do know that he worked a number of jobs. He joined the IWW, probably, in 1910. I think that's an important fact. He was only a member of the IWW for four or five years at most, but he had a tremendous impact in union circles during that short period of time that -- that he belonged to the union.
Q: Let's talk about the significance of Hill as a songwriter, his topics, the way he tried to make it accessible to the average person. Why was that important?
A: Well, they're straightforward, they're to the point, they're simple. Joe Hill realized that the IWW was organizing in camps and mines and elsewhere where there maybe were a dozen languages spoken and many people didn't speak English at all or not very well. So his songs are very straightforward, 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, familiar. He makes -- 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. The wealth that you alone are making is being taken by a bunch of parasites."
Well, that's pretty straightforward stuff. That's not great poetry and that may not be great art, buy, boy, it pretty well gives you the ideological version of the IWW's account of early 20th Century corporate capitalism. They're easy to remember. They're long-lasting. You still hear Joe Hill songs all the time. They're long-lasting songs. They deal about real issues and -- and problems and the concerns of the working class in a way that the working class understands them.
Q: Let's move forward to the arrest and trial. The police arrest Joe Hill. We know the circumstances of how he was arrested. Does a prosecution strategy arise? How they intend to convict this man on the evidence they have?
A: Yeah. In fact, two prosecution strategies arise, really. The first is the police strategy right after the murders. And the police are adamant that the killer is an ex-convict named Frank Wilson that Morrison put in jail some years before. They say he has sworn that he will come back and get even for that and they say, "That's who we're looking for."
In fact, when they first arrest Joe Hill, they say, "Well, he says his name is Joe Hill but we really know he's Frank Wilson." It's only after they hear from the police chief in San Pedro who says, "This guy's an IWW. This guy's a bad apple. You've got the right man. You don't need to look any further."
And there are several other people they look at early on as possible suspects. As soon as they determine that Joe Hill is who Joe Hill is, those other people quickly vanish from the picture and -- and you never hear another word about them in the press or from the police.
The police chief says, "We are building a case of circumstantial evidence from which Joe Hill will not be able to extricate himself." So you have that strategy early on.
Once the case then goes to court, I think the prosecution's strategy is similar. They admit that they do not have any direct evidence and so they are going to build a case of circumstantial evidence that Hill cannot escape from. And they work very hard at doing that. And at some times they coach witnesses and witnesses will change their testimony at different times. And they're more successful, I think, than -- than Joe Hill is because I don't think Joe Hill's representation -- first off, I don't think Joe Hill's attorneys are very good attorneys. Having said that, I don't think Joe Hill would have been the easiest defendant to represent. He's a pretty strong-willed, forceful, in-your-face kind of a guy.
So the strategy, I think, as I read the case, is very simple. He cannot explain where he got this bullet wound. In fact, the prosecuting attorney says, "All he has to do is simply tell us where he got this wound. He won't because he can't. He knows that he got it in that store."
Well, now, wait a minute here. I thought we had some presumption of innocence. I didn't think you had to testify against yourself, based on the 5th Amendment to the Constitution. But the case is fought both in the courtroom and in the press. The prosecution says, in effect, to the press, "This is the person who did it. This is why he did it. And this is what you need to report." And it's reported in a climate -- it was a brutal murder.
I mean, everything I know about the Morrisons suggests that they were hard-working, honest folks, workers, you know? And it was a brutal murder. And, you know, whoever committed that crime did a terrible thing.
Did the -- the prosecution, did the police and the prosecution have the kind of evidence to convict Joe Hill? Boy, I don't think so. Did he get the kind of defense he probably deserved? Well, probably not. Did he do a couple of things -- he, Hill personally -- that made it almost impossible for his attorneys? Yeah, he did.
You know, at one point, he fires his attorneys. He said, "There are three prosecuting attorneys here and they're on both sides of the table, and I'm going to get rid of two-thirds of them because they're not really representing me."
The press says that was the worst thing he could have done, that public opinion in the courtroom changed when he did that.