One Big Union
The years of drifting through America, working a series of low-paying, thankless jobs, and encountering thousands of immigrants just like himself had a powerful effect on the now thirty-year-old Hillstrom. He apparently grew hard and cynical toward the nation he had adopted, viewing it as a sea of suffering, poor families held captive at the feet of a handful of wealthy and powerful individuals.
In 1910, as he apparently worked for a period of time on the docks of San Pedro, California, Hillstrom was exposed to the heated rhetoric of a small band of determined labor activists who claimed they had a new vision for the future, and a new method for knocking the mighty off their high horse. The group called themselves the Industrial Workers of the World--and were known by the nickname of "Wobblies."
A Wobbily Poster
The Wobblies were part of an era of social, economic and political uncertainty in the United States and the world. The I.W.W. was a more radical extention of movements challenging the existing order, including Socialists, Progressives and Populists.
The I.W.W. had come to life in Chicago just a few years before Hillstrom's introduction to the cause. The Wobbly founders were fed-up with marginal, inconsistent success in the nation's labor movement, and offered a dream for the total transformation of the American economic system, predicated on every man, woman and child joining "One Big Union" to take profits away from the wealthy and place them in the hands of the people who did the actual work.
Hillstrom embraced the ideology of the I.W.W., and soon joined the union and began to recruit members and support fellow Wobblies wherever conflict might surface. In late 1910 he wrote a letter to the I.W.W. newspaper, Industrial Worker, identifying himself as a member of the Portland, Oregon I.W.W. local. The letter denounced the tactics of local police in attacking Wobblies and other workers in the area. In the first documented use of a name that would eventually become known around the world, the letter was signed "Joe Hill."
By January, 1911 Hill was on the border between California and Mexico, ready to join a brigade of Wobblies determined to aid the forces fighting for the overthrow of the Mexican government. As the revolution wore on south of the border, Hill was reportedly in the border town of Tijuana. Denouncing the role of capitalists in opposing the peasant uprising, Hill urged other Americans to join the fray.
Even with the occasional letter or postcard sending a time stamp on his whereabouts, Hill's years with the Wobblies are shrouded in contradictory reports, legends and tall tales. Years later he would be reported on the front lines of virtually every major job action involving the I.W.W. between 1909 and 1912. Legend would often have Hill fighting for the Wobblies in a dozen different locations at the same time.
One thing is certain. If Hill was not on the lines in person, he was there in the form of song.
Drawing on his lifelong love of music, fashioned around self-taught abilities on the piano, guitar and violin, Hill authored a stream of songs aimed a firing up the poorest workers in America. His songs decried "bosses" and "scabs" and extolled the virtues of workers organizing in One Big Union to fight for their rights. His songs soon became a fixture in the I.W.W.'s Little Red Songbook.
Hill almost certainly had brushes with the law during this time. Virtually nothing exists on paper to document what, if any, crimes were committed under his name. Wobblies report that Hill was severely beaten by police in Fresno during a labor disturbance. Hill himself would acknowledge doing thirty days in the local San Pedro jail on a trumped-up charge of vagrancy, which he claimed was a masquerade for powerful interests trying to silence him during a longshoreman's strike. Years later the San Pedro police would paint a different picture when they reported that Hill was actually the prime suspect in the armed robbery of a streetcar, but could not be prosecuted because the assailant wore a mask and could not be positively identified.
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