Joe Hill and the IWW

Franklin Rosemont, Joe Hill: The IWW & the Making of a Revolutionary Workingclass Counterculture (Charles H. Kerr: Chicago, 2003).

It’s the right man by the right biographer at the right time.

Joe Hill’s the man, the artist and song-writer of the Industrial Workers of the World. Franklin Rosemont’s the biographer, the Chicago surrealist activist and publisher; the time is ours when warring monotheistic capitalism rains terror against a polyglot planetary proletariat privatized out of clean water, health care, and home. Joe Hill composed a song while awaiting execution under sentence of death by the authorities of the state of Utah. The song unifies the demands of the antiglobalization movement, not for “Communism,” but a commons of actual equality and reparations of actual justice.

Workers of the world, awaken!
Rise in all your splendid might;
Take the wealth that you are making,
It belongs to you by right.
No one will for bread be crying,
We’ll have freedom, love and health,
When the grand red flag is flying
In the Workers’ Commonwealth.

This magnificent, practical, irreverent, and (as one might say) magisterial book has sixteen chapters and more than six hundred pages, profusely illustrated with 137 cartoons, pictures of posters, portraits, stickerettes, and buttons or badges, just dying to be photocopied. It is written in a direct, passionate, sometimes funny, deeply searching style. Its slang and hard-boiled prole talk attains summits of lyricism and is itself a tribute to the Wobs and its elusive, martyred troubador of discontent. It is a labor of love. Rosemont came across the Wobs in 1959 and took out a red card of membership in 1964.

Founded in 1905 their convention adopted a preamble saying the workers and employers had nothing in common, that a “struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wage system.” Its language was demotic; its innovations of communication included song and slogans. Abolition of the Wage System, An Injury to One is an Injury to All, the New Society within the Shell of the Old: these were the principles contained in the Preamble. There were many other slogans:

Dump the Bosses Off your Backs!

Workers of the World, Unite!

Don’t Mourn, Organize!

Direct Action Gets the Goods!

Sit Down and Watch Your Pay Go Up!

Bread & Roses!

Solidarity Forever!

The Good Old Wooden Shoe!

The Thousand Mile Picket Line.

It was a talking, speaking, soapboxing, arguing, singing movement. Thirteen of the fifty songs in the Little Red Song Book (1973) were written by Joe Hill. “Mr Block,” “The Rebel Girl,” “Scissor Bill,” “There is Power in a Union,” “Workers of the World, Awaken,” “Casey Jones–The Union Scab,” “Where the Fraser Flows,” and “The Preacher and the Slave” are the most well-known.

The Wobbly songs originated in Spokane, Washington, in competition with the Salvation Army. The authorities opposed the Wobs, so the Free Speech fights resulted. The singing victorious Wobblies rode the rods as the Overalls Brigade to the 1908 Chicago convention, and threw the Socialists out. A debate ensued. One faction felt only the written and spoken word could effectively educate the workers in the class struggle. Joe Hill answered, “a pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over….” In addition to the didactic purpose, songs are politics taking refuge. They calm down beating hearts, or they rouse torpid souls, they cheer a picket line. They fan the flames of discontent, as the sub-title says.

Joe Hill was musical. Born Joel Hägglund in Sweden, he came to the U.S.A. in 1902. He played banjo, violin, guitar, accordion and piano. This was before TV or radio. He didn’t smoke or drink. He was a good cook of Chinese food (the word “Wobbly” derves from a Chinese prounciation of IWW). He was a longshoreman in San Pedro, California. He took an active part in the Mexican revolution; he loaded sugar in Honolulu; he helped out strikes of Canadian railroad workers. In January 1914 he was arrested in Salt Lake City and charged with murder. The victim was a grocer and ex-cop. The police, the copper trust, and the Mormon Church launched a campaign of vilification. The San Pedro police chief favored execution explaining, “he is somewhat of a musician and writer of songs for the IWW songbook.” The Joe Hill Defense Committee got to work. Although it did not save his life, it laid the groundwork for the legend. He was executed by firing squad the following year refusing morphine or a shot of whiskey. His funeral was the largest in American history. His last will and testament combined Buddhist purity with proletarian reality.

My Will is easy to decide
For there is nothing to divide
My kin don’t need to fuss and moan
‘Moss does not cling to a rolling stone.’

My body?–Oh!–If I could choose
I would to ashes it reduce
And let the merry breezes blow
My dust to where some flowers grow.

Perhaps some fading flower then
Would come to life and bloom again.
This is my last and final Will.
Good luck to all of you.
Joe Hill.

The cardinal significance of Joe Hill is that he sang; the capital importance of him is that he was shot. He epitomized the IWW at its best as he was victimized by capitalist terror at its worst. “If angels are persons, how is it that they can fly?” asked the child, and the sage replied, “because they take themselves lightly.” This is why Joe Hill is also known as The Man Who Never Died. It is the theme of the song, “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night.”

The legend also works in the opposite way inasmuch as his significance and importance are constantly being lost and in need of re-discovery. For instance, take the opening of one of the major Wobby autobiographies, Ralph Chaplin’s. “The battle-scarred old-time “stiffs” who fought in the Industrial Workers of the World’s wild crusade for economic justice a generation ago are aged and scattered. In the fo’c’sle head on the high seas, in secluded stump ranch cabins, or around an occasional “jungle” fire under a railroad bridge, the saga is still being told. But, when the last of the old-time migratory revolutionary dies, the story must not die with him.”

The defeat is felt in two ways. First, it is felt as excess. Why declare the project of equality as “wild crusade,” except as a tale to be told, if not by an idiot then a marginalized, old man? It is an honorable trope–The Last of the True Wobs. For this trope to work effectively, a prior forgetting is helpful. Thus, the IWW “has all but been erased from popular consciousness,” as Radical America put it. The early articles of Telos liked to say that they were discovering the I.W.W. from the oblivion of neglect or of design. Rosemont observes that discovering the IWW was a “compelling spiritual need of the time.” Second, the defeat is noticed in miniature, in the necessity Chaplin felt to enclose “stiff” and “jungle” in quotation marks. The living talk of the Wobs had become too vulgar for the requisite decorum of prose.

Ralph Chaplin published his story in 1948. The physical setting which both hides and preserves the saga is the labor process. The self-activity of the primary work group generated the workers’ control; it was documented by Paul Romano; James Boggs found it the starting point of the anti-racist American Revolution; Stan Weir found it essential for development of theory and vision to overcome the surliness of sectarians. They came from the Trotskyist movement, whose congruence with the Wobbly emphasis on point-of-production democracy omitted acknowledgement, and provides the exception to the rule of continual rediscovery.

The subject brought up different generational, as well as sectarian, hang-ups. While tens of thousands dreamt they’d seen Joe Hill only last night, “alive as you and me,” indeed sang him into their political subconscious by listening over and over again to recordings of Paul Robeson in Carnegie Hall and Joan Baez at Woodstock. The superego of a new generation thus had a baritone and soprano register to its nostalgia. First the songs, then the prose. This was the truth of the Civil Rights Movement in America. Al Haber traces the origins of the first SDS chapter to the Folksong Society at the University of Michigan where the union songs and the Wobbly songs sung during the 1950s drew the politicos together. (Thompson’s Muggletonians, also a remnant from revolution, spoke no sermons but sang.)

While the student movement in the USA organized as peaceniks or as the Weather Underground against the Vietnam war, in Europe as early as 1967 intellectuals at the University of Padua re-assessed the October Revolution, the German worker’s councils, and the experience of the IWW in the United States, as a thee-fold articulation of the global struggle against capitalism. The conference influenced student militance and its ideas played a part in the “hot autumn” of 1969. They pointed to the importance of Taylorism in decomposing a work-task into a precise set of motions which become the basis of the total objectification of work. Henry Ford and the assembly-line re-engineered production around the wage. The Wobblies provided an answer based on mobility and the socialization the class struggle outside of the factory. The former gave us the mass worker, and the latter the social wildcat. The Wobs discovered the revolutionary character of collective worker. These Italian comrades of the late 60s and early 70s laid the ground work for the movement of the autonomists.

The social relations of Fordist production were based on the repression of constant capital. In concert with the repression of the machine was the direct discipline of terror. This provides us with the background for understanding the significance of the judicial murder of Joe Hill. The postwar repression–the Palmer raids, the Chicago trial against the Wobblies, the incarceration of militants, the creation of the FBI–had begun earlier with capital punishment and lynchings. The Ku Klux Klan, to quote Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s father, “swelled up like a tick–night riding, killing stock, burning barns and crops, lynching, burning crosses. Good Christians they were.” Thousands were lynched in order a) to preserve white supremacy, b) to please the oil, wheat, and timber interests, and c) to produce human beings who would submit to the assembly line. The photographic evidence of that terror is published. The aquiline noses, the Panama hats, the suspenders, occasional starched collar, ties on the boys–leant an air of Aryan respectability to many of these stinking burnings and mutilations whose nauseating, exemplary cruelty became a national characteristic, the Terror of the Racial Capitalist Nation. And the Klan passed out little red-white-and-blue cards saying, “We are watching you.”

Joe Hill’s execution opened a campaign of economic, racial terrorism. The deafening noise, the unremitting toil, the goon squads, the armed security guards, the speed-up, the physical intimidation, the assembly line of Ford anticipated the work-camps of the gulag and Auschwitz alike. The terror inherent in the full socialization of capital in both production and reproduction was recorded by Frieda Kahlo. Her cool, indigenous eye depicted the fear and pain of the Dearborn hospital and her intelligence and knowledge of revolutionary Marxism linked the terror to that of River Rouge. Thus she provided the witness to the unity of the capitalist circuit, the production of carriages and the miscarriages of reproduction.

Rosemont is especially interested in the women Wobs, such as the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day, or the advocate of birth control, Margaret Sanger, or the Oklahoma advocate of wages for housework, Mary Inman, or the boardinghouse keeper and publisher of song, Mary Gallagher, or the western writer of the Indian common, Mary Austin, or the editor, rhymster, and economist, Marcy Marcy, to name a few.

Mary Inman fled Tulsa, the Oklahoma epicenter of the mid-continent oil field, in 1917 while the local newspaper, screamed, “Kill them, just as you would kill any other kind of snake. Don’t scotch ’em; kill ’em dead. It’s no time to waste money on trials and continuances and things like that. All that is necessary is the evidence and a firing squad.” Wobblies organized its roughnecks; and lynch mobs cracked the necks of the Wobblies. Silence and amnesia was one result. Pure phantasy was another like the Broadway musical “Oklahoma” (1942?). The terror suppressed the Wobbly dream of the common wealth. At Hiroshima and Nagasaki the reign of nuclear terror began. This takes us to E.P. Thompson, the Brit, the vet, the Red, and Ban-the-Bomber.

The Rosemont’s subtitle, The Making of a Revolutionary Workingclass Counterculture alludes to E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class of forty years previous. Rosemont’s book, like Thompson’s, has a job to do, making the class which brings to birth a new world from the ashes of the old. There are differences. For instance, Rosemont has little time for types of work–house work, assembly line work, outdoors work (he makes one word out of working class), or the details of the labor process as did the postwar Trotskyists or the 1960s Italian autonomists. Against the corporate media, against Hollywood, Rosemont’s theme is counterculture, reminding us that the American gloss on Thompson’s Making was culturalist. Both books are part of that “awakening” Joe Hill sang of before he was shot in the heart. From trying towrite the working class into existence, Thompson went on to the peace movement.

Having helped to revive the old English peace movement (CND), now enlarged as the European Nuclear Disarmament (END) to include West Europe and with its sights upon east Europe, Thompson called the American peace movement to attention for a bracing talking to. The aftermath of the June 12, 1982, demonstration in New York was too introverted, its self-criticisms too therapeutic; the mixture of race, gender, class, age, sexual preference issues too willy-nilly or indulgent. Only by deconstructing the hegemonic ruling ideology of the ‘nation’ could the aggressive, deluding system of exterminism be defeated. Authentic, American internationalism needed to be discovered, and this was the task of poets and historians, he argued. The level of peace consciousness was rising, and it needed to rise even higher. He said, “We need, in some new form, a ‘Wobbly’ vocabulary of mutual aid and of plain duty to each other in the face of power.”

The old man of the peace movement, the veteran of political and military battles in the East and in the West, the most influential social historian of the late 20th century, and the lonely bustard of Muggletonian Marxism, was turning to the myth of the Wobs, trying out for size the overalls of the last of the true Wobs including their anarchist tag (“mutual aid”).

To Staughton Lynd what Edward associated with the Wobs was passion; to Bryan Palmer, Edward used the Wobs to assert a “moral agenda” over “traditional Marxism.” These are the gut reactions of the thirsty, parched from the dessicated deserts of American ideology. But Thompson was not moralizing, or speaking only in a passion. There was more to his conception of the Wobblies. His oldest American comrades were a North Dakota poet, Tom McGrath, and a Texan sociologist, C. Wright Mills. They too sometime spoke as The Last of the True Wobs.

The IWW flourished in the second decade of the 20th century which was characterized by a) vast geographic of expansion of capitalism, b) growth of industrial as opposed to craft unions, c) World War I, d) a population which was one third immigrants or children of immigrants, e) rapid unionization among sailors, railway, and streetcar worker, finally, f) the Wobs made, in the words of David Montgomery, “the myth of ‘One Big Union’ ubiquitous.” The Wobs adapted language to immigrant workers, and they adapted hymns from the immigrants’ one cultural institution, the churches. In a sense Thompson’s emphasis on vocabulary is appropriate.

The Wobs were an organization of poets, making it dear to the heart of Rosemont, and his chapters on the classic Ralph Chaplin, the gothic Arturo Giovannitti, the gnomic T-Bone Slim, the spell-binding houseworker, Laura Tanne, and the dandy seer, Covington Hall put Joe Hill in an uncanonized, radical poetic pantheon. A revolutionary organization has to be poetic on the grounds that the future requires present imagination. The Wobs recited Shelley and Whitman, they rose to the Bardic responsibility outlined by Blake. They influenced Claude McKay, Kenneth Rexroth, Carl Sandburg, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos. However, one Wobbly poet is not here, E.P. Thompson’s friend, Tom McGrath.

Tom McGrath’s long poem Letter to an Imaginary Friend (1962, 1970) nearly begins with a powerful description of a Wobbly harvest organizer named Cal. It is a rite of passage to manhood. The poet, as a youngster, doted on Cal, “the last of the true Wobs,”

What he tried to each me was how to take my time
Tried to each me when to laugh and when to be serious,
When to laugh at the serious, be serious in my laughter.

Cal was neither shaman of the tribe nor Chairman of the Party. He was one in a spitting circle of harvest stiffs who happened to be the first man to fold his arms and speak up for the crew at the critical moment, after the wheat was cut and before it was threshed, and took a beating as a result. McGrath was taught at a very specific moment in the geo-historical development of capitalism–the mobility of the harvest gangs, the male proletariat, reaping the fruits of soil and the germ-plasm, maintained by eons of the indigenous people just as the Great Plains formed the bread basket of the planet.

Like other possessors of the gift of gab, poetic as in Tom or voluble as in Thompson, or lyric and cynic like Joe Hill, when the taciturn loosened his tongue, or the reticient stood to speak, they listened with all their heart. Tom, through Cal, struck deep notes,

The commune
and the round dance …

These notes were the barely audible expressions of the indigenous solidarity, the actual utopian experience, McGrath gestures towards a deeply suppressed truth. His poetic line becomes jazz, the breaths between utterances, and the listening, give them their meanings. He studied and absorbed Hopi religion. The indigenous people are not ghosts, or figments of imagination, or stereotypes. They are Fellow Workers. Tom whispered these notes and Thompson heard them.

Thompson, in turn, compared McGrath to Wordsworth, and indeed the moment with Cal was a Wordsworthian ‘spot in time.’ McGrath’s father shared fraternity with the Sioux; he grew up in the awful wake of Wounded Knee. McGrath, like Wordsworth, recognized in their spots of time, Jacobin and Wobbly respectively, a transformation of the social relations of land. This was the root of all. Expropriation: enclosure: conquest.

If McGrath replenished his commonist hopes by the dreams of the Indian commune. Thompson re-discovered the ‘moral economy’ and the common rights of the English open-field system. This wasn’t primitive communism, yet both were discovering the historical evidence of actual anti-capitalism and its continuities. Thompson could be patronizing in an English way to Americans, an attitude which concealed his debt. The “Folded Arms of the Workers” and “Direct Action Gets the Goods” were Wobbly pricks to the English social historian.

Rosemont has a crucial chapter on the indigenous people. Lucy Parsons, “whose high cheek bones of her Indian ancestors” as her biographer says, provided the physiognomy of a countenance of utter inspiration when she spoke at the founding convention of the IWW August Spies lived with the Ojibways; Big Bill Haywood attended pow-wows. Abner Woodruff, a Wob, had a chapter on Indian agriculture in his Evolution of American Agriculture (1915-6). The Wobblies were “the spiritual successors to the Red Indians as number one public enemy and conscience botherers.” Frank Little, the most effective Wobbly organizer, was lynched in Butte, Montana, by the same hard rock copper “bosses” which caused Joe Hill to be shot. Little was a Cherokee Indian.

Ralph Chaplin drifted into dreams of the Indians (Only the Drums Remembered, 1960) in much the same way that William Morris remembered the ‘dream of John Ball.’ In the era of Sigmund Freud, the oneiric faculty preserved the radice, or radical root, which the conscious mind was politically required to repress. “No matter how many times he told me,” Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz remembers of her father, “I loved to hear his agenda of Wobbly dreams: abolition of interest and profits, public ownership of everything, no military draft, no military, no police, the equality of women and all races. ‘The O-B-U, One Big Union,’ he would say and smile to himself, lost in memory.” One of Thompson’s American comrades took a dreamy stance to the Wobs which enabled him, against Communist orthodoxy, to compare American indigenous experience with the European commune.

Thompson’s other American comrade, C. Wright Mills, as Thompson recalls, often referred to himself as a Wob. When the Cuban revolution came C. Wright Mills was reminded of the Wobblies by its improvisation, its egalitarianism, its ideological openness, and the self-activity of the campasinos. The “vocabulary” was part of a revolutionary movement: if the movement is repressed, the vocab is put in quotation marks, or specialized dictionaries, the formaldyhyde of speech. Thompson explained how the Wobblies “never fell into that most dangerous error which supposes that socialist endeavor achieves some consummation in State Power … and Mills’ study of Weber, Sorel, Simmel, Mosca, and Michels had served to confirm in his mind the wisdom which had come instinctively to the transport-workers and lumber-jacks of the old IWW.” They didn’t trust politicians.

Instinct is a term of unwelcome ambiguity alluding to social Darwinism as if the transport-workers and lumber-jacks were primitive, or pre-literate, or beastly and animalish. Thompson’s category of “experience” might be better in this context as mediating between the concrete realities of the labor process and the counter-hegemonic cultural practises of the working class. To be sure, there is no “instinct” to study that long list of European professors, any more than there is “instinct” to file a grievance and wait months for redress, or an “instinct” to put a paper in a ballot box every four years and wait for regime change. Those are capitalist socializations, respectively, of knowledge, production, and politics. The Wobbly vocabulary of mutual aid that Thompson called for is not going to be found in theory, or in instinct, but it might in song. Here we need Rosemont and Joe Hill.

Rosemont’s chapter on the beats particularly Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder introduces the Wobbly concept of the “hip” and the theme of west coast Buddhism. In light of the widespread influence of Buddhism in general and Zen in particular in the American peace movement and the suspicion between the political and the spiritual impulse, we should dig deeper in this particular past. Furthermore, since the Asian financial crisis of 1997 capitalism is importing more than cheap goods and spiritualism from the Pacific. The history goes back to the American transcendentalists. D. T. Suzuki, who did much to introduce Zen in the early 20th century, was a vigorous opponent of anarchism and working-class direct action. However, his was not the only Zen tradition available.

Manuel Yang has shown me that Kotoku Shusui maintained a correspondence with Wobblies in north America. He was a Japanese anarchist who was executed in 1911 with his comrades in what was known as the Great Treason case accused of conspiring to take the life of the Emperor of Japan. Four Buddhist priests were arrested in the same case, three imprisoned for life and one, the Soto Zen priest, Gudo Uichiyama, who had operated a socialist and anarchist printing press behind the huge temple statue of the Buddha, was also executed. He had criticized the doctrine of karma, pie-in-the-sky again. In 1961 Gary Snyder published his manifesto “Buddhist Anarchism” in the Journal for the Protection of All Beings.

Nyogen Senzaki, the old Zen master, once was talking with McGrath, the Wobbly free-thinker, in Los Angeles. Zen touched the Wob, “No Zen is Zen also,” said the master to the poet. Perhaps the “folded arms of the workers” may become amudra of meditation.

What has changed since those Freeze times when E.P. Thompson urged us to Wobby mutual aid? First, the revolt of the indigenous people of central America in 1994 led by the Zapatistas; second, the antiglobalization movement initiated with such a Wobbly bang at the ‘battle of Seattle.’ Third, world-wide ‘war on terror.’

One of Rosemont’s most important themes is that the moral authority IWW has increased, is increasing, and ought to increase more. This volume says it for song, not theory, though, for the epistemologically inclined, Joe Hill did suggest a notion.

If the workers take a notion,
They can stop all speeding trains;
Every ship upon the ocean
They can tie with mighty chains.
Every wheel in the creation,
Every mine and every mill,
Fleets and armies of the nation,
Will at their command stand still.

PETER LINEBAUGH teaches history at the University of Toledo. He is the author of two of CounterPunch’s favorite books, The London Hanged and (with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. He can be reached at:


Sergio Bologna, “Class Composition and the Theory of the Party,” Telos: An International Cultural Quarterly 13 (Fall 1972)

Ralph Chaplin, Wobbly: The Rough-and-Tumble Story of an American Radical (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1948).

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Red Dirt: Growing up Okie (Verso: New York, 1997).

Ferruccio Gambino, “A Critique of the Fordism of the Regulation School” in Werner Bonefeld (ed.), Revolutionary Writing: Common Sense Essays in Post-Political Politics (Autonomedia: N.Y., 2003).

Dan Georgakas, Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer, “‘We Always Sang those Wonderful Songs,’ Sophie Cohen, Joe Murphy and the I.W.W.,” Radical America, March-June 1985

Joyce L. Kornbluh (ed.), Rebel Voices: An I.W.W. Anthology (University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, 1964).

Staughton Lynd, Living Inside Our Hope: A Steadfast Radical’s Thoughts on Rebuilding the Movement (Cornell Univesity Press: Ithaca, N.Y., 1997).

David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor: The workplace, the state, and American labor activism, 1865-1925 (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1987).

Thomas McGrath, Letter to an Imaginary Friend, parts I & II (The Swallow Press: Chicago, 1970).

North Dakota Quarterly, volume 50, no. 4 (Fall 1982), festschrift for Tom McGrath.

E.P. Thompson, The Heavy Dancers (Merlin Press: London, 1985).

Mario Tronti, “Workers and Capital, Telos: An International Cultural Quarterly 14 (1972)

Mario Tronti, “Social Capital,” Telos: An International Cultural Quarterly 17 (1973)

Brian Victoria, Zen at War (Weatherhill: New York, 1997).

Stan Weir, “Class Forces in the 1970s,” Radical America, volume 6, no. 1 (May 1972).




Peter Linebaugh is the author of The London HangedThe Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (with Marcus Rediker) and Magna Carta Manifesto. Linebaugh’s latest book is Red Round Globe Hot Burning. He can be reached at: