It has been a century since “the man who never died” was put to death.
Joe Hill, whose songs inspired labor organizing and introduced the phrase “pie in the sky,” went before a firing squad on November 19, 1915. The case putting him at the scene of a grocery store shootout was tenuous at best. But as Franklin Rosemont observes, “It was for the ‘crime’ of belonging to the [Industrial Workers of the World] that Hill was tried and condemned.”
Hill’s wrongful conviction was part of a massive repression against labor efforts ignored in triumphalist accounts of American history. As Karl Hess told a New York Times reporter startled by the continued existence of the union to which Hill and Hess belonged: “We used to have a labor movement in this country, until I.W.W. leaders were killed or imprisoned. You could tell labor unions had become captive when business and government began to praise them.”
In 1949, the animated short “Meet King Joe” starred another Joe who embodied the average worker. But this Joe was “king” only in purchasing power, a byproduct of cooperation with management and productivity enabled by capital-intensive investment. As reviewer Christine Hennig notes, it “strongly implies that [workers] have no right to complain about their wages or working conditions in any way.” (Unsurprisingly, the cartoon’s production was funded not by union dues but by the fortunes of the head of General Motors, the company convinced that whatever was good for itself coincided with the public interest.) In contrast, the IWW aimed to make every workingman (and workingwoman, with its ranks of real-life Katniss Everdeen “rebel girls” like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn) king of their own workplace.
A reappraisal of the American economy’s distortion by intervention against, not on behalf of, labor has been taken up not only by “people’s historians” like Howard Zinn, but Ayn Rand scholar Chris Matthew Sciabarra. This has undermined two persistent yet contradictory myths. One is that the American economy is a free market, with the “Meet King Joe” narration explaining that, “Our industrial progress is largely the result of the competitive struggle between companies.” The other is that the American economy was a free market but thankfully no longer is. In the former, the power of big business is earned from consumers; in the latter, dog-eat-dog small-scale competition was wisely restrained. But Zinn, drawing on historical research by Gabriel Kolko uncovering that the American state has been allied with business rather than labor, places the founding of the IWW at “the inauguration of benign governmental regulation of business, supported by a new consensus of businessmen, Presidents, and reformers.”
The corporate-state alliance is powerful enough that it might seem destined to persist for many more centuries. But new history from Kolko on shows how stacked a deck it has needed to survive. On an even playing field, what Samuel Konkin calls “the abhorrence of the IWW to politics and party,” combined with its direct action, offers a winning strategy. And that’s no dream of Joe.