Joe Hill Finally Comes to San Francisco’s City Lights

Photograph Source: Caroline Culler (User:Wgreaves) – CC BY-SA 3.0

Everyone in San Francisco and beyond loves City Lights Bookstore and Publishing Company. At least every reader and bookish citizen or craves culture and community. Indeed, City Lights Bookstore and City Lights Publishing have long been hailed as exemplary countercultural institutions, so it comes as a surprise to learn that the workers at the store and the press are not now and have never been in a union. But that will soon change.

Sixteen employees recently signed union-authorization cards and joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), aka The Wobblies, the legendary union that battled capitalism, corporations and the robber barons in the early 20th century, and gave American history legendary figures like William (“Big Bill”) Haywood, Eugene V. Debs, Lucy Parsons, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones and many others. The powers-that-be at City Lights might be a tad apprehensive about the IWW’s plan to defend the rights of the workers at the store, or perhaps truly delighted.

In the early twentieth-century, the Wobblies organized workers (longshoremen, lumberjacks, miners) that no other union would or did want to touch and organize. Not surprisingly, the bosses, the police and the armed power of the State aimed to crush the IWW. In Seattle, Washington, on the cusp of US entry in World War I, at least a dozen members of the union were killed in the aftermath of a strike called by shingle workers. Seattle Sheriff McRae was wounded in the crossfire. A number of citizen deputies were killed and wounded. Seventy-four Wobblies were arrested in the wake of the “Everett Massacre,” as it was called. None of them were convicted of a crime.

But in August 1917, just four months after the US declared war on Germany, Frank Little— perhaps the IWW’s most outspoken opponent of war— was lynched in Butte, Montana. That year over one hundred Wobbly leaders were arrested and tried. Some were convicted and sent to jail. In 1949, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover stated “the IWW as a subversive menace was crushed and has never revived.”

That was not true. As usual, Hoover was boasting. The organization never died; indeed it revived in the Sixties and has continued to grow over the past half-century. I have only known one true member of the IWW; Sam Krieger who was born Jewish in Russia, joined the IWW soon after he arrived in the US, enlisted in the American Communist Party, attended the Lenin School in Moscow, studied Marx and Lenin, learned how to fire a rifle and then went to work for Jimmy Hoffa at the Teamsters Union. Much of that history he aimed to conceal, especially the part about the Lenin School.

Krieger also brought Whittaker Chambers into the American Communist Party; for years he was terrified that Chambers, an arch anti-communist, would out him. That never happened. Krieger was tough as nails, even when he was in his 80s which was when I met him and worked with him on his biography. He never did like Hoover, the FBI, cops, goons, finks and scabs. His own daughters thought he was just a sweet old guy.

Krieger would cheer the IWW and its current drive to unionize the workers at City Lights, which shows that Hoover was overly optimistic – or was it wishful thinking?— when he said that the organization was dead in the water. During the Red Scare of the 1950s and for decades afterward, Wobbly members remembered and lived up to the words of singer and songwriter, Joe Hill, who was executed by the state of Utah in 1915 and who told his comrades, “Don’t Mourn, Organize!”

Not surprisingly, City Lights sells Franklin Rosemont’s book, Joe Hill: The IWW & the Making of a Revolutionary Working Class Counterculture, published by PM Press, in some ways a rival to City Lights publishing. It has also sold the works of Marx and Engels, long deemed subversive.

After Trump was elected president in 1916, feminist and arch foe of the patriarchy, Gloria Steinem, said, “We will not mourn, we will organize.”

What’s perhaps most surprising about the recent news concerning the IWW at City Lights is that the workers there have never been in a union. Perhaps they have thought that it would be unwise (and politically incorrect) to call for raising their shockingly low pay, protecting job security for part-time employees and creating a formal process to address grievances. Many City Lights’ workers have been at the store for decades and echo its mission to keep the counterculture alive and well. They are true believers.

An article published not long ago in LitHub described City Lights as a “utopian vision of how creativity can be harnessed to make the world a better place and to make our individual lives better and richer, too.” Behind every utopia, lies an environment with social ills.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the co-founder of City Lights, made a name for himself as an anarchist, a pacifist, a poet and a painter, but not as a supporter of unions and the working classes. His Coney Island of the Mind has sold more than a million copies ever since it was first published in 1957.

In “I’m Waiting,” perhaps the most well-known poem in that volume, the author wrote “I am waiting happily/for things to get much worse/before they improve/ and I am waiting/for the Salvation Army to take over/and I am waiting/for the human crowd/ to wander off a cliff somewhere/clutching its atomic umbrella.”

According to Decca Muldowney, who works at City Lights, and who earns $18.07 an hour—San Francisco’s minimum wage— previous attempts to organize the employees never did get off the ground. Now, unionization seems likely to succeed. Elaine Katzenberger, City Lights Executive Director, said, “We do intend to recognize this union. City Lights has always been actively engaged in the project of creating and evolving a fulfilling, equitable, and humane workplace.” She added, “If unionization can provide us with new tools for helping us better achieve these ideals, we absolutely welcome them.” Bravo Katzenberger.

Before Ferlinghetti hired her, she worked as a bartender at Vesuvio, a popular destination for locals and tourists, and a Beat Generation hang out. Katzenberger knows what it’s like to be near the bottom of the economic ladder and to struggle to survive.

Like her, City Lights has struggled to survive ever since it was founded in 1953 as the first ever all paperback bookstore in the US. It was nearly shut down when Ferlinghetti was arrested and charged with publishing obscenity. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was the targeted work. Four-letter words and graphic descriptions of sex punctuate the poem. In the last section of Howl, the poet addresses Carl Solomon: “I’m with you in Rockland where you accuse your doctors of insanity and plot the Hebrew socialist revolution against the fascist national Golgotha.” Like Ginsberg, Solomon was a patient at a mental hospital.

 With the arrival of Amazon, the book business has become even more competitive than ever before. Competition has hit City Lights hard. Recently, in the aftermath of the pandemic and COVID, the store was nearly forced to shut down permanently. A GoFundMe campaign raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from hundreds of supporters and customers and has kept the store and the publishing company up and running; apparently as successful as ever.

Ferlinghetti died in 2021 at the age of 101. He might tell the City Lights workers, “Don’t Mourn, Organize.” The store he founded and made a sanctuary for poets, anarchists, pacifists, feminists and more will survive, as he survived the cops who arrested him for obscenity and who also survived the trial at which he was found not guilty by a San Francisco judge. “Dissent is not un-American,” he insisted. The IWW will likely make the workers at City Lights happier and the store a friendlier place to browse, read, buy a book and to meet the bookish and the literari.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.