Is Joe Hill finally dead? (The Ballad of Joe Hill)

by Bruce Webb

As I browsed through the news today it kind of struck me, not like a lightning bolt but more as an accumulation of blows, that capital was going for the final victory over labor. It was not just the realization that the corporatists and their enablers in both parties were willing to accept 9% plus unemployment long-term but offer no relief at all to the 99ers, but equally willing to accept an investment climate where employers simply will not hire even if they are sitting on piles of cash, because after all who knows and why should any individual employer take the first jump. But this article pushed me over the edge: Employers shrink pay raises, focus increases more on top performers

In other cases, employers can afford raises but are holding off to conserve cash in case the economy slips into another recession. They also are recognizing that they don’t have to offer pre-downturn-level raises because of an abundance of unemployed job applicants willing to work for less.

“The companies have the money to pay but they don’t need to pay it because the supply [of highly qualified unemployed people] is still there,” said Tim Namie, managing director of Manpower Professional’s Washington region.

Employers, Namie added, “are willing to roll the dice” that because of the tight job market, meager raises won’t prompt good workers to quit. And if the workers do leave, he said, employers figure they can find replacements willing to work for lower wages.

Gone is even any pretense that wages are somehow magically tied to “marginal productivity”, nope we are reverting right back to 19th century industrial standards where labor is simply replaceable. Don’t want a job that barely pays now? Well screw you, we’ll just hire a homeless 99’er at 10% less, after all it will allow him to pay for a couple of months in a rooming house. These sons-a-bitches are betting they can roll the dice and have it come up ‘1888’. Well a funny thing happened in those years right before the turn of the 19th century when the Gilded Age was truly golden and Robber Barons were building mansions and founding Colleges, a certain segment of labor decided they weren’t going to take it anymore, and things got kind of messy for the capitalists. And a few decades later we had the following ballad going around: (lyrics under the fold).

RandomPottins: blog of Charlie Pottins of the UK: Ballad of Joe Hill

On November 19, 1915, as working men were being sent to slaughter each other for rival imperial powers, working class hero and songwriter Joe Hill was executed by firing squad in the state of Utah.

In 1925, Alfred Hayes wrote a poem about Joe Hill entitled “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night”, but sometimes just called “Joe Hill”. Hayes’s lyrics were turned into a song in 1936 by Earl Robinson.
It has been sung by Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger, and by the Irish singer Luke Kelly. Probably the best known version today was sung and recorded by Joan Baez in 1969, and featured in the film by Joe’s fellow-Swede Bo Widerborg in 1971. Bob Dylan has said that Joe Hill’s story helped inspire him to write his own songs.

But the lyrics as sung have sometimes varied, as the ballad was passed down over the years, sung at benefit concerts, and meetings, around campfires or in pubs.

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
Alive as you and me.
Says I “But Joe, you’re ten years dead”
“I never died” said he,
“I never died” said he.
“In Salt Lake, Joe,” says I to him,
him standing by my bed,
“They framed you on a murder charge,”
Says Joe, “But I ain’t dead,”
Says Joe, “But I ain’t dead.”

“The Copper Bosses killed you Joe,
they shot you Joe” says I.
“Takes more than guns to kill a man”
Says Joe “I didn’t die”
Says Joe “I didn’t die”

And standing there as big as life
and smiling with his eyes.
Says Joe “What they can never kill
went on to organize,
went on to organize”

From San Diego up to Maine,
in every mine and mill,
where workers fight,
to defend their rights,
That’s where you find Joe Hill,
it’s there you find Joe Hill!

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
alive as you and me.
Says I “But Joe, you’re ten years dead”
“I never died” said he,
“I never died” said he.

I am not a revolutionary, but on the other hand I am not here to turn my back on the IWW (Wobblies) or Harry Bridges who as head of the ILA (Longshoremen) led the 1934 San Francisco General Strike. The New Deal overall can be seen as the result of a Great Compromise, Labor agreeing to maintain a system fundamentally based on and controlled by Capital in return for a fair share of resultant productivity. And with fits and turns that compromise and deal held up for 50 years. Until in the 1980s Capital decided that with a determined effort they could just roll back the clock a hundred years and tell labor to stuff it, to work or starve.

I mean it is one thing to tolerate high levels of unemployment, it is another to deliberately set out to exploit it in the way outlined by that WaPo article today. Which btw proceeded, without any apparent indignation, to point out that local workers in the DC area had it relatively easy, those workers outside the military-intelligence-national security sectors not even getting Beltway and Wall Street wage increases.

Look no one wants to see violence in the streets, but history shows that it is not only the capitalists that have 2nd amendment remedies. Joe Hill may have more life in him than they like.