Joe Hill: True Working Class Hero

IWW: Joe Hill’s Story

Directed by Ken Verdoia (1998)

Film Review

This documentary is about the alleged framing of International Workers of the World songwriter Joe Hill for a 1914  murder he didn’t commit. There were major protests around the world to win Hill a new trial and stop his execution.

The beginning of the film describes the massive waves of immigration the US experienced in the early 1900s (roughly a million immigrants a year), in part due to open recruiting by corporate bosses in poverty stricken Eastern Europe. Employers deliberately sought out illiterate Eastern European immigrants as strike breakers and for the most dangerous  and degrading work.

Founded in 1905, the International Workers of the World (IWW) were the first to offer union membership to immigrant, black and women workers. Unlike the fledgling American Federation of Labor (AFL), the IWW sought to form a single union representing all trades – with an ultimate goal of dismantling capitalism.

At the time, the US government viewed all union agitation for better pay and working conditions as treasonous. Thus it was common to deploy federal troops and National Guard to violently suppress strikes.

Joe Hill, who was 21 when he immigrated from Sweden, had to continuously travel to remain in paid work. To avoid being blacklisted for his union activity he changed his birth name from Joel Haagland to Joe Linstrom and finally, after becoming widely known for his protest songs, to Joe Hill.

He was arrested in Utah in 1914 for killing a grocer and his son during an attempted robbery. The prosecution case was based entirely on circumstantial evidence – a gunshot wound Hill allegedly received in a fight over a woman. Although ballistic evidence suggested otherwise, the prosecution claimed the grocer shot him before being fatally wounded.*

Most historians believe he was convicted because of his membership in IWW.

Hill was memorialized in the protest song “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” recorded by Paul Robeson.

The film itself can’t be embedded but can be seen free at the following link: IWW: Joe Hill’s Story


*Although Hill steadfastly refused to identify the the woman at trial, William M Adler would validate the alibi in his 2011 biography The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon.

 

 

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