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.

 

 

What They Don’t Teach in School About the US Labor Movement

 

Plutocracy IV: Gangsters for Capitalism

Directed by Scott Noble

Film Review

The fourth film in a series, Plutocracy IV essentially rewrites “mainstream” history about the birth of the US labor movement. In director Scott Noble’s depiction, what we see is virtual all out war between working people and corporate bosses and their government stooges.

Noble begins by tracing the downfall of the global anarchist movement, beginning with the violent crushing of the anarchist-driven 1871 Paris Commune.

Founded in 1901, the Socialist Party, would briefly replace anarchism as the main engine of worker organizing. Eugene Debs, a founding member of both International Workers of the World (see Plutocracy III: Class War ) and the Socialist Party, would run five times as a socialist candidate for president. In 1912 he won 6% of the vote, with  nearly a million votes.

In 1919, two-thirds of Socialist Party members voted to support the Bolshevik Revolution and were expelled by the party leadership, who favored democratic socialism. From that point on, the Communist Party (and fascism in Germany and Italy) drove most radical worker organizing.

Supreme Court Overturns Child Labor Laws

Noble describes 1921-1928 as extremely bleak for the labor movement – with most strikes being defeated during this period. Noble highlights the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, where striking West Virginia coal miners were attacked by federal troops and the 1923 St Pedro longshoremen strike (California), which was crushed by police and vigilante Ku Klux Klan members.*

It was also during this period that the Supreme Court overturned federal child labor and minimum wage laws.

Things got even worse for US workers during the Great Depression, with corporate bosses using the fear of unemployment to reduce wages by 20%. In 1932, Hoover ordered federal troops to mow down the Bonus Army, World War I veterans and their families, when they camped out in front of the Capitol demanding payment of the Bonus they had been promised  (see The Wall Street Elites Who Financed Hitler)

General Strikes Force Roosevelt to Create National Labor Relations Board

In 1933, Roosevelt passed the National Industrial Recovery Act, which theoretically gave workers the right to unionize (and strike). Although union membership increased substantially over the next several years, strikes continued to be brutally suppressed by armed corporate thugs, police and state National Guards. One example was the 1933 Ford Hunger Strike (aka the Ford Massacre) – in which 15,000 autoworkers when on strike when Henry Ford began to close factories. Despite being brutally attacked by armed guards and police (with four strikers killed and many injured), strikers persisted and won right to organize Ford Motor Company.

I was very surprised to learn there were four general strikes during 1934 in San Francisco, Minneapolis and Toledo. The San Francisco general strike was defeated by the union leadership (AFL) when Roosevelt condemned it. Workers were victorious in Toledo and Minneapolis, even though the Minnesota governor called out the National Guard in an effort to crush the city’s strike.

The fear that more general strikes would provoke generalized revolt (and/or revolution) led Roosevelt to create the National Labor Relations Board in 1935. His aim was to allow for a “peaceful” process of resolving strikes.


*In one vignette, Native American Historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz describes how Woodrow Wilson and state and local officials supported the rise of the KKK in the north to crush strikes. Many members of the Portland police were KKK members during this period, and Colorado judges, police and elected officials belonged to the Klan in Colorado.

 

 

Plutocracy III: Class War

Plutocracy III: Class War

Scott Noble (2017)

Film Review

Part 2 of Scott Noble’s Plutocracy series addresses the rise of a US manufacturing elite aristocracy far more vicious and brutal than any hereditary European aristocracy. One hundred years after America’s War of Independence, Wall Street’s robber barons were effectively controlling both state and federal government. They have done so ever since.

The Brutal Repression of Unions

Workers, organized by fledgling labor unions and worker-based political parties (covered extensively in Plutocracy Part II – see Plutocracy II Solidarity Forever), launched massive strikes to fight back against their starvation wages and working conditions. Company bosses fought worker organizing by hiring mercenary armies, such as Pinkertons, to harass, torture and kill organizers. The US was the only industrialized country to allow private corporations to form their own private armies.

It was also common for state National Guard units and federal troops to intervene in strikes and kill striking workers and their families. The documentary highlights the 1914 Ludlow massacre, in which National Guardsmen deliberately shot into and set fire to a strikers’ tent colony, killing two dozen people (including miners’ wives and children).

The film goes on to describe the rise of International Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies) a revolutionary union that was the first to represent unskilled workers, women and people of color.

Using a combination of trumped up charges and government-linked vigilante groups, corporate controlled state and federal entities brutally repressed the IWW, both before and after World War I.

How Elites Used World War I to Suppress Worker Organizing

Most of the film focuses on the enormous setback in US worker organizing that occurred during World War I. In part the filmmakers blame the massive pro-war propaganda and indoctrination apparatus Woodrow Wilson created and in part the repressive measures he enacted to suppress popular opposition to the compulsory draft he introduced.

These included the 1917 Espionage Act (which was never repealed – both Julian Assange and Edward Snowden were charged under this law), the 1916 Selective Service Act (never repealed), the 1918 Sedition Act (repealed in 1920) and the 1917 Immigration Act (allowing for arrest and deportation of dissidents without due process).

In 1919, Wilson created the General Intelligence Division (GID), headed by J Edgar Hoover, who created 200,000 crossed indexed cards on 60,000 so-called “dissidents,” including NAACP and Negro Improvement Association members, pacifists, suffragettes, union leaders and progressive politicians like Robert LaFollette. Hoover took his index cards with him when the GID shut down and Roosevelt appointed him to head the Bureau of Investigation, renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935.

Links to Plutocracy II Solidarity Forever and Plutocracy I A history of Political Repression in the US

 

Nationwide Prison Strike Called for Sept 9

prison strike

Prisoners across the United States are calling for a nationwide prisoner work stoppage against prison slavery on September 9th, 2016.

Their goal is to begin an action to shut down prisons, which are totally dependent on inmate labor, across the country. According to US Uncut, US prisoners are paid from 0 to 45 cents an hour for contract work for highly profitable corporations such as Whole Foods, Walmart, McDonald’s, Victoria’s Secret, BP and AT&T.

September 9th is the 45th anniversary of the 1971 uprising in which prisoners took over and shut down Attica, New York’s most notorious state prison.

Non-violent protests, work stoppages, hunger strikes and other refusals to participate in prison routines have greatly increased in recent years. The 2010 Georgia prison strike, the massive rolling California hunger strikes, the Free Alabama Movement’s 2014 work stoppage, have drawn the most attention. There have also been large hunger strikes at Ohio State Penitentiary, Menard Correctional in Illinois, Red Onion in Virginia and elsewhere. The growing resistance movement includes inmates at immigrant detention centers, women’s prisons and juvenile facilities.

The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), created by the International Workers of the World (IWW), functions as a liaison to support prisoners in organizing and forging links between prisons and with fellow workers on the outside. IWOC, the only union representing prisoners, currently has 800 members.

As reported in the Nation, barriers to organizing prisoners are high. Most prisons deny inmates access to email, which makes communications between prisons difficult. Even within prisons, wardens block most prisoners’ union meetings. In 1977 the Supreme Court ruled prisoners have no First Amendment right to assemble if a warden feels a gathering threatens prison security.

In early 2015, the Free Alabama Movement published Let the Crops Rot in the Fields, laying out a new strategy –specifically tackling economic incentive – for ending mass incarceration. By refusing to work, prisoners directly attack the corporate profit motive underpinning mass incarceration. The IWOC has been sending copies of “Let the Crops Rot in the Fields” to prisoners all over the US.

According to the Nation article, the IWW were also instrumental in launching union drives at fast food restaurants in the early 2000s and the campaign for a $15 minimum wage.

For more information on IWOC and to help support the Sept 9 strike visit the IWOC Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/incarceratedworkers/