Before being executed by a firing squad in 1915, labor icon Joe Hill told his colleagues: “Don’t mourn — Organize.” A Swedish immigrant and dock worker, Hill’s pro-labor anthems influenced labor leaders as well as musicians like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. As labor unions today struggle to stay relevant, some think the movement lacks the passion and purpose of those early organizers. We look at lessons for today’s labor leaders from the life and music of Joe Hill.

Guests

  • Michael Kazin Professor, History Department, Georgetown University
  • William M. Adler Author, "The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times , and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon" (Bloomsbury)

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Pete Seeger sings “Joe Hill:”

Transcript

  • 12:06:42

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Before being executed by a firing squad in 1915, labor icon Joe Hill told his colleagues, don't mourn, organize. A Swedish immigrant and dock worker, Hill wrote sharp, catchy tunes that helped ignite a newly powerful union movement. And decades later, musicians like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Joan Baez took inspiration from his music and his message.

  • 12:07:26

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIToday, Joe Hill's labor anthem still sound radical, somewhat quaint maybe. But as American unions struggle to stay relevant in a downsized, globalized world, it's worth asking whether union leaders might do well to take a page from Joe Hill's songbook. Joining us in studio to discuss this is William Adler. He is the author of "The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon. Bill Adler, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:07:55

    MR. WILLIAM M. ADLERThank you, Kojo Great to be here.

  • 12:07:56

    NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Michael Kazin. He is a professor of history at Georgetown University. His most recent book is "American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation." Michael Kazin, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:08

    PROF. MICHAEL KAZINGreat to be here.

  • 12:08:09

    NNAMDIYou should know that you, too, can join this conversation by calling 800-433-8850. Do you know who Joe Hill was or have you heard his music? That's 800-433-8850. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Or email to kojo@wamu.org. Bill Adler, Joe Hill is well-known to historians and labor organizers, but most Americans don't know the name. So tell us who was Joe Hill.

  • 12:08:40

    ADLERWell, he was an artist. He was a musician. He had -- I guess I would say he had a musician's need to create and a propagandist's need to incite. And he was, as you say, a Swedish immigrant, born in 1879 in a poor town over there and came to the U.S. in 1902, eventually joined this radical union called the Industrial Workers of the World, better known as the Wobblies, and became their most well-known voice and their leading songwriter. And in the end, he faced a murder charge in Utah, and we'll talk about that in...

  • 12:09:16

    NNAMDIDuring the course of this discussion.

  • 12:09:18

    ADLERRight.

  • 12:09:18

    NNAMDIMichael Kazin, we just heard Bill mention the Industrial Workers of the World, which, it is my understanding, was a relatively small but influential union at the turn of the century. Tell us about the IWW.

  • 12:09:30

    KAZINIWW was formed in 1905. It was a radical union organization. That's got to be underlined. They really believed in building a different kind of society entirely, which would be centered, in the workplace, centered among these industrial unions. They wanted what they call one big union. And they had some success really mobilizing workers who nobody else was really mobilizing: migrant workers in the West, lumberjacks, textile workers in New England and dock workers in Philadelphia.

  • 12:10:02

    KAZINAnd they led some heroic strikes. In the end, they were defeated by government repression and one could also argue by perhaps the ultra-radicalism of some of their views. But it was an important organization and helped, I think, to build a legacy for unionists in decades afterwards.

  • 12:10:24

    NNAMDIBill also mentioned that they were also known as the Wobblies. Does anyone know the derivation of that term?

  • 12:10:30

    KAZINThere's a lot of folklore debate about that. Some people used to say it came from a Chinese immigrant who couldn't pronounce IWW very well, so he told, well, I wobble wobble. But I don't know, maybe Bill knows about that. I have an old friend, late folklorist named Archie Green, wonderful. And he wrote an article about this very question about where the wobbly term comes from. But it certainly didn't come from the fact that they were wobbly politically 'cause they were -- they're very militant and very radical.

  • 12:11:01

    NNAMDIAnd if you can tell us any more about it, Bill?

  • 12:11:02

    ADLERI, you know, I've heard those same theories. I wobble wobble is certainly one you hear a lot, but, no, I don't know the answer to that question. Maybe a listener does.

  • 12:11:11

    NNAMDIJoe Hill wrote a number of songs that union members sang, and he felt strongly about the power of music, did he not?

  • 12:11:18

    ADLEROh, he absolutely did. He believed that people could unite with music, that he saw it as an organizing tool, he saw it as a weapon of social protest. And it was really a way, I think, for people of disparate nationality and tongue and ethnicity to unite around a common interest. And Joe Hill believed that in song, you could basically memorize a song, learn a song by heart, but a pamphlet, as so many Wobblies wrote them -- and they were prolific writers.

  • 12:11:49

    ADLERBut pamphlets were hard to understand, and a song was easy to understand. And especially if you knew the tune -- and Joe Hill was an expert at parody. And they would use established tunes and write their own words so it made it a lot -- much easier to learn by heart.

  • 12:12:02

    NNAMDIHe was both musical and satirical from a young age, apparently, growing up in Sweden. And he based his music on tunes and rhythms that were already familiar, didn't he?

  • 12:12:14

    ADLERHe did, indeed. And in Sweden, he first parodied the Salvation Army branch over there, which he would later do again here in the States. He did it because his father died when he was young. Joe was age 8 when his father died, and he'd had to go on to -- he had to go to work early. There were six kids in the family under the age of 12 when his father died. And they appealed for alms to the Salvation Army along with some other social service agencies, none of which would grant the Hill family.

  • 12:12:48

    ADLERIt was actually the Hagglund family as he was known in Sweden, Joel Hagglund. None of which would give them any sort of relief. So he had an early target for his parody in the Salvation Army.

  • 12:13:02

    NNAMDIWe're gonna play one of his songs that he wrote in 1911 as a parody of a Salvation Army hymn. It was called "The Preacher and the Slave." But the version that we have has no attribution and so it's listed as anonymous. We would like to find if anyone in our audience who can tell us who this is by. And the number, of course, is 800-433-8850. Or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org. And tell us what you know there. Or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Here it is now, this version of "The Preacher and the Slave."

  • 12:16:21

    NNAMDIBill Adler, tell us about that song. First of all, it's a parody, correct?

  • 12:16:25

    ADLEROf course, yeah. It's written to the tune of the Salvation Army hymn -- or the Christian hymn, really, "Sweet By-and-By," of course. And...

  • 12:16:34

    NNAMDIAnd I noticed they refer to it in the song as the starvation army.

  • 12:16:36

    ADLER(laugh) The starvation army, that's right. Joe Hill wrote it, as I say, in response, partly, to his own experience with the Salvation Army in Sweden, but also because of an experience in Spokane, Wash., in 1909, when the IWW was organizing and they were trying to counter a campaign by the employment agents -- employment agencies, private employment agencies in the city, which were really a bunch of fraudulent labor sharks, as the IWW called them.

  • 12:17:07

    ADLERAnd what they would do is you would go in for a job, you would pay your five dollars or $10 and then it would ship you out to some far-flung area in the Inland Empire to work. But when you get out there, invariably, you'd find that five men or 10 men or 25 other men had been hired for the same job or that the job was only lasting a week or, you know, two weeks or something and then you'd have to come back in. So the IWW started the Don't Buy Jobs campaign.

  • 12:17:34

    ADLERAnd they started soapboxing on the street, which is how they organized. They would start with music, and then they would have a meeting. And the employment agents responded by hiring the Salvation Army band, this big brass band, to come on the street and drown out the IWW soapboxers so they no longer could reach the workers. So that was a problem, but it was also a revelation for the IWW.

  • 12:17:58

    ADLERIt gave them the idea that they could start their own band and that they could write their own music and set it to the, as I said, to the Salvation Army melodies. And so that's what they did with the "Sweet By-and-By" and Joe Hill song "The Preacher and the Slave."

  • 12:18:11

    NNAMDISome people have said that what we just heard was a British cover band known as Class of '58. Can either of you verify that -- this one.

  • 12:18:20

    KAZINI was thinking it sounds like a country singer from the U.S. The kind of the twang and the diction, it sounds like -- reminded me a little bit of Steve Earle, though it's not Steve Earle.

  • 12:18:30

    NNAMDIYeah. Well, if anybody else knows, you can send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Or go to our website, kojoshow.org, and tell us there. Gentlemen, please put on your headphones because Rob in Lorton, Va., is on the line. Rob, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:18:44

    ROBI dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night, alive as you or me. Says I, "But Joe, you're 10 years dead." "I never died," said he. "I never died," said he. (unintelligible) ...

  • 12:19:02

    NNAMDIYou know, Rob, we were gonna play that later on in the broadcast. But now that you've brought it up...

  • 12:19:08

    ROBSorry about that.

  • 12:19:09

    NNAMDI...here is the Joan Baez version of said song.

  • 12:21:20

    NNAMDIThat's Joan Baez, singing a song about Joe Hill, "The Ballad of Joe Hill." Bill Adler, we'll talk about the death of Joe Hill in a little while, but what became clear is that Joe Hill did become a martyr in death because this ballad was written a little over 10 years after Joe Hill was executed -- not a song by him, but a song about him.

  • 12:21:42

    ADLERRight. And it's actually how I first heard about Joe Hill. It's really all I knew about Joe Hill, what was written in those lyrics. And as you say, it was written in 1925. It was set to music about a decade later in the mid-'30s. Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson shared the credit for that song. And it has endured certainly. It's put Joe, I think, into the pantheon of American folk heroes.

  • 12:22:06

    KAZINCould -- if I could, in fact, just make one point about (unintelligible) that song.

  • 12:22:07

    NNAMDIPlease go ahead, Michael.

  • 12:22:09

    KAZINI mean, in some way, the song is interesting historically 'cause it shows both the continuity and the ironies of American radical history. Hayes and Robinson are both members of Communist Party. And Robinson, perhaps better known (unintelligible), he wrote "Ballad for Americans," which Paul Robeson made into a famous song. Anyway...

  • 12:22:30

    NNAMDIHold that thought for one second, because here is Vera in Washington, D.C. Vera, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:22:36

    VERAHi, Kojo. I, too, didn't really know who Joe Hill was, but there's a collection of songs that was first recorded in -- no, '78 and around the wartime. And, of course, Paul Robeson makes everything so deep and moving, but he recorded that particular song and then another one about a birthday tribute to Joe Hill. And he has some lyrics, he'll always know -- something about how he knows who's a decent guy, who won't cheat you and who's an honest person.

  • 12:23:17

    NNAMDIVera...

  • 12:23:17

    VERASo I think that is now -- I know it's off of '78, maybe it's LP. Maybe it's even on a CD.

  • 12:23:27

    NNAMDIProbably...

  • 12:23:27

    VERAWell, thank you so much for this program.

  • 12:23:29

    NNAMDIOh, thank you very much for your call, Vera. I don't know if there's anything you wanted to add to that, Michael.

  • 12:23:33

    KAZINNo. Just, you know, again, the influence of the left culturally in some ways is more powerful than in politics. That's the argument I'm making my book "American Dreamers." And I think IWW, you know, may have failed as an organization, but they left us some amazing music.

  • 12:23:50

    NNAMDII'm gonna get back to IWW also after this short break. You can still call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to kojo@wamu.org. What do you think the labor movement has done for American workers? The labor movement that Joe Hill helped to build. 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:25:59

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about the legendary Joe Hill. We're talking with William Adler. He's the author of "The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon." Also joining us in studio is Michael Kazin, professor of history at Georgetown University. His most recent book is "American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation." Michael, we were talking earlier about the IWW. How radical was the labor movement in the United States at that time?

  • 12:26:26

    KAZINWell, it was split, really, between the IWW, which as I said was a revolutionary union organization, really wanted to overthrow capital society and instituted a sort of labor-centered society, and the American Federation of Labor, which was run by reformers like Samuel Gompers, who wanted to get the best for working people within capital society. They thought it was unrealistic to demand complete transformation of the system.

  • 12:26:52

    KAZINSo -- and the -- AFL -- actually, the IWW began in 1905 partly as a criticism of the AFL because they -- the AFL was not signing up many new immigrant workers, not signing up many African-American workers. And the IWW, to its great credit, was really the only anti-racist organization at that time.

  • 12:27:14

    NNAMDIBill Adler.

  • 12:27:15

    ADLERYeah. And I think, at its founding convention in 1905 in Chicago, Bill Haywood called it the Continental Congress of the working class, and he said that we're gonna go down in the gutter and get the great massive workers and bring them up to a decent plain of living. And I think that was a direct criticism of the AFFL, which, as Michael said, was really restrictive and not welcoming at all to unskilled workers, minorities, immigrants and so forth.

  • 12:27:41

    NNAMDIKen in Mitchellville, Md., might have the answer to one of the questions we raised earlier. Here is Ken. You're on the air, Ken. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:27:49

    KENKojo, I Wobbly Wobbly was called wobbly wobbly because the Asian, the Chinese workers were unable to say W, and they called it wobbly wobbly.

  • 12:27:57

    NNAMDIThat's the theory we heard expressed earlier, so thank you very much for confirming it, Ken.

  • 12:28:03

    KENOK.

  • 12:28:03

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850 if you have comments or questions about Joe Hill. Bill Adler, in November of 1915, Joe Hill was shot by a firing squad for murder. What was that story?

  • 12:28:18

    ADLERWell, he was -- he had been arrested about 22 months earlier for the murder of a grocery store owner in Salt Lake City on the same night that Joe Hill himself received a gunshot wound. And that was basically the only circumstantial evidence that the State of Utah had against Joe Hill. He received this wound the same night as the grocer was murdered. There was never any direct evidence linking Joe Hill to the grocer. No motive was ever shown. There was no murder weapon recovered.

  • 12:28:50

    ADLERNo positive identification of Joe Hill. Nevertheless, they did have one bit of evidence that basically pointed the guilty finger on him and that was his IWW red card. And once they discovered that he was a member of the IWW and not only that but a prominent musician within the union, his fate was basically sealed.

  • 12:29:14

    NNAMDIBut the interesting thing is that Joe Hill chose not to bring as evidence several crucial facts that might have proved his innocence, and you have a hypothesis as to why.

  • 12:29:25

    ADLERYes. He never did testify as to how he received that gunshot wound. His defense was really very limited. It was almost no defense. Partly, that was because he had these two court-appointed lawyers who didn't seem particularly interested in offering a vigorous defense, but also because Joe Hill was determined that the state prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and that he would, as he said, would not prove his innocence. They made him try to prove his innocence by testifying.

  • 12:29:55

    ADLERHe said he wasn't gonna testify. And there were a couple other reasons that he decided to become a martyr, I think. One was -- he was shot when -- he actually was shot by a rival suitor for a woman. This was a lover's quarrel, rather a secret kind of love triangle. There was a young woman involved who had been engaged to friend of Joe Hill's. The woman broke it off. And about a week later, Joe Hill was taunting his friend, saying that he was the reason that this woman had broken off the engagement, and the guy turned and pulled a gun on him and shot him.

  • 12:30:34

    ADLERHe immediately felt bad afterwards, the young woman later said, took him to the doctor's office, and it was there for the one and only time that Joe Hill said what actually happened to him on the night, which was that he was shot by a friend in a quarrel over a woman. But he didn't name the friend, and he didn't name the woman. And for all these years, nearly a century now, that's been a secret, but I have finally uncovered who the friend was and who the woman was, and that's a central part of this book.

  • 12:31:05

    NNAMDIThe book is called "The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon." We're talking with the author, William Adler, and with Michael Kazin, professor of history at Georgetown University. His most recent book is "American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation."

  • 12:31:19

    NNAMDIAnd, Michael, it seems that Joe Hill wanted to be a martyr and in the song that we heard by Joan Baez when Joe says, I didn't die, it says the copper bosses killed you though, Joe. They shot you, Joe. They filled you full of lead. Apparently, he wanted it known that the corporate bosses where behind his death.

  • 12:31:41

    KAZINWell, you know, the -- it was true in Utah and most of the states at that time that the real power was with mining operators and people who owned the mines where the copper or silver or whatever. You know, Bill knows more about what was in his mind or can speculate more about what was in his mind at the time. I do think he understood that once he was going to be assassinated that at least -- or, excuse me, executed that at least his union and the larger cause of the worker could benefit from him being a martyr.

  • 12:32:17

    KAZINAnd that famous phrase at the end of his goodbye letter, you know, don't mourn for me boys, organize, certainly, one of the more famous lines in American radical history. I've used it many times in articles and so forth. But, you know, I think, you know, this was a movement after all of people who -- mostly men, who were down their luck, who were very poor, who didn't have very long life expectancies anyway. And so, in some ways, going down fighting was seen as a virtue.

  • 12:32:50

    NNAMDIBill Adler, I repeat, the lyrics say, the copper bosses shot you, Joe. They shot you, Joe. They framed you on a murder charge. Is there any evidence that he was, in fact, framed?

  • 12:33:00

    ADLERYes, I would say there is. I don't think it was a conspiracy. I mean, I don't know that it was just the copper bosses per se, but I don't there needed to be in Utah. It was an oligarchy, and I think the press, the police, the courts, the employers, including the copper bosses, basically had an understanding that the IWW needed to go, and in Joe Hill, they had a prized prisoner in the class war. And they were gonna -- they were determined to do all they could to take this one out, and that's what they did.

  • 12:33:33

    NNAMDIHis execution became a national and even an international controversy, and something like 30,000 people came to sing Joe Hill’s song and hear the funeral oration in Chicago, which is where they shipped his body. How well-known was Joe Hill at the time?

  • 12:33:50

    ADLERWell, until he went to prison, he was not particularly well-known at all. His songs were well-known among workers all over the world, because of the little red songbook, which was the IWW's pocket-size, more or less annually published anthology of songs, and it was dominated by Joe Hill during those years.

  • 12:34:11

    ADLERHe wrote regularly for the IWW between 1911 and his death in 1915. So his songs were a lot better known than him. Afterwards though, once he was convicted and sentenced to death, that's when this international campaign to spare his life went into high gear. And after that, yes, he became very well-known.

  • 12:34:33

    NNAMDIHis death also brought strong reaction from government officials who apparently wanted to crush the union. Some states even made carrying the red Industrial Workers of the World card illegal?

  • 12:34:46

    ADLERThe criminal syndicalist laws. Yeah, Michael, you can probably talk a little bit...

  • 12:34:49

    NNAMDIHey, I was about to get to (word?) Michael on that.

  • 12:34:51

    ADLERYeah. (laugh)

  • 12:34:52

    NNAMDIMichael?

  • 12:34:53

    KAZINWell, yeah, the IWW was a radical organization, and it did want to raise the wages of some of the poorest paid workers in the country, and it, you know, was pretty explicit about the fact that they thought capitalism was a system that should be transformed utterly. So perhaps not surprisingly at a time of a lot of poverty in America, wage earners, many of them, are quite poor. The governments were afraid of the kind of disruptions, the kind of big strikes that IWW was well known for fomenting.

  • 12:35:27

    KAZINAnd so legislatures began to pass these criminal syndicalism laws, which made it illegal to take part in violent strikes, which made it illegal to be part of organizations that were talking about overthrowing the government. Many ways, these were pre-curses to some of the anti-communist laws, like the Smith Act, which were passed later on during World War II. And, you know, syndicalism is self -- term, which probably of very few of you readers have perhaps heard before, but it comes from the French word for union.

  • 12:36:01

    KAZINAnd it's really what the IWW's theory was. Their ideology was syndicalism. They wanted the unions, like themselves, to take over the society and run the society in the interest of the workers, so that's why they're called syndicalism laws.

  • 12:36:14

    NNAMDIThe IWW, Industrial Workers of the World, still exist. How relevant is it in the labor movement today?

  • 12:36:19

    KAZINWell, still around. I was a member in 1960's for a short period of time. It was a way of showing if you're a young, college student on the left, like I was, that you understood your traditions and your heritage. I think, recently, a couple of years ago, some IWW people tried to organize a Starbucks, I forget where that was.

  • 12:36:40

    NNAMDIIn New York, I think.

  • 12:36:41

    KAZINAnd the newspaper they have continues to come out. They used to have a version in Finnish as well as English. I don't know if that one still comes out, but, you know, it's still out there as a sort of a example of, if you really want a world run by the workers, this is the union you should join. But, you know, it doesn't organize a lot of people.

  • 12:37:00

    ADLERNo. But it is still active, and I think it has enjoyed a bit of revival among younger workers especially. You mentioned the Starbucks campaign, which has been in New York but also elsewhere. And also Jimmy John's sandwich shops, they've been organizing, and they had an NLRB election, which is now being contested in Minneapolis. So they're still around. And bike messengers also has been another...

  • 12:37:22

    KAZINWhich is kind of ironic because the IWW, as Bill knows, didn't believe in signing contracts. They believe that there could be no surrender in the class war and that if you want to strike, that was great, but you should keep on trying to get better wages, better conditions until the employers, basically, gave up and went to work themselves.

  • 12:37:44

    KAZINSo, you know, it's ironic that -- of course we have labor laws, which sometimes are respected and sometimes aren't, but IWW's Big Bill Haywood and Joe Hill would have been a little, you know, would have thought it was quite amusing that IWW today was trying to use the labor law to help itself.

  • 12:38:03

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. What do you think the labor movement has done for American workers? You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Vanessa in Washington, D.C., I think, wants to answer that question. Vanessa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:38:18

    VANESSAHi, Kojo.

  • 12:38:19

    NNAMDIHi, Vanessa.

  • 12:38:20

    VANESSAHey there. Well, in response to your question, what has the labor movement contributed to America? I am a labor rep so this is not an objective opinion. I'll call it an informed opinion. But they've -- there is some obvious stuff like weekend and higher wages for workers, workplace stability, economic security. I just wanted to give a brief example. One of the places where I represent workers is the doctors, the pediatricians at children's hospital.

  • 12:38:45

    VANESSAAnd one of them told me a story about how his dad was a labor worker in California, and if it had not been for the wages that his father received as a union worker, he -- that would not have afforded him -- otherwise, he would not have been afforded the opportunity to go to college and then go to med school and then become a pediatrician. So it was kind of a real-life example of how being a union worker contributed to success.

  • 12:39:15

    VANESSAAnd my mom used to work at Woody's, and people remember Woody's a very long time ago. And when it -- before it was a union shop, my mother would talk about how she would get a one-cent raise or a two-cent raise. And then when the -- it was, basically, up to the supervisor's discretion, and then when the union came in, there was a contract. There were standards. There was an objective measure.

  • 12:39:36

    VANESSAAnd then she got regularly scheduled raises at appointed times, and it was a much more fair system. And I grew up with stories of her talking about what having a union versus not having a union had done in her life personally.

  • 12:39:51

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Vanessa. I'm gonna have another question. Feel free to call in to respond to that one. Why do you think labor unions are on the decline today? 800-433-8850. Or you can send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Michael, I don't know if you wanted to expand a little bit on what we owe to the labor movement that we tend to take for granted today.

  • 12:40:12

    KAZINWell, labor has been in decline as you know for several decades now. But I think what we owe is a sense of fairness really, a sense that if you work for a living, you should have a decent wage. You should know -- you should have a vacation. You should have some sort of health plan, hopefully some sort of retirement. That's pretty much go on by the wayside. The idea that also workers who, you know, actually produce most of what we use and the services and teach our children really have a right to be treated with dignity themselves.

  • 12:40:48

    KAZINAnd many ways also, you know, we've been -- our economy has been in some trouble, but the wages that most American workers earn have not really gone up in the last 30, 40 years. And that was not true when this economy was really quite successful and prosperous from 1940s to the 1970s. That's when unions were the strongest they've ever been in American society, not surprisingly that's when, you know, most workers began to see themselves as middle class.

  • 12:41:19

    KAZINSo in that sense, the idea that people see themselves as middle class and want to be middle class and they still have working class jobs has a lot to do with the labor movement.

  • 12:41:28

    NNAMDIIndeed, the labor movement has lost membership over the course of the past 40 years or so. After World War II, as much as 25 percent of the workforce belong to unions. Today, union membership is, depending on who you're talking to, somewhere between 11 percent and 9 percent of the workforce. In addition to the notion that an increasing number of American workers tend to think of themselves as middle class, any other reasons you think that the labor movement is not just on the decline but in many respects on the defensive today?

  • 12:42:00

    KAZINWell, there's lots of reasons. I mean, obviously, first of all, the American economy has changed a lot in the last 50 years. We're now primarily a service economy, clerical economy, and unions were never very strong in those industries. Also, business, which in the '40s, '50s and '60s for the most part was willing to compromise with unions, since that time, because of foreign competition, fear of falling profits, business has gone on the offensive. And you now have very powerful, well-financed firms, which spend their time trying to defeat unions in every way possible.

  • 12:42:37

    KAZINAnd also, the Labor Relations Board, which was set up in the 1930s, mentioned before, has often been stymied by people in Congress who don't want it to have -- to execute it -- the powers that it was established to execute, that is to carry out collective bargaining, to hold elections. Thousands of workers are fired every year for trying to organize unions, but for the most part, there's no penalty for so doing because it takes years and years for those cases to be adjudicated.

  • 12:43:09

    NNAMDIBill Adler, there is also, maybe either ideological or philosophical aspect to this because you've said that people in Joe Hill's time generally saw an egalitarian society as positive. Do you think most Americans would agree with that now?

  • 12:43:25

    ADLERNo. I think it's self-evident that this idea of a socialist egalitarian society would not fly very far today. And I think that in Joe Hill's time that was -- it was much more realistic. It was at least considered to be a possibility. I mean, you look at Eugene Victor Debs, who run for president, what, four times or so, five times. In 1912, he garnered something like 900,000 votes and outpolled the incumbent Republican President William Howard Taft in seven different states. You can imagine a socialist party candidate running today and pulling those kinds of numbers, I mean, percentage wise, seems unrealistic.

  • 12:44:12

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have already called, stay on the line. We will get to your call. If the lines are busy, go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation about Joe Hill there. 800-433-8850. Or you can send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:46:29

    NNAMDIHere we go. Back to our conversation about Joe Hill with Michael Kazin. He is a professor of history at Georgetown University. His most recent book is "American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation." William Adler is the author of "The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon." We go to the telephones. To Liza (sp?) in Chevy Chase, Md. Liza, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:46:55

    LIZAGood afternoon. I had to call when I heard the subject today because I've always wanted to know what I was told as a child. I was named after Elizabeth Gurley Flynn because I was born at the time she had just been sent to Alderson prison. I believe I was brought there to be shown to her or something else. And one of the things that I was always told was that I was going to be named either after Joe Hill or after her and that they had had quite a relationship.

  • 12:47:28

    LIZAI know they had a political and organizing relationship, but I've always wanted to know something about the personal and poked around San Pedro and Utah and New York and never was able to find anything. So it sounded like you got the guys who know.

  • 12:47:44

    NNAMDIBill Adler.

  • 12:47:46

    ADLERYes. Thank you for that question. Joe Hill and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn only met in person once, and that was when Joe Hill was in prison in 1915. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn came through Utah at a national speaking tour. And they met for a short time in prison. But they corresponded frequently over the years, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn turned out to be one of Joe Hill's key supporters in the campaign to spare his life.

  • 12:48:14

    ADLERAnd, indeed, it was Elizabeth Gurley Flynn who went down to the White House on the eve of his first execution date and appealed to President Woodrow Wilson to intervene. And, indeed, Wilson fired off a telegram that night to the governor of Utah, and that resulted in a 30-day reprieve for Joe Hill. So Elizabeth Gurley Flynn plays a very important role in Hill's life and death.

  • 12:48:38

    NNAMDILiza, thank you so much for your call.

  • 12:48:41

    LIZAThank you. Could I add one other point?

  • 12:48:42

    NNAMDIPlease do.

  • 12:48:44

    LIZAI -- based on what the -- your earlier caller said, I've represented many musicians over the years and -- who play in orchestras. And I can name five or six musicians who could never ever have picked up an instrument if their parents had not been unionized garment workers and able to pay -- gather the money for lessons. So -- and those very musicians today can't make enough of a living to ever allow their children to be able to be musicians.

  • 12:49:20

    NNAMDIAnother indication of the contributions of organized labor. Liza, thank you so much for your call. On to Monica in Adams Morgan in D.C. Monica, your turn.

  • 12:49:32

    MONICAHi. We're talking about organizers, and I'm an -- a community organizer myself. So I just I think, you know, I have never heard of Joe Hill before, and I think that music does unite people. And I'm a pencil pusher and a flyer pusher myself, but music has done something different to people. So I appreciate that this is a tactic that community organizers can use in social justice movements. Just like jazz, you know, was a tool for that. So I would just urge my brothers and sister, community organizers to revisit that music and...

  • 12:50:10

    NNAMDII got to tell you, Monica, I was visiting New Orleans last year just around this time of year, and there was a second line coming down the street outside of where I was staying. And when I realized, when they had gotten closer, it was really an activists' second line. They were actually handing out pamphlets and flyers. And I followed that second line for about four or five blocks when otherwise I would have probably just crumpled up the flyer and dropped it in the trash.

  • 12:50:34

    NNAMDIBut the music is what brought me -- what attracted me to it. So, yes, you do make a very important point. Thank you so much for your call. And I guess, Bill Adler, that's what Joe Hill knew.

  • 12:50:45

    ADLERThat's exactly what he knew. He realized that from an early age, as you said, when he started parodying music back home in Sweden. But he understood the way it bring -- it brought people together. And it attracted great numbers of people to the union. And it kept them at street meetings and it -- it's really what united people. So, yes, Joe Hill was well aware of that.

  • 12:51:05

    NNAMDIAnd Michael Kazin.

  • 12:51:06

    KAZINWell, I just wanna say, I mean, this is something that goes way back in American history. There is an abolitionist group called the Hutchinson Family Singers, who were one of the most popular singing groups in America in the 1830s and '40s. They didn't begin as abolitionists. They began as temperance singers, but they became a very powerful abolitionist group. They were good friends of Frederick Douglass, and they sang in front of Congress.

  • 12:51:28

    KAZINAnd so, as the caller knows very well and Joe Hill knew very well, this -- music has always been essential to movements for social change in this country. And, sometimes, you can tell if a movement is not doing very well if it hasn't got any music or it borrows music from somebody else, you know? It's, you know, part of what a bottom-up group is about is it -- it can create a song culture.

  • 12:51:51

    NNAMDIHere is Paul in Alexandria, Va. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:51:55

    PAULHi. I am working on the world premiere of a production about Mother Jones, and I'm wondering if your speakers can talk about how Mother Jones and Joe Hill are related to each other.

  • 12:52:10

    NNAMDIAny connections between Joe Hill and Mother Jones? First you, Bill Adler.

  • 12:52:14

    ADLERAs far as I know, they never did have any correspondence or meet. I know, obviously, Mother Jones was a founding member of the IWW. She was at a convention in 1905. Beyond that, I'm not aware of any direct connection between the two.

  • 12:52:29

    NNAMDIMichael Kazin?

  • 12:52:30

    KAZINI don't know of any either. I mean, Mother Jones was mostly active in West Virginia and coal fields in the east, and Joe Hill was mostly in the west. So -- but I don't know if people know all these names out there, but, you know, of course, people think of Mother Jones as a magazine.

  • 12:52:46

    NNAMDIAs a magazine, yes.

  • 12:52:47

    KAZINYeah. But she was an Irish immigrant, who, some people say, was 100 years old when she died, and was still organizing until her 90s.

  • 12:52:55

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Paul. Here is Carol in Washington, D.C. Carol, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:53:02

    CAROLYes. Thank you so much for this great show. I had just been watching a CD of Pete Seeger's career, centering on his mission to use song on behalf of working people. And that was a mission that was really set in motion by Joe Hill, as he, Seeger, acknowledged. And so many wonderful musicians have been part of that movement besides Seeger and Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. And what has happened to it? Where are the young people playing their guitars and having audiences of thousands and talking about go on to organize?

  • 12:53:45

    NNAMDII don't know where they are, but I can certainly find you "Casey Jones - Union Scab," song by the aforementioned Pete Seeger.

  • 12:54:54

    NNAMDICarol, that's the best I can do for you at this point. Thank you so much.

  • 12:54:58

    CAROLThank you.

  • 12:54:59

    NNAMDIOn to Glen in Calvert County, Md. Glen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Glen. Are you there?

  • 12:55:07

    GLENYes, I am. Can you hear me?

  • 12:55:08

    NNAMDIYes, we can.

  • 12:55:09

    GLENOK. My dad, his name is also Joe. He worked for Thompson's Dairy -- it was a Washington, D.C., based dairy -- for probably 40 years back in the '50s, '60s. He was there for almost 30 years. And the one day he's scheduled to take off for surgery, all those years, they folded. And all of those Teamsters -- it was a -- there was a Teamsters union -- they lost all their severance, pension, everything, overnight.

  • 12:55:40

    GLENThey were on the street overnight -- no job, no pension, no severance. And I'm just wondering -- I have a comment of why did the Teamsters union allow that to happen to these hardworking guys?

  • 12:55:51

    NNAMDII don't know if Michael Kazin has been researching that particular issue.

  • 12:55:56

    KAZINI mean, it's terrible. Obviously, if you make your argument that unions are a good thing, it doesn't mean every union is good at all times. The Teamsters, you know, have a checkered history, as many people know, some connection with organized crime. Jimmy Hoffa, of course, probably still the most famous American labor leader in American history, unfortunately. But, you know, they also did organize a lot of truckers and got them better conditions. So I'm afraid I can't comment on that specific incident, and I'm sorry about it.

  • 12:56:22

    NNAMDIOh, but before we go, Bill Adler, for those of you who may not know, who was this Casey Jones that Pete Seeger was singing about?

  • 12:56:29

    ADLERWell, Casey Jones was originally an engineer for the -- I think for the Illinois Central. But Joe Hill took a different spin, and he wrote a song about "Casey Jones - The Union Scab." And so he used the original melody, as he often did, but put it to words that basically was an appeal for class consciousness, for people to unite, workers to unite with one another and to basically dispel any -- well, when it came to people who wouldn't join the union, like Casey Jones, who was this engineer. He met an awful fate. And so that's -- that was Joe Hill's Casey Jones.

  • 12:57:14

    NNAMDIAnd, finally, there's this email from Jonathan. "One of the image problems of unions is that they behave just like corporations. Unfortunately, that image problem allows corporate America to vilify organized labor. Many in the workforce could benefit from unions, but they're now seen as a hindrance to creating jobs." A comment on the current political environment in which we live, but we're just about out of time. William Adler is the author of "The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon." Bill Adler, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:57:44

    ADLERThank you, Kojo.

  • 12:57:45

    NNAMDIAnd Michael Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown University. His most recent book is "American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation." Michael Kazin, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:57:54

    KAZINThank you, Kojo.

  • 12:57:55

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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