Joe Hill: The IWW & the Making of a Revolutionary Workingclass Counterculture

Joe Hill: The IWW & the Making of a Revolutionary Workingclass Counterculture

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The only biography of musician, IWW labor activist, and martyr Joe Hill to fully explore his politics and cultural contributions as well as his lasting effect on the radical counterculture
This expansive work covers the life, times, and culture of that most famous member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) or “Wobblies”—songwriter, poet, hobo, thinker, humorist, martyr—Joe Hill. Many aspects of the life and lore of Joe Hill receive their first and only discussion in IWW historian Franklin Rosemont’s opus. In great detail, the issues that Joe Hill raised and grappled with in his life: capitalism, white supremacy, gender, religion, wilderness, law, prison, and industrial unionism are shown in both the context of Hill’s life and for their enduring relevance in the century since his death. Collected too is Joe Hill’s art, plus scores of other images featuring Hill-inspired art by IWW illustrators. As Rosemont suggests in this remarkable book, Joe Hill never really died as he lives in the minds of rebels as long as his songs are sung, his ideas are circulated, and his political descendants keep fighting for a better day.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781629631196
Publisher: PM Press
Publication date: 12/18/2015
Series: Charles H. Kerr Library Series
Edition description: Second Edition, Second edition
Pages: 656
Sales rank: 1,279,732
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.80(d)

About the Author

Franklin Rosemont was a poet, an artist, and an activist who was involved in the history of surrealism and the radical labor movement in the United States. He is the author of An Open Entrance to the Shut Palace of Wrong Numbers and several collections of poetry and the editor of several books, including What Is Surrealism? Selected Writings of Andre Breton. He was the cofounder of the Chicago Surrealist Group. David Roediger is a professor of American studies and history at Kansas University. He is the author of How Race Survived U.S. History and The Wages of Whiteness and the coauthor of Our Own Time: A History of American Labor and the Working Day. His articles have appeared in Against the Current, History Workshop Journal, New Left Review, the Progressive, and Radical History Review. He lives in Chicago.

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Joe Hill

The IWW & the Making of a Revolutionary Workingclass Counterculture

By Franklin Rosemont

PM Press

Copyright © 2015 PM Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62963-210-0



In everything we do we must begin by creating an image of what society must one day make a reality.— Piet Mondrian —

Although Joe Hill was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) only for the last five or six years of his life, those years happen to be — precisely — the years in which a young and undistinguished Swedish immigrant hobo became the man we know as Joe Hill. All that Joe Hill was honored for in his own time, and all that he is honored for today, appears under the sign of those three red letters: IWW. If, then, as the old saying goes, one can judge a man by the company he keeps, it is essential to understand this union to which Joe Hill not only belonged, but which, in effect, made him who he was and is.

Every student of U.S. labor history knows that the Industrial Workers of the World (commonly called Wobblies) has a character, and even a kind of aura, all its own. Mainstream trade union history tends to focus on collective bargaining, negotiations, contracts, arbitration, scales of prices, pension plans and other so-called benefits, but Wobbly history is so different that whole volumes have been devoted to it without even mentioning such mundane topics. From the start, the IWW refused to sign contracts with employers, and scorned pensions, insurance, and death benefits as pitiable concessions to a decaying social order. In writing about the IWW the key words are always freedom, solidarity, democracy, direct action, revolution, rank-and-file control, humor, imagination, and "An Injury to One Is An Injury to All!"

Founded in Chicago in 1905, the IWW concentrated on organizing workers that the American Federation of Labor (AFL) considered "unorganizable" or undesirable — the unskilled, immigrants, people of color, and migratory workers in agriculture, lumber, and construction. As William "Big Bill" Haywood put it at the founding convention, "We are going down into the gutter to get at the mass of workers and bring them up to a decent plane of living" [Proceedings 1905, 575]. With high enthusiasm and low dues, the IWW set about its work and accomplished marvels.

The great IWW strikes were not merely routine work-stoppages, and were not settled by a handful of union officials with their lawyers sitting across the table from a handful of bosses and more lawyers. Like the union's no less celebrated free-speech fights, Wobbly strikes were small-scale revolutions, exciting class-war dramas involving whole communities, massive social confrontations between the repressive machinery of an old society based on exploitation and a new, truly free society that required the active, creative participation of everyone. Asked "Who is your leader?" striking Wobs characteristically replied: "We're all leaders!" Asked for their demands, they were known to answer: "We demand everything!"

The famous IWW Preamble — beginning with the sun-clear statement that "The working class and the employing class have nothing in common" — distilled the complete works of Karl Marx to their revolutionary essence. To my mind that 306-word manifesto sets forth what is still the soundest basis for the creation of what Wobblies themselves liked to call "a better world." Many IWW members also belonged to the Socialist Party — especially prior to 1912, when the party's conservative leadership expelled Bill Haywood over the question of "sabotage" — and their respect and love for Gene Debs (minor disagreements notwithstanding) held steady over the years. The SP's large left wing was in fact made up almost entirely of IWWs and supporters of the IWW; it distinguished itself from the Party's right and center by its emphasis on direct action and revolution rather than reform.

Clearly, however, Wobbly theory and practice also had "nothing in common" with the cold, harsh, bureaucratic "lay-down-the-law" monotone adopted by so many of those who then as now proclaim themselves revolutionary socialists or Marxists. The "One Big Union" always spoke in many voices. If the Preamble is raw, unadulterated Marx — some of it direct quotation — the Wobbly idea also owes a lot to the pre-Civil-War Abolitionist movement, and to the extravagant utopian imagination of Edward Bellamy, not only the Bellamy of Looking Backward, but also its anarchist, feminist, ecology- and animal-rights-oriented sequel, Equality [Rosemont 1988, in Patai 1988]. Poets such as Shelley and William Morris and Walt Whitman also influenced IWW thinking. Similarly, the union's genial and creative praxis owes much to the boisterous "let's-do-it-now" spontaneity of Coxey's Army, and even more to the Haymarket anarchists' broad-based proto-syndicalism — the "Chicago Idea" [Salerno 1989]. Like Marx, Wendell Phillips, Bellamy, Morris, and the Haymarket Eight, the IWW looked forward to a future without slavery, exploitation, bosses, armies, navies, prisons, or other institutions of inequality, coercion, and violence.

Above all, however, the IWW's basic ideas and its conception of the free society were developed in the course of its founders' own widely varied experience as wage-slaves in a rapidly industrializing North America as well as in Europe and other lands, for a large portion of the union's membership, from the very beginning, were immigrants.

Their experience of old-line craft unionism and its obvious failure to adapt to the new industrial conditions was especially compelling. As U.S. capitalist production grew larger, more complex, and more centralized, workers of many distinct trades were reduced to tiny cogs in a huge industrial machine. Divided into myriad craft unions, each bargaining separately with a single employer, and often in competition with other unions, workers found it more and more difficult to practice class solidarity. When workers of one AFL union went on strike, members of dozens of other AFL unions in the same plant customarily crossed the picket-line and remained on the job, in deference to the contracts their officers had negotiated with the employer. More often than not this meant breaking the strike. In the eyes of the IWW, the traditional problem of "scabs" — unorganized workers willing to work for less than union scale — shrank to insignificance compared to the new problem of union scabs who put contracts and craft-union privileges above loyalty to the working class. And that is why in Wobbly discourse the AFL was commonly called the American Separation of Labor. Vincent St John, the best-loved official in IWW history — he was known throughout the union as The Saint — summed up the problem of the union scab in his pamphlet, Industrial Unionism: "Division on the economic field for the worker spells defeat and degradation" [n.d., 6].

This radical critique of archaic, business-as-usual craft unionism led directly to the key IWW theory of "revolutionary industrial unionism," as summarized in the Preamble. Between the working class and the employing class, the Preamble explains,

a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wage system.

We find that the centering of management in industries into fewer and fewer hands makes the trade unions unable to cope with the ever growing power of the employing class. The trade unions foster a state of affairs which allows one set of workers to be pitted against another set of workers in the same industry, thereby helping defeat one another in wage wars....

These conditions can be changed and the interest of the working class upheld only by an organization formed in such a way that all its members in any one industry, or in all industries if necessary, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof....

By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.

Clearly a workingclass response to the various middle-class versions of Marxism, socialism and anarchism that held sway in left-wing and trade-union circles in those years, revolutionary industrial unionism was the IWW's practical answer to the question: How can we, the workers, free ourselves from wage-slavery and begin to enjoy the wealth that we have created? Dozens of IWW books and pamphlets were devoted to explaining, defending, and elaborating this bold, new, emancipatory unionism. One of the most popular of all IWW pamphlets, Vincent St John's The IWW: Its History, Structure and Methods, stressed the no-compromise character of the class war:

The IWW holds that, regardless of the bravery and spirit the workers may show, if they are compelled to fight with old methods and out of date forms of organization against the modem organization of the employing class, there can be but one outcome to any struggle waged under these conditions — defeat.

The IWW recognizes the need of working class solidarity. To achieve this it proposes the recognition of the Class Struggle as the basic principle of the organization. ... In its basic principle the IWW calls forth that spirit of revolt and resistance that is so necessary a part of the equipment of any organization of the workers in their struggle for economic independence. In a word, its basic principle makes the IWW a fighting organization. It commits the union to an unceasing struggle against the private ownership and control of industry.

There is but one bargain that the IWW will make with the employing class — COMPLETE SURRENDER OF ALL CONTROL OF INDUSTRY TO THE ORGANIZED WORKERS. [revised edition, 1919, 12]

From a perspective that combined evolution and revolution, James P. Thompson, one of the IWW's top organizers and orators, put the accent on the development of workers' power:

the old society is pregnant with the new. The powers that rule the world today will never surrender to a weaker power. Clearly the thing to do is to build the power of organized labor. ... Reformers try to patch up capitalism. Reactionaries try to roll back the wheels of history. Revolutionists build the new within the shell of the old.

Capitalism is rapidly spreading over the Earth, but the coming of the modern world is the coming of the proletariat ... When the organized power of the proletariat becomes greater than the organized power of other classes, then will come the revolution! [1930, 11-12]

And there we have the guiding idea of revolutionary industrial unionism: to give Labor a form of organization that would make it invincible in the struggle against Capital.

The One Big Union was not, however, built in a day, although expectations ran high. The delegates who founded the union in 1905, and the many tens of thousands who rallied to its scarlet banner straight through to the early '20s, were convinced that it would not take long — surely no more than ten or fifteen years. Well within their own lifetime, the first generation of IWWs were certain, the workers of the world would be sufficiently organized to wrest the industries from the usurping capitalists, and thus to usher in the earthly paradise.

This sense, or mood, of revolutionary anticipation — grounded in the wildly voluntarist conviction that revolutionary industrial unionism made the New Society more or less immediately realizable — was an important element in the IWW movement. Naively or sneeringly, many critics of the union have concluded that IWWism is a form of millenarianism, and it is not hard to see how they arrived at such a view. If so, however, it was a decidedly materialistic and anti-religious millenarianism.

The organization of industrial unions proceeded slowly, but the IWW continued to grow anyway. Prior to the First World War, most of the membership belonged to the "Mixed Locals" — i.e., locals without ties to any particular shop or industry [Salerno 1989, 7-8]. The Mixed Local was not part of the original industrial union structure adopted at the Founding Convention, but was introduced at the second convention (1906) to accommodate workers who were eager to join despite the fact that they were unemployed, or insufficiently numerous to form an industrial union. The Mixed Locals brought together employed men, women, and children, as well as unemployed and migratory workers. Their form of organization and activities differed widely from place to place, but always allowed for a maximum of rank-and-file initiative and improvisation. Although they did not function as labor unions, they played a vital role in the union's early history, supplying all manner of footloose rebels, agitators, and other reinforcements to IWW struggles everywhere. The militants who filled the streets and then the jails during the union's celebrated Free-Speech Fights, and who flocked to Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912 just to lend a hand, were members of Mixed Locals. These locals were also a crucial factor in every IWW defense campaign.

From 1915 to 1923, actual industrial unions came to predominate in the IWW, and showed the world how powerful wage-slaves could be when organized front door to back on industrial lines. Wobbly industrial unions, however, were a real power only in a few industries (above all agriculture, lumber, metal mining, and marine transport, and to a lesser extent construction, railroads, and hotel/restaurant work); only in a few areas of the country; and, with some notable exceptions, only for a short time. In the '20s, the Mixed Local made a comeback under the name General Recruiting Union, and once again became the basic unit of the IWW.

In Joe Hill's time, the One Big Union consisted primarily of small Mixed Locals. These informal groups of rebel workers had little or no job power and little or no money. All they had were songs, poems, imagination, determination, solidarity, a revolutionary vision of the world, and a remarkable ability to organize and make their presence known all out of proportion to their numbers.



I sing these songs for a damn good reason. I sing them because they give me a history of our people that I never got in school.— Utah Phillips —

The IWW's theory and practice — its revolutionary industrial unionism, its direct-action and "point of production" orientation, its efforts to organize "One Big Union of All Workers," its wide-open Mixed Locals, and its diverse and manysided oppositional culture — have generally been viewed with condescension as well as incomprehension by academic historians, many of whom have merely echoed the hostility of the union's early political critics and opponents. History by and large is written by the victors, and few will dispute the sad fact that so far the capitalist class has proved victorious in the class war. It therefore comes as no surprise that the most readily available histories of the finest labor organization in U.S. history have been written by people openly unsympathetic to its aims and principles.

Nearly a century after its formation, the IWW remains as controversial as ever. Critics often dismiss or damn the union for its unequivocally revolutionary stance, its "dual unionism," its non-participation in electoral politics, or its alleged inability to establish permanent job-control in major industries. Others damn it with faint praise as a rustic avant-courier of the 1930s Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), or for having added a few songs to the folk-music repertory. Literature on the union — historical, sociological, cultural, polemical, and fictional — is not at all in short supply, but it is as bloated with contradictions, disagreements, and divergent interpretations as the literature on Christianity, or Atlantis, or Marilyn Monroe. The serious student in search of the truth about the IWW is guaranteed not to have an easy time of it.

Amazingly, after all these years, there is still nothing even faintly resembling a comprehensive and reliable history of the union. The book most frequently misidentified as such, Melvyn Dubofsky's 575-page We Shall Be All: A History of the IWW, is probably the single most cited work in subsequent writings on the union. Published in 1969, it is a readable narrative survey of the IWW's early years; a second edition appeared in 1974, and a new abridged version in 2000. Unfortunately, it is so woefully wrong-headed that it would take a book twice as long to set it right. In a full-page review in the Industrial Worker for November 1969, Fred Thompson, for reasons of space, had to limit himself to noting only thirty-seven of what he termed Dubofsky's most "horrendous errors" of commission and omission. In one howler that Thompson didn't mention, Dubofsky refers to "Marxist-Leninist" influence in the IWW as early as 1914, before the term had even gained currency in Russia [352]. Elsewhere he attributes the concluding lines of Shelley's famous poem "The Mask of Anarchy" to IWW organizer Edward F. Doree [153].


Excerpted from Joe Hill by Franklin Rosemont. Copyright © 2015 PM Press. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
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Table of Contents


Joe Hill's Artwork,
A Note on the Notes,
Introduction to the 2015 Edition by David Roediger,
Introduction: "Troubadour of Discontent" by Franklin Rosemont,

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