The Public Eye: Labor Day: Dreaming of Joe Hill

By Bob Burnett
Wednesday September 07, 2011 - 09:44:00 AM

For many Americans, Labor Day marks the end of summer and has little to do with the Labor movement. I wonder what Joe Hill would make of the demise of unions and the struggles of American workers. 

Joe Hill was a labor activist in the early 1900’s – the sort you used to hear more about in American popular culture. Born in Sweden in 1879, Hill came to the US at the turn of the century and worked his way back and forth across the country as an organizer for the Industrial International Workers of the World, the “Wobblies.” Hill became well known as a songwriter and activist and, therefore, subject to police harassment. In 1914 he was arrested in Salt Lake City and charged with murder; although there were grave doubts about his culpability, Hill was executed on November 19, 1915. 

Joan Baez popularized the most famous Joe Hill song: 


I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night, Alive as you or me Says I, "But Joe, you're ten years dead," "I never died," says he. "I never died," says he. And standing there as big as life And smiling with his eyes Says Joe, "What they forgot to kill Went on to organize, Went on to organize."  

This Labor Day there will be union picnics and a few desultory parades but they won’t register on the consciousness of most Americans. It’s an indication of the loss of power of the US Labor movement. If Joe Hill were “alive as you or me” he’d be shocked. In 2011 only 7 percent of private-sector employees belong to labor unions – down from a high of 36 percent in 1945. 



"Joe Hill ain't dead," he says to me, "Joe Hill ain't never died. Where working men are out on strike Joe Hill is at their side, Joe Hill is at their side."
Labor declined for several reasons: the composition of the workforce changed; unions achieved many of their initial objectives and US workers grew complacent; the power Labor lost was sucked up by corporations; conservatives wage war on unions; and Joe Hill’s fighting spirit vanished. 

From 1900 to 2000 the US workforce experienced dramatic changes. The Bureau of Labor Statistics observed, “the composition of the labor force shifted from industries dominated by primary production occupations, such as farmers and foresters, to those dominated by professional, technical, and service workers. At the turn of the century, about 38 percent of the labor force worked on farms. By the end of the century, that figure was less than 3 percent. Likewise, the percent who worked in goods-producing industries, such as mining, manufacturing, and construction, decreased from 31 to 19 percent of the workforce. Service industries were the growth sector during the 20th century, jumping from 31 percent of all workers in 1900 to 78 percent in 1999.” Although many factors contributed to these shifts, the most important was the introduction of technology. As jobs shifted from manufacturing to service – particularly information technology – unions were not able to organize many emerging sectors. 

Over the course of the twentieth century working conditions improved. Child labor was abolished – in 1900 6 percent of the labor force was under 15. New safety laws were passed – in 1900, 1500 coal mine workers were killed; in 1999 only 35 died due to accidents. In 1900 the average manufacturing workweek was 53 hours; by 1999 it had fallen to 42 hours. Unions brought about better working conditions that percolated into most non-union jobs. Many Americans took the accomplishments of organized Labor for granted. 

Meanwhile, massive amounts of capital were required to transform the US workforce, resulting in humongous multinational corporations. They took a hard line on unions, employing specialists adept at harassing union organizers and breaking strikes. Global corporations had no allegiance to towns or states – or civil society – only profit; to discourage unions they moved their facilities to a non-union venue in a different state or country. 

Conservatives turned stridently anti-union. In 1946 Republicans passed the Taft-Hartley Act, the beginning of 35 years of coordinated attacks on Labor. 22 states passed right-to-work laws. In 1981 President Reagan broke the Air Traffic Controller’s Union and it disintegrated. Republican Administrations made it almost impossible for unions to organize. 

In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare observed: “Men at some time are masters of their fates; the fault… is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” While it’s true that many factors contributed to the decline of America’s Labor movement, workers have to take some responsibility. Many became complacent. They waited for someone else to do the heavy lifting. They were too trusting of their corporate bosses. Their church taught them it was okay to suffer; they’d be rewarded in another liftetime. 

If Joe Hill were alive he’d be angry. He’d see many of the changes he fought for have been neutralized and he’d lament American workers’ lack of fighting spirit. 



From San Diego up to Maine, In every mine and mill - Where working men defend their rights It's there you'll find Joe Hill. It's there you'll find Joe Hill.

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at