By Jim Cook, Chair, Labor History Committee, Northwest Oregon Labor Council
Joe Hill was a Swedish immigrant songwriter and activist member of the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies). In 1914, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by firing squad. Many believe Hill was condemned for his association with the radical Wobblies. His sentencing ignited an international campaign to save him, including President Woodrow Wilson, American Federation of Labor (AFL) President Samuel Gompers, and U.S. ambassador to Sweden Helen Keller.
Hill died a labor martyr on Nov. 19, 1915 by a State of Utah firing squad. Before he died he declared: “Don’t waste any time mourning. Organize!”
One hundred years later, on Thursday, Nov. 19, the Northwest Oregon Labor Council and Portland area labor unions will celebrate his life, spirit and inspirational music with a centennial tribute concert at Alberta Rose Theatre in Northeast Portland.
Born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund on Oct. 7, 1879 in Gävle, Sweden, he changed his name to Joseph Hillstrom, and later shortened it to Joe Hill. He came to New York in 1902 following the death of his mother. His father died a few years prior from an occupational injury. Historians are unclear of his whereabouts for the next 12 years, but several labor history books reference Hill being in Portland.
William Adler’s, The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon, places Hill in Portland in 1906 and 1910. According to Adler, he traveled here after involuntary labor service cleaning up after the San Francisco earthquake.
Adler writes: “After a brush with death in San Francisco during the great earthquake of 1906, he hoboed up the coast to Portland, where he joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Within the fellowship of the union, he found a home, shed his anonymity, and discovered his voice as a songwriter: a gifted satirist and parodist who helped pioneer—and became the leading practitioner of—the use of music as a political weapon and organizing tool. In time, his prominence as a writer of popular revolutionary songs for an organization profoundly feared and hated by the establishment led to his prosecution and, ultimately, to his martyrdom.”
Adler writes that Hill likely found work on the Portland docks, sourcing a IWW pamphleteer proclaiming “exceptional demand for labor of all kinds.”
“By early 1907,” Adler writes, “the union had organized its first Portland local, No. 92. Joe Hill was one of the IWW’s new recruits. It is not known when he joined Local 92—there are no membership records extant—or where in Portland he was working at the time. It is plausible that he was among the longshoremen who responded during the strike to the IWW’s citywide appeal for solidarity. Regardless, it is evident from his first article for the union’s Western weekly, the Industrial Worker, that he took out a red card in Portland. The 1910 story carried the byline, “Joe Hill, Portland Local, No. 92.”
In The Portland Red Guide, author Michael Munk writes that one of Hill’s best-known songs —The Preacher and the Slave —was first introduced in Portland. “Another Wobbly songster, Harry ‘Haywire Mac’ McClintock recalls, ‘I first met Joe Hill in Portand, Oregon, fall of 1910. He brought ‘The Preacher and the Slave’ to the Portland IWW Hall, then on West Burnside and SW Third Avenue.”
Hill rose in the IWW ranks, traveling across the country organizing workers until his execution.
Munk writes: “His ashes were divided into forty-seven packets and sent to radicals in every state except Utah ‘to be scattered to the winds.’ In Oregon, Dr. Marie Equi was given the honor. Radicalized by police suppression of Oregon Packing Company women strikers in 1913, Equi was an outspoken opponent of United States entry into World War I.”
Adler, writes: “Unity, or class solidarity, was the marrow of IWW doctrine. Hill came to see and feel that during his time in Portland and Spokane. And he had known all along—had known since he was a small boy singing and playing around the family pump organ—that nothing glued people together like song. ‘I’ve got music in my blood,’ he would say.”