Sunday, October 7, 2012

I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night

When I first started the process of moving from Boston to Brattleboro, the nurses at the Brattleboro Retreat had just won a long fought battle to form a union.

At the time, Vermont was the only state in U.S. not to have a Walmart. So Walmart built a store in New Hampshire, just across the river from Brattleboro. It destroyed the small businesses of our downtown, and changed Brattleboro forever. About the time I moved here in 1995, a few women were fired at that Walmart for daring to suggest the workers form a union.

About 10 years ago, there was a union movement at our local food co-op where I had once worked. My dear friend Laura over at Austanspace was one of the prime movers in that effort. Things got nasty. The co-op management brought in a team of very expensive lawyers to"advise" them - lawyers whose web page bragged of their ability to crush nascent union movements.

At the same time, there was also a union effort at our once well regarded local daily newspaper which had been decimated by new corporate ownership. There was another local union effort at the time, but I can't quite recall the details anymore.

All of the efforts failed.

In the last few weeks, the Union effort at the co-op was reborn, and is currently having a baptism of fire. Our local independent weekly, the Commons, has followed the effort. In this week's edition, which reported the refusal of the co-op's Board to accept the union and let the general manager demand a monitored vote, there was also a column which declared that "Not all the information is coming out, Not all Co-op employees embrace the union". It was written by a woman whose name I did not recognize, Elizabeth Julia Stoumen. Of course, I looked her up. Until recently, there was an Elizabeth Julia Stoumen who lived in New York City. If this is the same Elizabeth Julia Stoumen, she was Director of Operations and President of the NYC International Women's Writer's Guild, an organization under financial duress. She has filed suit against the Guild claiming fraud and slander over her dismissal from her leadership role after having acknowledged that she improperly used Guild funds for personal purposes. (She used a Guild credit card for expenditures of close to $5,000. and then requested personal reimbursement for those expenses. After it was discovered, she claimed it was a mistake, and repaid the monies. As noted on the IWWG's info page about the lawsuit, "Subsequent investigation has revealed multiple additional instances of improper expense reimbursements...")

Trying to form a Union can get messy. There are always accusations flying around. Management and/or ownership has historically used many nasty methods to stop workers from seeking any say whatsoever about their working conditions, their safety, or their pay.

One famous case of false allegations involved a Swedish immigrant who went by the name of Joe Hill. His is quite a story, even though not all that much is known for sure. We do know that he worked his way from New York City across the United States through a series of  low wage jobs. And we know that in California, he became a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, the "Wobblies". Stories, most undocumented, have him involved in Labor movement actions up and down the West Coast. Certainly, he was badly beaten by police in Fresno during a protest there. If he wasn't at a protest or strike in person, he was there in spirit as a songwriter. In those days, his songs were well known - at least by workers. Here's a couple of examples which explain why all the Misters Moneybags might not have liked Joe very much:


The footage in the above video is from a strike against General Motors in 1937.

In 1914, Joe Hill was working in a mine near Salt Lake City, where he caught pneumonia. While he was recuperating, there was a murder of a shopkeeper and his son. Joe Hill was accused. Evidence was planted, and he was framed. Rumors involved Mormon higher ups (the Mormons were heavily anti-union) as well as the mine bosses. Hill maintained his innocence, and during trial refused to cooperate,  claiming that his attorney was working with the court to frame him. There were numerous protests over the guilty verdict, including one by that well know Wobbly, Helen Keller. Protests to the Republican Governor of the state of Utah ranged from the Swedish Ambassador to the President of the United States. Whomever, whatever, on a November morning in 1915, Joe Hill was shot to death by a firing squad.

Before he was executed, Joe Hill sent a telegram to a Wobbly leader in Chicago. It read,
"Don't waste time mourning. Organize!"

Earl Robinson and Alfred Hayes wrote a song about him which has become fairly well known:

Today is Joe Hill's birthday, and it is important we remember him.
Happy Birthday, Joe.
The struggle still goes on....