Joe Hill

Labor Day approaches, a good time to reproach those in power and those who serve at their behest. One apt target: the Seattle Times‘ editors and publisher, who castigated once again the actions of the local teachers union, poised to strike over “demanding too much,” in the eyes of the corporate scriveners. The teachers have the temerity to want more money for their vitally important work. Oh, and they’d also like the school district to provide recess time for the children. Ingrates. The Times:

The teachers are demanding too much — so much that they will have a negative effect on broader efforts to reform the state education system. They’re at risk of becoming a symbol of excess for those who oppose more school spending.

The paper’s Education Lab, handsomely funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, champions the corporate reform of public education. But that’s too nice. The reform movement seeks nothing less than to destroy the schools, the teachers and their unions. The reformers do so by squeezing education budgets, testing the hell out of kids (all done by corporations, of course), then foisting the results on an ignorant populace, poised to believe the worst, that the schools and their teachers are failing at their task. Why, then, pay the incompetents more money?

I’m reminded often of my grandfather, reportedly a Wobbly at one point in his life, a member of Clarence Darrow’s poker club, and a longtime union member in the newspaper business, a linotype operator he was. Here is a picture of him in the print room of some Midwest publication. He is standing at the far left.

W.H. Aldrich at print shop (1917)

He ended his career working for a San Francisco newspaper. (I can recall the lone visit as a small boy to the noisy floor of machines where he punched keys, producing lead letters for the next edition.) He toiled proudly on the linotypes, paying his union dues, and striking when necessary. It was one such strike while at a Chicago daily that lasted so many weeks that he had no choice but to join his three sons, already situated in the Bay Area.

He brought with him his wife, his books, and a few LPs—one of Paul Robeson. As I sat at the keyboard this morning, typing as my grandfather did, I listened to Robeson’s rendition of Joe Hill, accompanied by Alan Booth at the piano. I confess: tears fell. Yes, it was about my grandfather, who died today 50 years ago. But it was more about the things for which he fought, especially the working man—and woman.

Joe Hill was executed a century ago, framed for murder. An itinerant, really, having emigrated from Sweden. He found work using his hands in many different trades. He also found time to write poems and songs, even the night before he was shot standing against a firing wall. It was his last will, asking that his ashes be spread across the land but never in Utah, which put him to death.

My will is easy to decide,

For there is nothing to divide.

My kin don’t need to fuss and moan,

Moss does not cling to a rolling stone.

My body, ah, if I could choose

I would to ashes it reduce

And let some merry breezes blow them

To where some flowers grow.

Perhaps some fading flower then would take root and bloom again.

This is my last and final will:

Good luck to all of you,

Joe Hill

Yet, the sadness this morning was as much about what has happened in America since Hill was executed. Thousands of men and women paid with their lives to secure eight-hour days, weekends, Social Security, and union protection. Today, a half-century after my grandfather’s death, private sector union membership is in the single digits and newspapers, as always, side with their corporate sponsors over those still trying to improve working lives. Wages have shrunk, benefits slashed, and financial security tossed to the gutter.

Joe Hill and my grandfather imagined a better fate. But my generation collectively forgot history, while willfully ignoring past struggles to secure a better future.

We are all on our own now, expected to kiss capitalism’s big, smelly ass. Sad, indeed.

Sorry, Joe. Sorry, Grandpa.