The story of ‘wobbly’ Joe Hill: An American folk revival essay

The Industrial workers of the world (IWW) union was founded on the 27th June 1905, in Chicago, Illinois.  When the union held its first convention it had 200 socialists, anarchists, and Marxists (most who were already members of the Socialist party of American and of the Socialist labour party) radical trade attendees from all over the United States (mainly the western federation of miners), who were opposed to the policies of the American federation of labour (AFL). Only workers who were considered to be skilled, such as labourers or craftsmen, were accepted into the AFL as the union believed that these roles held the most demand and would therefore hold the highest chance of gaining more political power. This meant that some trades were denied membership and therefore resulted in some workers having no representation. The first convention was referred to as the Industrial congress, however it would later be known as the first annual convention of the IWW. At the time, the convention was considered one of the most important events in the history of industrial unionism. Its founders included: William D. (“Big Bill”) Haywood, James Connolly, Daniel De Leon, Eugene V. Debs, Thomas Hagerty, Lucy Parsons, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, Frank Bohn, William Trautmann, Vincent Saint John, Ralph Chaplin, and many others.

The IWW’s goals differed from the AFL as the new union accepted those of all trades. This may have been to increase the numbers of members as the union’s main goal was to advance worker unanimity in the revolutionary struggle to disestablish the employing class, but it also finally offered representation to workers who were denied membership to the AFL. Following inspiration from Knights of labour’s creed ‘an injury to one is the concern of all’, the IWW’s motto was ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’ which reflected the unions image of being one big union which united skilled and unskilled workers together.

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IWW protesters 

Members of the IWW not only believed that the AFL had failed to efficiently organise the US working class (as only 5% of trade workers belonged to unions in 1902), but that the union was segregating instead of unifying groups of workers; organizing groups by their craft abilities instead of united them into a working class. The union imagined that all workers should organize as a class, a philosophy which is still reflected in the preamble to the current IWW constitution:

  • ‘The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.
  • Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.
  • We find that the centring of the management of 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. Moreover, the trade unions aid the employing class to mislead the workers into the belief that the working class have interests in common with their employers.
  • 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, thus making an injury to one an injury to all.
  • Instead of the conservative motto, “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, “Abolition of the wage system.”
  • It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially, we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old. ‘

Those who were members of this new ‘one big union’ were often referred to as ‘Wobblies’. The origin of how the term became is still unclear, however it has been speculated to root from the mispronunciation of ‘IWW’ by a Chinese restaurant keeper who would feed the striking workers who passed through his town.

During these strikes workers would chant songs from their worker songbook, and pass out pamphlets hoping to encourage others to join the union. One of the more popular songs they would sing was ‘There’ll be a pie in the sky when you die (that’s a lie)’, which was a parody of the Christian hymn ‘In the sweet by and by’, written by Joe Hill and was performed to counteract with the Salvation army band.


Hill was a popular folk songwriter and cartoonist who was born in Sweden but moved to the US in the hopes of chasing the American dream, only to realise that there was brutal poverty in the shadow of the staggering wealth and that the white picket fence image was as realistic as having a pie in the sky. His work was published in the unions newspapers, pamphlets, and even a worker songbook.

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Joe Hill

However, Hill’s words weren’t always powerful enough to stand up against the employing and upper class. In 1916 Hill travelled to Murray, Utah to live with a friend, Otto Appelquist. A city built on smokestacks and 24/7 jobs owned by Senator Kearns and Senator Smoot. Threaten by workers unionising and fighting for improved working conditions in the mines, the Salt Lake government banned worker assemblies and strikers were beaten. However, this was not the only event of violent suppression against the union.  This then escalated to the Everett Massacre, also known as ‘bloody Sunday’.

On the 5th of November 1915 in Everett, Washington, Wobblies travelling on the Verona streamer from Seattle were attacked, resulting in the death of five union members and six missing persons. IWW members had travelled to Washington to support a five-month long strike by shingle workers, however at first attempt union members were beaten with axe handles by vigilantes that business owners had organised. On a second attempt Wobblies from Seattle joined those in Everett, and were to hold a second rally to demonstrate support for the striking shingle workers.


Seattle members travelled from Seattle to Everett by the Verona and Calista streamers singing their fight song ‘Hold the fort’, but were interrupted by the Snohomish county police. When the country sheriff (McRae) asked the union members to reveal their leader, Wobblies replied ‘we’re all leaders’ and then shots were fired. Ten minutes of intense gunfire followed and though the majority of the gunfire came from the county police and armed goon squads on the dock and harbour, fire did also come from the Verona. To which side shot first is still unclear. 175 bullets pierced the Verona boat and passengers running to the cover side were ejected into the water, with a high amount of them drowning. Once union members had returned to Seattle, 74 Wobblies, including leader Thomas H. Tracy, were arrested and charged with the murder of two Snohomish deputies.

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Newspaper article of the Everett massacre 

This was not the only time that the IWW was sabotaged.

Following the strikes in Utah, Hill was closely studied by police and government, for his leadership qualities in the IWW strikes. Songs seemed to have united everyone to join the union in the quickest way the IWW and government had ever seen, with members growing from 200 in 1905 to reaching as far as having 500 members in Australia.


In 1914 Salt Lake City area grocer and former policemen, John G Morrison, and his son were shot and killed by two men. The same evening Hill visited a doctor’s office with a gunshot wound as a result from arguing with a friend about a woman (speculated to be Hilda Erickson). Hearing the news of a $500 reward for Hill, the doctor informed the police of Hill’s condition and Hill was accused of the murders of John G Morrison and his son due to the basis of his gunshot injury. His trial was highly controversial and in 1915 hill was found guilty of both murders, despite only circumstantial evidence, and was executed in the following November.

While his songs later influenced the works of bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, they weren’t strong enough to keep the IWW united and by the mid-1920s members were dividing into ‘Westerners’ and ‘Easterners.’ Showing the first flaw in music’s relationship with politics; that in order for music to truly have and obtain its power, it must represent a decisive movement. But also that combining music and politics carries more risks then just a mere conflict of opinions and dislikers of your music, but true loss.

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