Joe Hill’s legacy for Occupy Wall Street

Peggy Noonan, who was a speechwriter for President Reagan, cited Joe Hill, the radical labor organizer, in a Wall Street Journal article criticizing the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Joe Hill

The Tea Party was a middle-class uprising that was only too happy to funnel its energy into the democratic process.  They took their central concerns—spending, taxes and regulation—and followed the prescription of Joe Hill:  Don’t mourn, organize.  They did.  They entered politics and helped win elections.  They did the Republicans a big favor by not going third-party but working within the GOP—at least for now.

Occupy Wall Street is completely different.  They mean to gain power and sway by going outside the political system.  They are a critique of the political system. They went to the streets and stayed there.

They are not funneling their energy into the democratic process because there is no market for what they are selling: Capitalism should be overturned, I am angry that my college loan bills are so big, the government is bad, and the answer is more government.  You can’t win elections in America with that kind of message.  So they will stay in the streets, where they can have an impact by stopping traffic, inconveniencing people going to and coming from work, and appearing to be an amorphous force that must be bowed to.

The difference between the occupiers and the Tea Party is the difference between acting out and taking part.

Joe Hill was an organizer for the International Workers of the World, an anarchist trade union founded in 1904 whose vision was to organize all the workers of the world into one big union, call a general strike and replace the capitalist system with a worker-run democracy.  They rejected participation in politics, and did not seek wage contracts, but rather sought to wrest control of business enterprises from employers and give it to the workers.

Joe Hill was convicted of murder of a Utah storekeeper in 1915 in what his admirers think was a frame-up.  His last words reportedly were: “Don’t mourn for me.  Organize.”

The IWW vision has a lot in common with that of Occupy Wall Street, and nothing in common with that of Peggy Noonan or the Tea Party.  Occupy Wall Street organizers, through their General Assemblies, seek to create a model of a society without bosses, a participatory democracy in which people organize themselves.  And Occupy Oakland is attempting a general strike.

The IWW’s produced many of the great labor songs, like “Solidarity Forever.”  Joe Hill was one of its great songwriters.  He wrote “There’ll Be Pie in the Sky Bye and Bye (It’s a Lie),” “Casey Jones (the Union Scab),” “The Rebel Girl” and “There is Power in a Union.”

While awaiting execution, he wrote this will, which was made into a song.

My will is easy to decide

For I have nothing to divide

My kin don’t need to weep and moan

Moss does not cling to a rolling stone

My body? oh, if I could choose

I would to ashes it reduce

And let the merry breezes blow

My dust to where some flowers grow

Perhaps some fading flower then

Would soon rise up and grow green again

This is my last and final will

Good luck to all of you, Joe Hill

Joe Hill’s memory has inspired generations of radicals, progressives and labor union members.  There is a great song, “I Thought I saw Joe Hill Last Night.”  Nobody ever wrote a song, “I thought I saw George Meany last night.”

But, as much as I admire Joe Hill and other heroic IWW leaders, their vision of an anarchist utopia was a pipe dream.  Their vision of One Big Union, the General Strike and the overthrow of capitalism may have inspired them, but it didn’t happen and isn’t going to happen.  Occupy Oakland conducted what its leaders called a general strike, but the only result was damage to the properties of small businesses whose owners are part of the 99 percent.

The Occupy movement arose spontaneously.  I don’t think anybody who called for the original occupation of Wall Street expected the protest to be as big as it was, or spread as fast and as widely as it has.  The Occupy movement gave a voice and a platform to angry Americans who are not represented by the Democrats or Republicans and whose concerns are not voiced by the major newspapers and TV stations.

But anger is not a plan.  Marching in the streets and camping in public parks does not threaten the power structure.  Neither did trying to shut down the port of Oakland, Calif.   The question before us is whether the Occupy movement can do what the IWW never could do, which was figure out how to turn justified anger into political power, and political power into a more just society.

Click on The GOP Wins by Bruising for Peggy Noonan’s full Wall Street Journal column.

Click on Joe Hill (1879-1915) for the AFL-CIO biography of Joe Hill.

Click on Industrial Workers of the World wiki for Wikipedia’s article on the history of the IWW.

Click on Preamble to the IWW Constitution for the IWW’s radical mission statement.

Click on Labor Day and the spirit of Joe Hill for a memoir and tribute to the IWW.

Click on Occupy Oakland’s General Strike Veers Between Violence, Generosity for an eyewitness account of the strike.

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2 Responses to “Joe Hill’s legacy for Occupy Wall Street”

  1. Anne Tanner Says:

    Who was it who warned that the way to defeat a nonviolent movement was to infiltrate it with your own violent people? I think that is what happened in Oakland. And, of course, it nullified any effect that the Oakland Occupy movement might have had. But the media seem to cover only Oakland and New York and Washington, while out in Flyover there are lots of Occupy movements operating exactly as they had planned. It’s also amusing to watch political candidates dancing lightly around the Occupy areas as they stump Iowa before the caucus!


  2. Patricia Dixon Says:

    Unfortunately we lack the vision in America to do what Joe Hill did, to strengthen the unions so that the American worker can be protected from the greed of the capitalists who insist that more profits are more important than workers. They have outsourced jobs to other countries and left us holding an empty bag. Capitalism as it is practiced in the USA is not sustainable, we will all end up divided and competing for less resources in the job market, unless we have a common vision on how to strengthen labor unions and demand better jobs and better pay.
    The Occupy movement is right on target when they complain about the abuses perpetrated on our country by the greedy capitalists who gave us the recession and who are derailing our democracy buy buying politicians and political campaigns.


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