By Norman Stockwell
The lights came up in a prison cell, just before dawn, on November 19, 1915 in Salt Lake City, Utah. On stage, with nothing but a bed, a chair, a barred window and a guitar, Wisconsin-born folksinger John McCutcheon brought to life the character of Joe Hill, one hundred years after his execution by firing squad for a crime he almost certainly did not commit.
The one-person play with music Joe Hill’s Last Will, written by fellow folksinger and veteran labor and civil rights organizer Si Kahn, was first performed in a staged reading in 2009, but has been augmented and updated for a national tour during the centennial year of Hill’s death. The show was presented in Salt Lake City on November 19, 2015, the 100th anniversary to the day of Joe Hill’s execution, and traveled to Madison, Wisconsin on November 22.
It was McCutcheon’s first foray into acting, but not Si Kahn’s first play. Last year Kahn’s musical Mother Jones in Heaven, which takes place in an Irish pub in “heaven,” won the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics’ Circle Award. Kahn also wrote the music and lyrics for Silver Spoon, set at the time of the 1969 grape boycott, as well as the songs for Some Sweet Day, about the Southern Tenant Farmers Union’s 1937 strike by Black and white sharecroppers in Arkansas.
Joe Hill’s Last Will was staged for one show only last month at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Frederic March Play Circle. The audience, mostly seasoned activists, probably already knew Joe Hill’s name and some of the songs of the famed activist of the Industrial Workers of the World (or IWW, often called “Wobblies”). But even if they knew some of the story, Kahn’s play and McCutcheon’s masterful performance showed them new sides of the history, and of the man, that they probably never knew before. Renowned country music historian Bill C. Malone, who was in the audience said: “It was an outstanding performance – as a piece of theater, but also musically. I was impressed by McCutcheon’s musicianship and his strong voice and passion.”
Joe Hill (October 7, 1879 – November 19, 1915), was born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund in Gävle, Sweden, and was also known as Joseph Hillström. He came to the United States in 1902 where, during his 36 short years, he was an organizer, songwriter, cartoonist and journalist. He travelled from the east coast to the west coast, fanning the flames of discontent in mines and lumber camps.
Early on, Joe began writing songs for IWW organizing campaigns. His first “known” effort and still his best-known song “The Preacher and The Slave,” was penned in 1910 for the Free Speech Fight in Spokane, Washington. His songs, written to the popular tunes of the day (so folks could sing ‘em), have continued to inspire young agitators and he remains the best-known songwriter among the IWW tunesmiths.
The performance, which lasted close to two hours with an intermission, included many of Hill’s best-known songs, and several lesser-known ones as well. Although the tunes were familiar, in several cases McCutcheon had added his own stylings to bring these classics from the picket line to the stage.
Many in the Madison audience were members of the “Solidarity Sing Along” (a group that has sung labor songs every weekday since March of 2011 when Governor Scott Walker signed the infamous anti-union legislation called Act 10). McCutcheon is one of many nationally known performers to have made a pilgrimage to join the Solidarity Sing Along in the Capitol, and they, too, joined him in some of the choruses during the show last month.
However, the theater-style seating left some in the audience disappointed. “It is a shame the show was in a place with the feel of a theater instead of a union hall,” said Henry Sapoznik, folk musician and scholar who is director of the UW’s Mayrent Institute for Yiddish Culture. “Folks really wanted to sing along,” he continued, “but the arrangement of the seats seemed to discourage them a bit.”
The artifice of the play, which allows McCutcheon’s character to tell Joe Hill’s story to the audience, is the historically accurate visit of a reporter who was sent to capture Hill’s last words before he was marched to his death. The young journalist works, as Hill puts it, “for a certain Salt Lake City newspaper whose name I will not mention, on account of the lies they’ve told about me–although I don’t hold that against you personally, you being just another working stiff as far as I’m concerned.”
It was to this reporter that Joe Hill handed the text of his famous “Last Will.” For Joe Hill’s Last Will, McCutcheon has added original music to the text, giving new life to the familiar verse: “My will is easy to decide, for there is nothing to divide…”
At one point in the show, the character of Joe Hill on stage lamented, “A hundred years from now, every song I ever wrote will be forgotten.” But then he went on, “I tried to write songs that would do a job…I wasn’t writing songs for the ages – I was writing songs for my fellow workers.”
Well, that job continues 100 years later, as Joe Hill’s life and legacy is being celebrated this year with performances and publications across the country. The website JoeHill100.com chronicles the performances of the “Joe Hill Roadshow,” as well as the commemorative calendar and a brand-new edition of Joe Hill’s letters, originally published in 1965 by labor historian Phillip Foner, but reissued last month with new material assembled by editor Alexis Buss.
For the centennial, new recordings of Joe Hill’s songs have also been released by many across the country including a CD by Wisconsin-born labor historian Bucky Halker, and another by John McCutcheon himself, titled Joe Hill’s Last Will to accompany the play.
In a short “talk back” after the show, McCutcheon told the audience (which included many of his Wisconsin friends and relatives) that after the so-called “Right-to-Work” legislation passed in our State, he knew he had to bring this show to Madison. As the Alfred Hayes song reminds us: “what they forgot to kill went on to organize.”
Norman Stockwell serves as Operations Coordinator for WORT-FM Community Radio in Madison, Wisconsin. He is a member of SEIU Local 150, the IWW and the National Writers Union.
For over a hundred years, injured workers in Wisconsin have been compensated by what everyone agrees is the best worker’s compensation system in the country. Now, however, the extreme right has organized an all-out attack on that system. Representative John Spiros has proposed a bill that would turn Wisconsin’s system of worker’s compensation from being the best to being the worst in the nation.
Wisconsin’s worker’s compensation system was set up more than a hundred years ago. Before that, injured workers got nothing unless they sued their employers, and even then they rarely won. The worker’s compensation law allowed the workers to receive compensation for medical expense and wage loss regardless of who was at fault. In return, the worker was prevented from suing his or her employer. This has often been called “the Grand Bargain.”
There is one thing that has made Wisconsin’s system so great. Almost from the beginning, any changes in the law were made by a committee, the Worker’s Compensation Advisory Council (WCAC). This committee consists of representatives from labor, management and insurers. The Council negotiated with each other for changes, and all changes had to be agreed to by unanimous vote. What this did was take politics out of the process and allowed for modest and reasonable changes that would benefit both sides. As a result, Wisconsin had the best, most consistent and reasonable law in the nation. Workers were better compensated than in most states. They chose their own doctors. They returned to work faster than in most states. Employers had lower rates than in most states, and they paid less per case than most other states. Most important, in more than 80% of the cases, workers got their benefits without having to hire a lawyer.
Now the extreme right wing is attacking that entire system. Representative John Spiros, whose 86th district includes Wausau, Mosinee and Marshfield, has proposed a bill, Assembly Bill 501, which will severely damage the ability of workers to receive adequate compensation for their work injuries. Among other things, Representative Spiros’ bill will make the following changes:
1. It will cut the statute of limitations on traumatic injuries from 12 years to 2 years. So, if the injured worker does not file an application for hearing within two years, his or her claims will be gone forever.
2. It will cut the worker’s benefits by the percentage of negligence attributable to the injured worker. This ends the Grand Bargain in a most vicious way, since the negligence of the worker will be considered, while the negligence of the employer will be ignored. This also means that it is likely that every injured worker will have to hire a lawyer to fight the employer’s claims that the worker was partly or fully to blame for the injury.
3. It will allow the employer to stop all payments to the injured worker if the worker is fired for “misconduct”. This encourages employers to dream up reasons for firing injured workers.
4. It will abolish the right of the injured worker to choose his or her own doctor. Instead, the employer would pick what doctor will treat the worker. Employers will likely pick doctors who they know will say that the worker was not injured at work or that the worker does not have any permanent disability. That is the kind of doctor employers pick now to fight worker’s compensation cases, so there is no reason to think they will change.
Representative Spiros’ bill makes several other changes, including doing away with minimum required permanent disability ratings in many cases, allowing employers to pay nothing if the injured worker had made a false representation in his or her application, and in other ways reduces both benefits to the injured workers and payment for medical expense.
The worst thing the Spiros bill does is throw out the one thing that has made Wisconsin’s law so respected and admired – the Worker’s Compensation Advisory Council. The Spiros bill makes worker’s compensation just another political football, with radical changes being made, not on what is reasonable and agreed to by all parties, but rather on who holds the political power.
The whole idea of worker’s compensation was to eliminate the notion of fault and to insure that injured workers were properly treated and reasonably compensated for their injuries. The Spiros bill cuts that reasonable compensation and brings fault back in the picture. It will force workers to get a lawyer in almost every case, and so employers will have to do the same. Everyone will lose. Worker’s compensation will cost more and pay less.
The people of Wisconsin deserve far better than this. They deserve what they have – the best system in the nation. Call your representatives and tell them that.
Brian Roessler runs his own company now, but he’s still a union guy. The entrepreneur who started Prana Electric continues to pay regular dues to IBEW Local 159.
Roessler started in the trade in 1994 as a material handler. He applied several times before he finally got into the union’s popular apprenticeship program.
His five-year apprenticeship included day school, night school, and on-the-job training in locations such as private houses, big building sites, and even the construction of Madison’s Overture Center.
“I learned a lot from the experienced journeymen,” he said of his time there, which led to him becoming a journeyman himself.
The union provided the opportunity for him to get into the profession and helped turn him into the thorough professional he is today.
Roessler was doing fine working for other people until the recession hit in 2008 and jobs of all kinds dried up. By 2010, he had decided to roll the dice and start his own company. He named it Prana Electric. Prana is a Sanskrit word meaning “life energy.”
Roessler has plenty of energy and he often donates it to the community. Once he did some work at the Wil-Mar Center and agreed to be paid in pies. He still remembers they were an apple sour cream and a Louisiana sweet potato pie. Not union scale, but it should be.
Today, Roessler’s (union) job consists mainly of residential work. He rewires old houses, services and repairs electrical infrastructure, and installs such things as lights and outlets. He doesn’t do new construction.
He’s in demand. He has a waiting list of customers that can be up to two months long. Sometimes he’s called in to fix what amateurs have done. He got “zapped” once because of one such botched job. Apparently the perpetrator “had watched a YouTube video” before miswiring the house.
Another time the homeowners were apparently too embarassed to tell him that a handyman had been working on their wiring when the basement lights went out. It took him four hours and a homeowner confession to track down the wires that had been cut.
He urges anyone with electrical needs to hire a professional, preferably one that has the training, education, and safety orientation that comes with union status.
He can be reached at 608-712-0330. For other union tradespeople, go to the Building Trades website, bttrades.com. Click on official directory.
By Andrew Khitsun
A few months ago we had another wage increase. This stands in stark contrast with the population at large – increasingly union-less and without any rights at work. The wages are shrinking, and benefits disappearing. All the while the unions are demonized by the powers that be – whether corporations, extremist politicians or TV talking heads.
Today, I want to remind you how, as a part of the American Dream, unions helped to shore up the wages for workers at the very bottom of the pay scale.
The history of Minimum Wage and Living Wage are intertwined and inseparable. The first known wage regulation was actually not a minimum wage but a maximum (ceiling) wage instituted in Medieval Europe, when the Black Plague severely decimated the population, and labor came at very high price, so laws were passed establishing penalties for paying above set rates.
In the following centuries, there were attempts to tie the wages to the price of food (since iPhones didn’t exist, food was considered the one and only necessity), basically establishing a living wage. Various countries instituted different ceilings and bottom wages through the centuries, until the arrival of capitalism, which caused the repeal of most of the existing laws and an essential “free for all” when it comes to paying for labor.
Naturally, pay was minuscule and working conditions terrible. This started to change in the second part of the 19th century, with the rise of unions and the appearance on the scene of “collective agreements” that unions negotiated with employers. Their wages set the pace for other, similar but non-unionized companies, to raise wages too in order to attract the best talent (and to prevent their workers from unionizing: the argument “why do you need a Union when I am paying you well?” is still being used today.)
The minimum wage movement was trying to address then-common sweatshops, where workers (usually women and children) were paid substandard wages.
The first legislative attempts to establish a minimum wage are attributed to New Zealand and Australia back in the 1890s. On the other hand, some countries in the developed world (for example Sweden or Denmark) don’t have a minimum wage to this day, relying exclusively on unions to set the salary plank through collective bargaining.
Early attempts by labor unions in America to create a mandatory minimum wage were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds that they “restricted the worker’s right to set the price for his own labor.” This allowed employers to continue exploiting their workers through the Great Depression of the 1930s, when incredible demand for jobs caused wages to drop even further to an all-time low. With poverty becoming a huge national issue, President Franklin D. Roosevelt promised to constitutionally protect American workers as a key part of his 1936 re-election campaign. He won by a landslide.
The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 established a federal minimum wage to serve as “a floor below wages,” to reduce poverty and to ensure that people at least could buy the bare necessities while working and producing wealth for others.
Today, minimum wage is far below its historical level and loses value every year due to inflation. In fact, if the federal minimum wage kept up with inflation it would be $10.75 an hour, not the $7.25 it is today. By another measure, if minimum wage had kept pace with workers’ productivity since 1968, the inflation-adjusted minimum wage would be $18.67.
Some of the first Living Wage campaigns in the United States were launched in the 1990s, addressing the issue of minimum wage having fallen too far behind the actual living costs, resulting in increasing poverty among the population.
Unions were joined in these endeavors by student groups, community coalitions and other progressive organizations. Living Wage campaigns flared up in places like New York City (one of the most expensive cities in the world), Harvard University, Miami University (driven by AFSCME and the Miami University Fair labor Coalition), John Hopkins University (organized by SLAC – Student Labor Action Committee), Swarthmore College (Living Wage and Democracy Campaign), and the University of Virginia.
The movement is continuing now, with fast food workers – some of the lowest paid workers in America – joining the fray with “Fight for $15” and “15 Now” campaigns.
While many letter carriers in big cities (like New York) qualified for food stamps before 1970, we’ve come a long way since then – all because we have the NALC.
Andrew Khitsun is President of Capital City Merged Branch 507, National Association of Letter Carriers.