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Utah union history: ‘I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night, alive as you and me’

By Rudy Pala

Salt Lake City, UT – They murdered Joe Hill in Utah 100 years ago, on Nov. 19. The labor hero died at the hands of a firing squad, punishment for a murder he didn't commit. His real crime was organizing workers into a union, opposing the class of bosses and tyrants who sentenced him to die.

It's fitting his end came in Utah. Few other places have been as hostile to organized labor, or as willing to use violence to beat down laborers in their fight for basic rights. Despite the burden of an especially hostile ruling class, Utah has a long and proud history of radical worker struggle.

Like a true working-class rebel, Joe Hill keeps fighting even in death. He knew his legacy would live on to inspire millions, and he wanted it that way. Now, more than ever, we need to heed his words: “Don't waste any time in mourning. Organize!”

Union organizing in Utah

The first real union in Utah began among Mormon pioneers, newly established in Salt Lake City, at the First Annual Printers' Festival in 1852. None other than future Governor Brigham Young gave the opening prayer. This would eventually evolve into the Deseret Typographical Union.

During the Civil War years, local elites saw higher pay among workers as a drag on the economy, the same argument that gets pushed today. Unions and other labor associations pushed to keep wages up. More and more workers from outside Utah – especially miners – flooded the territory, which caused alarm among some. But in fact, unions gained more power and independence from these elites due to the influx, putting them on better footing to protect their wages.

An interesting episode happened in 1864 among theater workers. The tradition had been for theatrical labor to go unpaid, as it was considered a form of missionary service. A campaign by the Deseret Dramatic Association eventually forced Brigham Young to cave in and begin paying a wage.

The Knights of Labor began organizing coal mines in the 1880s, rapidly becoming powerful for a short time. As the struggle continued and mining became more important to the area, workers became more militant. The radical Western Federation of Miners and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) later found great success in Utah.

Historian J. Kenneth Davies called Utah at the time “an unofficial headquarters of revolutionary unionism,” a situation that would last until Joe Hill's murder. In fact, it was one of the reasons killing him was so important to the upper class. In 1897, it was widely reported that future IWW co-founder Eugene Debs had chosen Utah as a place to try to establish a socialist cooperative.

At the turn of the 20th century, direct attacks on unions became more frequent and more focused. Local capitalists considered unions an attack on freedom, despite the beatings workers took due to greedy bosses. Working in unsafe and deplorable conditions, a mineworker could only expect to make $3 a day, and even less for surface workers. Often, people looking for a job would have to pay someone as much as $20 to get hired at a mine, and then keep paying a monthly kickback.

Unsurprisingly, this led to a number of strikes. In 1903, miners in Carbon County fought for better conditions and wanted to force the Utah Fuel Company to recognize their union, the United Mine Workers of America (UMW).

Their strike was considered the most important American labor battle of the time, and the famed Mother Jones, another future co-founder of the IWW, came to Utah to support the strikers. After she met with a labor leader afflicted with smallpox, she was quarantined and held captive for 26 days to prevent her from energizing the strikers. Mother Jones nevertheless broke the quarantine several times to rally workers.

Utah Socialist Party organizer A. B. Edler became a lawyer for the miners and went to Carbon County to help. However, he was forced to leave the county after the Utah Fuel Company accused him of slander and he was convicted in a sham trial.

The strike only ended when the governor sent in the entire Utah National Guard to break it on behalf of the Utah Fuel Company. Similar strikes with an allied UMW and IWW met with more success in Bingham Canyon in 1912, leading to wage increases. By 1917, several UMW locals were organized.

Utahns played a prominent role in the founding of the IWW in 1905. The legendary “Big Bill” Haywood was born and raised in Utah. At least seven other Utahns were present at the founding convention as well, with socialist Charles Spiegel serving with the Committee on Rules.

Utah Socialist Party members played important roles in the local labor movement around this time as well, with several having positions in the Utah Federation of Labor and helping to organize workers here. Both socialist and IWW organizers put on street speeches and demonstrations, with one Wobbly, Lee Pratt, calling out, “Let the workers as a class fight the bosses as a class.”

Joe Hill's death

In 1915, the notorious murder of Joe Hill took place. Hill was an organizer with the IWW for some time, and wrote a number of famous songs like There is Power in a Union and The Preacher and the Slave. In fact, he coined the phrase “pie in the sky.” He was equally beloved by workers and reviled by bosses fearful of the good work he was doing through organizing, songwriting and inspiring laborers nationwide.

He had come to Utah in 1915 to work the Silver King mine in Park City. In November, local grocer and sheriff John Morrison and his son were shot. The same night, Joe Hill turned up in a local hospital with a bullet wound, which the doctor falsely presumed was given by Morrison in self-defense.

Despite a total lack of evidence against him, and the suppression of evidence that would have exonerated him, Hill was sentenced to die for shooting Morrison. In fact, Morrison was shot by the jealous ex-fiancé of a woman he was seeing. Joe refused to tell his real alibi, he said, because he didn't want to harm the reputation of the woman.

A nationwide campaign was mounted to set him free by labor organizers and IWW supporters, and gained support from some public officials and even President Woodrow Wilson. But it was no use. Officials in Utah wanted to see the famed singing union organizer dead, and the movement dead along with him. He was executed by firing squad on Nov. 19, 1915. As the firing squad commander called out “Ready! Aim!” Joe called out the order to fire himself. “Fire – go on and fire!”

After Joe Hill

In 1919, a nationwide red scare took its toll on Utah, but labor was able to fight back effectively on some fronts. Laws were passed banning the display of red flags, and this law was even used to prevent circulating IWW literature that used red ink. A so-called anti-sabotage law was passed in order to curb support for the IWW, but the group was still able to mount a miners’ strike that year. The Utah legislature also tried to ban the right to peacefully organize for labor unions, but the bill was defeated after workers flooded the Utah capitol building.

Nevertheless, the repression of IWW and other union organizers that followed the death of Joe Hill proved to be a huge blow to labor in Utah. Internal union conflicts weakened the movement and allowed more conservative elements to attack them. Constant arrests of labor leaders left the movement with fewer resources. Only the Culinary Alliance was able to maintain their hold on workplace power, but the rest of the labor movement was devastated as they were forced into open shops.

Despite the blow, labor continued to move forward, with communists organizing miners in Carbon County under the National Miners Union beginning in 1932. By 1933, they mounted a strike in mines near Helper, but the peaceful strike was broken only by the use of tear gas, fire hoses and calling in the National Guard on behalf of the mine owners. Women and children who helped the miners were also beaten and many were jailed. Local officials were also able to make use of division between the United Mine Workers of America and National Miners Union miners, undermining the long-term strength of the labor movement in Carbon County before the strike even began. Still, some of their demands were met.

Where we are now

Before he died, Joe Hill humorously wrote to “Big Bill” Haywood asking him to take his body and bury it elsewhere, saying, “I don't want to be found dead in Utah.” It's a sentiment Bill would have understood, having left Utah himself.

Joe Hill's memory was recently tarnished again in Utah, when reactionary anti-union vandals painted over a beautiful Joe Hill memorial. In July of this year, local members of IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees ) painted a mural of Joe on the side of the union hall, using union money given to them for that purpose. Several days later, vandals painted over the union solidarity mural, replacing it with a poorly done American flag.

Though they may have tried, in a sense, to kill Joe Hill again, the reality is he can't be killed, and he isn't dead in Utah – he is alive and well, in every labor dispute, at every union drive, in every workplace where laborers are exploited and abused. We are the inheritors of his message not to mourn, but to organize, and we can keep him alive by fighting the way he did, as a true rebel worker.

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