Your Weekly, Sunday Interlude: “Joe Hill” #LaborDay

Tomorrow is Labor Day. For most it’s lost its meaning. That’s probably intentional. For many, Labor Day is just another sale day at a retail job. For fewer, it’s a day off before the kids start school or the chance to snag some gadget for cheap on Amazon. Sales, barbeques and back-to-school lists certainly distract from a day meant to honor employees. But distractions serve our 1%-ers and so-called public servants well, don’t they? I’ll bet most of you are reading this on one of the greatest contemporary distractions right now.  Pay no attention as to why we have a day to honor workers – the vast majority – or the power within that number. Because when all the people who serve, create and make things become truly aware of their massive strength in unity, it tends to balance the social and economic playing field far too much for employers.

Joe Hill was an US immigrant, laborer and union organizer in the early 1900s. And he was charged with murder for which many, including his birth country of Sweden, believed he was scapegoated as a way to punish him for his prominent role in the IWW (International Workers of the World) or Wobblies to organize workers. The song, written by  Earl Robinson, speaks to his legacy, which lives on. Many folk singers have performed and recorded “Joe Hill.” I selected the version sung by Joan Baez at Woodstock.

Industry was new when the Wobblies were demanding safer workplaces, better wages and weekends off. And that era did achieve many of the protections we have for workers today. (Note: “Protections” for people are “regulations” on employers.) Society has changed tremendously since 1910. But the dichotomy between what an employer wants and what employees want continues. Only big business has lobbyists representing them with big checks to influence policy and tip the scales just the right way. Wages are set just low enough for those working at or near minimum wage to survive week to week, so long as the government subsidizes those people with housing, food and medical assistance. Meanwhile, unions seldom even get a seat at the table when Congress considers wages or trade. They’ve have lost membership drastically, from about one-third of all workers in the 1950s to about ten percent today. You can make a pretty strong argument that the loss of union membership has hurt the working class and is quickly vanishing the middle class.

Dad often said, “Some day, there will be a revolution in this country.” And when he said it, he was referring to the rebellion of the majority toward their cultural oppression and suppression; the oppression of economic power, public policy, bigotry, division and greed. Should there be a country-wide (world-wide?) workers’ strike? Long overdue. But a vast majority of workers can’t afford to take off a day and risk losing their jobs to fight it! Yet workers of every stripe have that power right now. The 1960s brought many causes for social justice together; minority rights, women’s rights, farm workers’ right, the right for 18-year-olds to vote. This could be another tipping point for we the majority. Never forget, those striving to make life better and fairer have the power. It’s the unity that secretly terrifies the ones who win through exploitation.

R.I.P. Joe Hill.