Gabriel San Roman's Blog

Legendary Labor Singer/Organizer Joe Hill Gets Immortalized in San Pedro

By Gabriel San Roman
OC Weekly
February 2nd, 2017

The suspense didn’t last long for about 100 union workers, folksingers and fellow travelers who gathered on a recent Saturday morning at Liberty Hill Plaza in San Pedro to celebrate a hero of America’s class wars. A green, crumpled tarp covered a shimmering bronze tribute to labor’s troubadour: Joe Hill, an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organizer and singer/poet who walked the city’s streets more than a century ago.

After a lifting tribute to Hill by longshoreman laureate Jerry Brady, the tarp came down to unveil the 8-foot-wide, 3.5-foot-high plaque—the only public memorial specifically dedicated to the singer in the nation. Based on an original drawing by Suzanne Matsumiya, the graphic designer for the city’s Random Length News alt-weekly, it features Hill holding a guitar, with the logo of the “Wobblies,” as IWW members are popularly known, over his head as if a halo. His gaze is fixed on a sea of San Pedro workers confronted by policemen, their batons raised. On the other side of the plaque is an image of the old city jail filled with incarcerated workers. Completing the tribute are class-conscious couplets from Hill’s “Workers of the World, Awaken” anthem extolling their latent power, one that can bring a nation to a standstill if the labor force ever “take a notion.”

Founded in 1905, the IWW preached a gospel of anti-capitalism and anti-racism, proclaiming “the working class and employing class have nothing in common.” The group prescribed taking over factories and mills as a cure for working-class ills. The Wobblies built a counterculture anchored in song to further the cause, with Hill serving as the movement’s most militant musician—and most prominent martyr.

Born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund in Gävle, Sweden, Hill immigrated to the United States in 1902, then hoboed his way from New York to San Francisco before coming to the docks of San Pedro in 1910. By then, Hill was already a self-taught musician. “It was here in San Pedro that he joined the IWW,” said Frank Anderson, president emeritus of the San Pedro Bay Historical Society, at the dedication. “He sang songs and made them simple so the workers could learn them.”

Hill lived on Beacon Street, across from the waterfront where he worked as a dock-walloper or longshoreman. He spent much of his free time writing tunes at the old Sailors’ Rest Mission down the street; there, Hill penned two of his classics, “The Preacher and the Slave” (which introduced the term “pie in the sky” to the American lexicon) and “Casey Jones the Union Scab.” He later helped to organize a strike in 1913 when San Pedro authorities jailed him for vagrancy.

Nobody recalls whether Hill ever brought his organizing efforts to Orange County, but IWW members unsuccessfully tried to disrupt work on a natural-gas pipeline from Placentia to Brea in 1914. An airplane flew over Huntington Beach on May Day, 1923, and dropped cards issued by the San Pedro Wobblies that urged their oil-worker brothers to strike in solidarity. The Wobblies’ 280-member-strong Huntington Beach branch claimed 100 workers walked off the job accordingly.

By that time, Hill had left San Pedro; he moved on after his 30-day stint in jail for the vagrancy charge. He first hoboed to Utah, finding work in a mine outside Salt Lake City in 1913. Authorities arrested Hill for the Jan. 10, 1914, murder of a grocery-store owner and his son. The trial and conviction launched an international campaign decrying it all as frame-up at the behest of the mining bosses in town, and even President Woodrow Wilson asked Hill be spared. But on Nov. 19, 1915, a firing squad ended Hill’s life. The Wobbly famously wrote to labor leader Big Bill Haywood days before his death, “Don’t waste any time mourning. Organize!”

Hill’s musical legacy was preserved in the IWW’s Little Red Songbook, and the late Swede became popularly known as “the man who never died” in plays and books. In 1936, an Alfred Hayes poem was set to music by Earl Robinson and titled “Joe Hill”; it reached its largest audience when Joan Baez sang it in her wondrous vibrato at Woodstock in 1969. And it was that ballad that local folk musicians crooned at the San Pedro memorial dedication.

Arthur Almeida, a harbor historian and Wobbly who helped make the plaque happen, pulled an original copy of the Little Red Songbook from his wallet during the program, holding it high to applause. Back in the days of the California Criminal Syndicalism Act in 1919, just having the bound collection was grounds enough for arrest.

Dr. Vivian Price, the labor studies chair holder at Cal State Dominguez Hills, offered a brief history on the labor movement in the Golden State, ending her speech by pressing the plaque’s timeliness. “Now we have an administration that’s trying to stop the right to organize,” she said. “We have to know the past. We have to celebrate our heroes, and then find the heroes among us who are courageous and willing to speak up today.”

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) played a big role in honoring Hill, with donations for the memorial happily coming from its Pensioners Group. The ILWU was booted from the Congress of Industrial Organizations during the height of McCarthyism for being “too red”; it voluntarily left the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) in 2013 after blasting its moderation during President Barack Obama’s administration.

“The democracy of the ILWU came from the Wobblies,” past ILWU Local 13 president David Arian said with pride. The union even adopted the IWW’s “An Injury to One is an Injury to All,” solidarity slogan. “This plaque now becomes part of that progressive history that we can remind America of over and over again. This is who we are; this is the real America, not Trump’s America.”

Back to Gabriel San Román’s Author Page