Archive for September 4th, 2021

Pie in the Sky


Since we’re in the midst of the Labor Day weekend, I thought I would have something labor related. It is a holiday celebrating the working classes after all, something we often forget as we rush to get in that last weekend of the summer. I am a big proponent of organized labor and have talked here before about the labor movements transformation of American life. The middle class rose out of the mighty efforts labor unions in the early 20th century.  Almost every right we now take for granted in the workplace was fought for– and I mean fought for— by workers and organizers who banded together to demand better working conditions and higher wages.

This important part of history that is not well known enough but is something to bear in mind on a weekend meant to honor it.

There were some important names in the labor movement of the early 20th century but maybe none so polarizing as that of Joe Hill, a Swedish immigrant who came to America in 1902 and soon after, as an itinerant laborer, became involved with the labor movement. He joined the Industrial Workers of the Worldthe Wobblies— and wrote some of the most memorable labor songs of the time, songs which are still played today– The Preacher and the Slave (Pie in the Sky) and There Is Power In a Union.

In 1914, Hill was working in the silver mine areas of Utah when he was accused of a double murder. Many believe that Hill was innocent , that the evidence cited did not line up with the facts of the case, yet he was found guilty. Many believed that his labor connections were the deciding factor in the guilty verdict. He was executed by firing squad in November, 1915.

Hill did little to help himself, remaining silent about a wound that the prosecution claimed was inflicted on him during the murder. Hill’s fiancee later stated that Hill had wrote her from prison, saying that an ex-lover of hers had shot him. But Hill seemed to sense that he meant more to the movement as a martyr.

In one of his final notes to Bill Haywood, an IWW leader, Hill wrote:

“Goodbye Bill. I die like a true blue rebel. Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize. Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the state line to be buried? I don’t want to be found dead in Utah.”

They honored his request, removing his body to Chicago where he was cremated. His ashes were divided into 600 small packets which were distributed around the world by the Wobblies to be cast to the winds.

He did become a martyr for labor, celebrated in word and song. The name Joe Hill when spoken still draws the attention of those who know their history.

Here’s version of his song The Preacher and the Slave, also known as Pie in the Sky from Utah Phillips, complete with a wonderful story about the song. We all get promised things that will come to us in the future and more often than not– I am thinking of trickle-down economics as much as the afterlife here– they seldom pan out. It’s all pie in the sky.

So, enjoy some real pie this Labor day weekend and ignore those promised pies in the sky.

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