Posts tagged Joe Hill

Last train headed West: R.I.P. Utah Phillips

Sad news today. From UtahPhillips.org:

May 24, 2008

Folksinger, Storyteller, Railroad Tramp Utah Phillips Dead at 73

Nevada City, California:

Utah Phillips, a seminal figure in American folk music who performed extensively and tirelessly for audiences on two continents for 38 years, died Friday of congestive heart failure in Nevada City, California a small town in the Sierra Nevada mountains where he lived for the last 21 years with his wife, Joanna Robinson, a freelance editor.

Born Bruce Duncan Phillips on May 15, 1935 in Cleveland, Ohio, he was the son of labor organizers. Whether through this early influence or an early life that was not always tranquil or easy, by his twenties Phillips demonstrated a lifelong concern with the living conditions of working people. He was a proud member of the Industrial Workers of the World, popularly known as the Wobblies, an organizational artifact of early twentieth-century labor struggles that has seen renewed interest and growth in membership in the last decade, not in small part due to his efforts to popularize it.

Phillips served as an Army private during the Korean War, an experience he would later refer to as the turning point of his life. Deeply affected by the devastation and human misery he had witnessed, upon his return to the United States he began drifting, riding freight trains around the country. His struggle would be familiar today, when the difficulties of returning combat veterans are more widely understood, but in the late fifties Phillips was left to work them out for himself. Destitute and drinking, Phillips got off a freight train in Salt Lake City and wound up at the Joe Hill House, a homeless shelter operated by the anarchist Ammon Hennacy, a member of the Catholic Worker movement and associate of Dorothy Day.

Phillips credited Hennacy and other social reformers he referred to as his elders with having provided a philosophical framework around which he later constructed songs and stories he intended as a template his audiences could employ to understand their own political and working lives. They were often hilarious, sometimes sad, but never shallow.

He made me understand that music must be more than cotton candy for the ears, said John McCutcheon, a nationally-known folksinger and close friend.

In the creation of his performing persona and work, Phillips drew from influences as diverse as Borscht Belt comedian Myron Cohen, folksingers Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and Country stars Hank Williams and T. Texas Tyler.

A stint as an archivist for the State of Utah in the 1960s taught Phillips the discipline of historical research; beneath the simplest and most folksy of his songs was a rigorous attention to detail and a strong and carefully-crafted narrative structure. He was a voracious reader in a surprising variety of fields.

Meanwhile, Phillips was working at Hennacy’s Joe Hill house. In 1968 he ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket. The race was won by a Republican candidate, and Phillips was seen by some Democrats as having split the vote. He subsequently lost his job with the State of Utah, a process he described as blacklisting.

Phillips left Utah for Saratoga Springs, New York, where he was welcomed into a lively community of folk performers centered at the Caffé Lena, operated by Lena Spencer.

It was the coffeehouse, the place to perform. Everybody went there. She fed everybody, said John Che Greenwood, a fellow performer and friend.

Over the span of the nearly four decades that followed, Phillips worked in what he referred to as the Trade, developing an audience of hundreds of thousands and performing in large and small cities throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. His performing partners included Rosalie Sorrels, Kate Wolf, John McCutcheon and Ani DiFranco.

He was like an alchemist, said Sorrels, He took the stories of working people and railroad bums and he built them into work that was influenced by writers like Thomas Wolfe, but then he gave it back, he put it in language so the people whom the songs and stories were about still had them, still owned them. He didn’t believe in stealing culture from the people it was about.

A single from Phillips’s first record, Moose Turd Pie, a rollicking story about working on a railroad track gang, saw extensive airplay in 1973. From then on, Phillips had work on the road. His extensive writing and recording career included two albums with Ani DiFranco which earned a Grammy nomination. Phillips’s songs were performed and recorded by Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez, Tom Waits, Joe Ely and others. He was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Folk Alliance in 1997.

Phillips, something of a perfectionist, claimed that he never lost his stage fright before performances. He didn’t want to lose it, he said; it kept him improving.

Phillips began suffering from the effects of chronic heart disease in 2004, and as his illness kept him off the road at times, he started a nationally syndicated folk-music radio show, Loafer’s Glory, produced at KVMR-FM and started a homeless shelter in his rural home county, where down-on-their-luck men and women were sleeping under the manzanita brush at the edge of town. Hospitality House opened in 2005 and continues to house 25 to 30 guests a night. In this way, Phillips returned to the work of his mentor Hennacy in the last four years of his life.

Phillips died at home, in bed, in his sleep, next to his wife. He is survived by his son Duncan and daughter-in-law Bobette of Salt Lake City, son Brendan of Olympia, Washington; daughter Morrigan Belle of Washington, D.C.; stepson Nicholas Tomb of Monterrey, California; stepson and daughter-in-law Ian Durfee and Mary Creasey of Davis, California; brothers David Phillips of Fairfield, California, Ed Phillips of Cleveland, Ohio and Stuart Cohen of Los Angeles; sister Deborah Cohen of Lisbon, Portugal; and a grandchild, Brendan. He was preceded in death by his father Edwin Phillips and mother Kathleen, and his stepfather, Syd Cohen.

The family requests memorial donations to Hospitality House, P.O. Box 3223, Grass Valley, California 95945 (530) 271-7144
http://www.hospitalityhouseshelter.org

Jordan Fisher Smith and Molly Fisk

Utah Phillips is the reason I became a Wobbly. He’s also a big part of the reason that I got as interested as I got in the anarchists and the labor radicals of the early 20th century. It’s a much poorer world now that we no longer have his voice among us; the only consolation, if there is any, is how much richer it is from having had it all these years.

The old songs, these old stories… why tell them? What do they mean?

When I went to high school—that’s about as far as I got—reading my U.S. history textbook, well I got the history of the ruling class; I got the history of the generals and the industrialists and the Presidents who didn’t get caught. How about you?

I got the history of the people who owned the wealth of the country, but none of the history of the people who created it… you know? So when I went out to get my first job, I went out armed with someone else’s class background. They never gave me any tools to understand, or to begin to control the condition of my labor.

And that was deliberate, wasn’t it? Huh? They didn’t want me to know this. That’s why this stuff isn’t taught in the history books. We’re not supposed to know it, to understand that. No. If I wanted the true history of where I came from, as a member of the working class, I had to go to my elders. Many of them, their best working years before pensions or Social Security, gave their whole lives to the mines, to the wheat harvests, to the logging camps, to the railroad. Got nothing for it—just fetched up on the skids, living on short money, mostly drunk all the time. But they lived those extraordinary lives that can never be lived again. And in the living of them, they gave me a history that is more profound, more beautiful, more powerful, more passionate, and ultimately more useful, than the best damn history book I ever read.

As I have said so often before, the long memory is the most radical idea in America….

— Utah Phillips, The Long Memory, on Fellow Workers (recorded with Ani DiFranco)

Mark Twain said, Those of you who are inclined to worry have the widest selection in history. Why complain? Try to do something about it…. You know, it’s going on nine months now since I decided that I was going to declare that I am a candidate for the presidency of the United States. Oh yes: I’m going to run. … So I created my own party. It’s called the Sloth and Indolence Party, and I am running as an anarchist candidate, in the best sense of that word. I have studied the presidency carefully; I have seen that our best presidents were the do-nothing presidents: Millard Fillmore, Warren G. Harding…. When you have a president who does things, we are all in serious trouble. If he does anything at all—if he gets up at night to go to the bathroom—somehow, mystically, trouble will ensue. I guarantee that if I am elected, I will take over the White House, hang out, shoot pool, scratch my ass, and not do a damn thing. Which is to say, if you want something done, don’t come to do it for you; you’ve got to get together and figure out how to do it yourselves. Is that a deal?

— Utah Phillips (1996), Candidacy, on The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere (recorded with Ani DiFranco).

I spend a lot of time these days going to demonstrations and vigils, talking to people who support the war. They can be pretty threatening. But I always find there are people there–and I don’t mean policemen, but there are people there who will protect you. I don’t go there to shout or to lecture, but to ask questions. Real questions. Questions I really need answers to.

When I joined the Army, it was kind of like somebody that I had been brought up to respect, wearing a suit and a tie, and maybe a little older, in my neighborhood. Think about yourself in your neighborhood, and this happened to you. He walked up to me, put his arm around my shoulder, and said, See that fellow on the corner there? He’s really evil, and has got to be killed. Now, you trust me; you’ll go do it for me, won’t you? Now, the reasons are a little complicated; I won’t bother to explain, but you go and do it for me, will you?

Well, if somebody did that to you in your neighborhood, you’d think it was foolish. You wouldn’t do it. Well, what makes it more reasonable to do it on the other side of the world? That’s one question.

Well, now hook it into this. If I was to go down into the middle of your town, and bomb a house, and then shoot the people coming out in flames, the newspapers would say, Homicidal Maniac! The cops would come and they’d drag me away; they’d say You’re responsible for that! The judge’d say, You’re responsible for that; the jury’d say You’re responsible for that! and they would give me the hot squat or put me away for years and years and years, you see? But now exactly the same behavior, sanctioned by the State, could get me a medal and elected to Congress. Exactly the same behavior. I want the people I’m talking to to reconcile that contradiction for themselves, and for me.

The third question–well I take that one a lot to peace people. There’s a lot of moral ambiguity going on around here, with the peace people who say, Well, we’ve got to support the troops, and then wear the yellow ribbon, and wrap themselves in the flag. They say, Well, we don’t want what happened to the Vietnam vets to happen to these vets when they come home–people getting spit on. Well, I think it’s terrible to spit on anybody. I think that’s a consummate act of violence. And it’s a terrible mistake, and I’m really sorry that happened. But what did happen? Song My happened; My Lai happened; the defoliation of a country happened; tons of pesticides happened; 30,000 MIAs in Vietnam happened. And it unhinged some people–made them real mad. And what really, really made them mad, was the denial of personal responsibility–saying, I was made to do it; I was told to do it; I was doing my duty; I was serving my country. Well, we’ve already talked about that.

Now, it is morally ambiguous to wrap yourself in the flag and to wear those ribbons. And it borders on moral cowardice. I don’t mean to sound stern; well, yes I do, but what does the Nuremberg declaration say? There’s no superior order that can cancel your conscience. Nations will be judged by the standard of the individual. Look, the President makes choices. The Congress makes choices. The Chief of Staff makes choices. The officers make choices. All those choices percolate down to the individual trooper with his finger on the trigger. The individual private with his thumb on the button that drops the bomb. If that trigger doesn’t get pulled, if that button doesn’t get pushed, all those other choices vanish as if they never were. They’re meaningless. So what is the critical choice? What is the one we’ve got to think about and get to? And, friends, if that trigger gets pulled–if that button gets pushed, and that dropped bomb falls–and you say I support the troops, you’re an accomplice. I don’t want to be an accomplice; do you?

And I don’t want to dehumanize anyone. I don’t want to take away anybody’s humanity. Humans are able to make moral decisions–moral, ethical decisions. What do we tell the trooper who pulls the trigger, or the soldier who turns the wheel that releases oil into the Persian Gulf, that they’re not responsible–just following orders, just doing their duty, have no choice–bypassing them, making them a part of the machine, we deny them their humanity, their responsibility for their actions and the consequences of those actions. Look, I’ve been a soldier. I don’t want any moral loophole. I need to take personal responsibility for my actions. And if we don’t learn how to do this, we’re going to keep on going to war again, and again, and again.

— Utah Phillips (1992): from The Violence Within, I’ve Got To Know

There I am in Spookaloo, city of magic, city of light, ensconced upon my front porch in broad daylight — long about noon, my rising time — drinking something of a potable beverage, playing my guitar, long after everybody else in the neighborhood has packed up their lunchbox and gone off down to Kaiser Aluminum to put in their shift. This enrages my neighbors. One in particular across the road, little retired banker fella, has been known to cannonball his rotundity across the road, and stand there and publicly berate me for my sloth and indolence.

Why don’t you get a job? he says. Lot of you heard that, I’ll bet.

Now, me being hip to the Socratic method, fires back a question. Why?

Why? he says, taken aback. If you had a job you could make three, four, five dollars an hour.

I said Why? I asked, pursuing the same tack.

He said, Hell, you make three, four, five dollars an hour, you could open a savings account, save up some of that money. I said, Why?

He said, Well, you save up enough of that money, young fella, pretty soon you’ll never have to work another day in your life.

I said, Hell, that’s what I’m doing right now!

—Utah Phillips (1984), in the middle of his performance of Hallelujah, I’m a Bum! on We Have Fed You All A Thousand Years

May Day 2008

There will be a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today!

—Last words of August Spies (1887-11-11), immigrant, anarchist, and Haymarket martyr

Fellow workers:

Today is May Day, or International Workers’ Day, a holiday created by Chicago workers—most of them anarchists—to honor the memory of the Haymarket martyrs and to celebrate the struggle of workers for freedom, for a better life, and for control over the conditions of their own labor. It was created during the radical phase of the struggle for an eight-hour day: after legislative campaigns by the Knights of Labor and the National Labor Union failed, labor radicals in Chicago — organizers like Albert Parsons, Lucy Parsons, August Spies — declared that workers should take matters into their own hands, in the form of direct action on the shop floor. Workers would no longer try to get an eight-hour day by promising a useful and compliant voter base in return for patronage from politicians. To get an eight-hour shift, workers would make their own: in many shops, workers in the International Working People’s Association would bring their own whistle to work and blow it at the end of an eight hour shift — at which point most or all of the workers on the floor would just get up and just walk off, like the free people they were, whether or not the boss demanded more hours of labor. At the height of the struggle, they organized a General Strike, in defiance of the bosses and in spite of repeated violence from the Law.

Today is also the third annual day of rallies, strikes and marches against the criminalization of immigrant workers. A day which immigrant workers have chosen for actions against the bigotry of nativist bullies, the violence of La Migra, and the political system of international apartheid, as contemptible as it is lethal. A day to proudly proclaim We are not criminals and We are not going anywhere, to demand the only political program that recognizes it — open borders and unconditional amnesty for all undocumented workers.

And it is a joy for me to read that today is also a day of strikes against the bosses’ war in Iraq, which will shut down all the sea ports on the west coast of the United States, as an act of defiance against the State war machine and against the worthless political opportunists who promise to end it while voting, over and over again, to sustain it:

Amid this political atmosphere, dockworkers of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union have decided to stop work for eight hours in all U.S. West Coast ports on May 1, International Workers’ Day, to call for an end to the war.

This decision came after an impassioned debate where the union’s Vietnam veterans turned the tide of opinion in favor of the anti-war resolution. The motion called it an imperial action for oil in which the lives of working-class youth and Iraqi civilians were being wasted and declared May Day a no peace, no work holiday. Angered after supporting Democrats who received a mandate to end the war but who now continue to fund it, longshoremen decided to exercise their political power on the docks.

— Jack Heyman, San Francisco Chronicle (2008-04-09): Longshoremen [sic] to close ports on West Coast to protest war

The Longshore workers have the explicit support of postal workers in New York and San Francisco, and I hope this will be only the beginning of ongoing, widespread industrial action to end a war that political action — even after two election cycles, after hundreds of millions of dollars, after countless hours of lobbying and electioneering, after a change in government, and with the backing of an overwhelming supermajority of the populace — has proven completely incapable of ending.

This is May Day as it is and ought to be. A Day of Resistance against the arrogance and power of bosses, bordercrats, bullies, and the Maters of War, who would harass us, intimidate us, silence us, exploit us, beat us, jail us, deport us, extort us, and do anything else it takes to stop us from coming into our own. A day to celebrate workers’ struggles for dignity, and for freedom, through organizing in their own self-interest, through agitating and exhorting for solidarity, and through free acts of worker-led direct action to achieve their goals, marching under the banners of We are all leaders here and Dump the bosses of your back. A day to remember:

There Is Power In A Union

There is power, there is power,
In a band of working folk,
When we stand
Hand in hand.

—Joe Hill (1913)

Radio Bilingüe has a list of immigration marches and rallies across the country today. I plan to be at the mitin in Las Vegas tonight:

  • Las Vegas immigrant rights mitin (rally)
  • Tonight, May 1, 2008, 7:00 PM
  • Federal Courthouse, 333 Las Vegas Blvd S.

Meanwhile, in the news, some useless idiot is wandering around Washington proclaiming Law Day, accosting hundreds of millions of complete strangers to tell them to put on ceremonies in praise of his own power to do the beating, jailing, deporting, etc. In Istanbul, organized workers marched to Taksim Square in defiance of the Turkish government, which has declared their free assembly illegal, and which has deployed government riot cops to attack them with firehoses and tear gas. In Harare, organized workers are holding rallies today to call attention to the devastating effect of the government’s hyperinflationary money monopoly on workers’ wages—and an apparatchik of the Zimbabwean government—one of the most violently anti-worker governments in the world—is taking the opportunity to wear a concerned expression and assure that Government would at all times endeavour to make sure that workplaces were monitored through inspections to minimize hazards that might injure or kill them. (No word yet on whether the hazards the inspectors will be inspecting for include the Zimbabwe Republic Police or the Central Intelligence Organization.) We must never forget what this band of creeps and fools is doing their best to remind us of — that the State is the most deadly weapon of our enemies, and that it is a weapon that we will never be able to wield for ourselves without chaining ourselves to politics and destroying the very things we meant to fight for.

In this season and in these days, in the midst of Babel during its most raucous festival—when so much of what we see and hear are the endless shouts of professional blowhards who know of no form of social change other than political change, and who know of no site of political change other than the gladiatorial arena of electoral politics, and who seem to know of no form of electoral politics other than polling, horse-trading, and endlessly shouting about a series of nomenklatura-contrived issues, which boil down to little more than a media-facilitated exchange of racist, sexist, ageist, and authoritarian barbs among the nomenklatura-approved serious candidates—it’s important to remember that, in spite of all the noise and spectacle, the most significant events for labor and for human freedom are happening in the streets of cities all over the country and all over the world, where workers are organizing among themselves, demanding their rights, fighting for their lives, and defying or simply bypassing the plutocrats and their so-called laws. In the U.S.A., while the punch-drunk establishmentarian labor movement reels from one failure to another, some of the most dynamic and successful labor struggles in the past few years have been fought by a grassroots union organized along syndicalist lines without NLRB recognition, using creative secondary boycott tactics which would be completely illegal if they had submitted to the regulatory patronage of the Wagner-Taft-Hartley system. There is a lesson here—a lesson for workers, for organizers, for agitators, and anti-statists. One we’d do well to remember when confronted by any of the bosses—whether corporate bosses or political, the labor fakirs and the authoritarian thugs styling themselves the vanguard of the working class, the regulators and the deporters and the patronizing friends of labor all:

Dump the Bosses Off Your Back

Are you cold, forelorn, and hungry?
Are there lots of things you lack?
Is your life made up of misery?
Then dump the bosses off your back!

—John Brill (1916)

Happy May Day, y’all.

Elsewhere Today:

Further reading:

May Day 2007

We Have Fed You All for a Thousand Years

We have fed you all for a thousand years,
And you hail us still unfed,
Though there’s never a dollar of all your wealth
But marks the workers dead.
We have yielded our best to give you rest,
And you lie on crimson wool;
But if blood be the price of all your wealth
Good God we have paid in full.

There is never a mine blown skyward now
But we’re buried alive for you;
There’s never a wreck drifts shoreward now
But we are its ghastly crew.
Go and reckon our dead by the forges red,
And the factories where we spin;
If blood be the price of your cursèd wealth
Good God we have paid it in.

We have fed you all for a thousand years—
For that was our doom, you know,
From the days when you chained us in your fields
To the strike a week ago.
You have taken our lives, and our husbands and wives,
And called it your legal share;
But if blood be the price of your lawful wealth
Good God we bought it fair.

—First printed by the Industrial Workers of the World in 1908. Words by an anonymous proletarian, tune by Rudolph von Leibich

Fellow workers:

Today is May Day, or International Workers Day, a holiday created by Chicago workers—most of them anarchists—to honor the memory of the Haymarket martyrs and to celebrate the struggle of workers for freedom, a better life, and determination of the conditions of their own labor. It’s also the second annual day of strikes and marches for immigrant workers’ rights. May Day is and ought to be a day of resistance against the arrogance and power of the plutocrats. A day to celebrate workers’ struggles for dignity, and for freedom, through organizing in their own self-interest, through agitating and exhorting for solidarity, and through free acts of worker-led direct action to achieve their goals, marching under the banners of We are all leaders here and Dump the bosses off your back . A day to cheer immigrant workers struggling for their own freedom, in defiance of the attempts by La Migra and freelance nativist bullies to silence and intimidate them, marching under the banners We are not criminals, and We are not going anywhere. A day to remember:

There Is Power In A Union

There is power, there is power,
In a band of working folk,
When we stand
Hand in hand.

—Joe Hill (1913)

In honor of the day, it’s a pleasure to recommend some reading from anti-state radicals—from a history of May Day’s American roots at The Agitator (Lauritz, not Balko), to Kevin Carson’s Organized Capital vs. Organized Labor, to Sheldon Richman’s column Labor’s Right to a Free Market. And I’d especially like to recommend Kevin’s simply brilliant earlier column, The Ethics of Labor Struggle: A Free Market Perspective. Kevin’s and Sheldon’s columns do an especially good job of showing the gulf between the managerial style of establishmentarian business unionism—so familiar to us in these the waning days of Babylon, with Wagner and Taft-Hartley carefully arranged to bring the established unions into the web of State privilege and State regulation—with the older, state-free tradition of wildcat unionism that May Day celebrates. Here’s Kevin Carson:

First of all, when the strike was chosen as a weapon, it relied more on the threat of imposing costs on the employer than on the forcible exclusion of scabs. You wouldn’t think it so hard for the Misoids to understand that the replacement of a major portion of the workforce, especially when the supply of replacement workers is limited by moral sympathy with the strike, might entail considerable transaction costs and disruption of production. The idiosyncratic knowledge of the existing workforce, the time and cost of bringing replacement workers to an equivalent level of productivity, and the damage short-term disruption of production may do to customer relations, together constitute a rent that invests the threat of walking out with a considerable deterrent value. And the cost and disruption is greatly intensified when the strike is backed by sympathy strikes at other stages of production. Wagner and Taft-Hartley greatly reduced the effectiveness of strikes at individual plants by transforming them into declared wars fought by Queensbury rules, and likewise reduced their effectiveness by prohibiting the coordination of actions across multiple plants or industries. Taft-Hartley’s cooling off periods, in addition, gave employers time to prepare ahead of time for such disruptions and greatly reduced the informational rents embodied in the training of the existing workforce. Were not such restrictions in place, today’s “just-in-time” economy would likely be far more vulnerable to such disruption than that of the 1930s.

More importantly, though, unionism was historically less about strikes or excluding non-union workers from the workplace than about what workers did inside the workplace to strengthen their bargaining power against the boss.

The Wagner Act, along with the rest of the corporate liberal legal regime, had as its central goal the redirection of labor resistance away from the successful asymmetric warfare model, toward a formalized, bureaucratic system centered on labor contracts enforced by the state and the union hierarchies.

It’s time to take up Sweeney’s half-hearted suggestion, not just as a throwaway line, but as a challenge to the bosses. We’ll gladly forego legal protections against punitive firing of union organizers, and federal certification of unions, if you’ll forego the court injunctions and cooling-off periods and arbitration. We’ll leave you free to fire organizers at will, to bring back the yellow dog contract, if you leave us free to engage in sympathy and boycott strikes all the way up and down the production chain, boycott retailers, and strike against the hauling of scab cargo, etc., effectively turning every strike into a general strike. We give up Wagner (such as it is), and you give up Taft-Hartley and the Railway Labor Relations Act. And then we’ll mop the floor with your ass.

— Kevin Carson, The Ethics of Labor Struggle: A Free Market Perspective

That’s just a sampling. You really must read the whole thing.



Meanwhile, in the news, some creep in Washington is wandering around proclaiming Loyalty Day and demanding our renewed allegiance; and while the punch-drunk official unions are begging the government for more favors, the captains of industry are begging the government to keep a tight leash on free association. But the most significant events for labor and for human freedom are happening beyond the noise and spectacle of that gladiatorial arena, in the streets of cities all over the country where workers demand their rights in defiance of the so-called immigration law, and in unrecognized, grassroots unions organized along syndicalist lines, where workers have won concrete gains from the biggest corporations in their industry by operating through the use of creative secondary boycotts. There is a lesson here—a lesson for workers, for organizers, for agitators, and anti-statists. One we’d do well to remember when confronted by any of the bosses—whether corporate bosses or political, the labor fakirs and the authoritarian thugs styling themselves the vanguard of the working class, the regulators and the deporters and the patronizing friends of labor all:

Dump the Bosses Off Your Back

Are you cold, forelorn, and hungry?
Are there lots of things you lack?
Is your life made up of misery?
Then dump the bosses off your back!

—John Brill (1916)

Further reading:

Free The Unions (and all political prisoners)

Today is May Day, or International Worker’s Day: an international day for celebrating the achievements of workers and the struggle for organized labor.

You might have thought that the proper day was Labor Day, as traditionally celebrated on the first Monday in September. Not so; the federal holiday known as Labor Day is actually a Gilded Age bait-and-switch from 1894. It was crafted and promoted in an effort to throw a bone to labor while erasing the radicalism implicit in May Day (a holiday declared by workers, in honor of the campaign for the eight hour day and in memory of the Haymarket martyrs). As a low-calorie substitute for workers’ struggle to come into their own, we get a celebration of labor … so long as it rigidly adheres to the AFL-line orthodoxy of collective bargaining, appeasement, and power to the union bosses and government bureaucrats. That this holiday emerged and solidified at exactly the same historical moment as the unholy alliance of conservative (statist, nativist, racist, and misogynist) unionism with corporate barons and the Progressive regulation movement is no coincidence. That AFL-line unions continue to use Labor Day as a chance to co-opt the historic successes of radical, libertarian unions in campaigns such as the fight for the eight-hour day or the five-day week is no coincidence, either.

Too many of my comrades on the Left fall into the trap of taking the Labor Day version of history for granted: modern unions are trumpeted as the main channel for the voice of workers; the institutionalization of the system through the Wagner Act and the National Labor Relations Board in 1935, and the ensuing spike in union membership during the New Deal period, are regarded as one of the great triumphs for workers of the past century.

You may not be surprised to find out that I don’t find this picture of history entirely persuasive. The Wagner Act was the capstone of years of government promotion of conservative, AFL-line unions in order to subvert the organizing efforts of decentralized, uncompromising, radical unions such as the IWW and to avoid the previous year’s tumultuous general strikes in San Francisco, Toledo, and Minneapolis. The labor movement as we know it today was created by government bureaucrats who effectively created a massive subsidy program for conservative unions which followed the AFL and CIO models of organizing—which emphatically did not include general strikes or demands for worker ownership of firms. Once the NRLB-recognized unions had swept over the workforce and co-opted most of the movement for organized labor, the second blow of the one-two punch fell: government benefits always mean government strings attached, and in this case it was the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which pulled the activities of the recognized unions firmly into the regulatory grip of the federal government. Both the internal culture of post-Wagner mainstream unions, and the external controls of the federal labor regulatory apparatus, have dramatically hamstrung the labor movement for the past half-century. Union methods are legally restricted to collective bargaining and limited strikes (which cannot legally be expanded to secondary strikes, and which can be, and have been, broken by arbitrary fiat of the President). Union hiring halls are banned. Union resources have been systematically sapped by banning closed shop contracts, and encouraging states to ban union shop contracts—thus forcing unions to represent free-riding employees who do not join them and do not contribute dues. Union demands are effectively constrained to modest (and easily revoked) improvements in wages and conditions. And, since modern unions can do so little to achieve their professed goals, and since their professed goals have been substantially lowered anyway, unionization of the workforce continues its decades-long slide.

May Day is a celebration of the original conception of the labor movement, as expressed by anarchist organizers such as Albert Parsons, Lucy Parsons, Benjamin Tucker, and others: a movement for workers to come into their own, by banding together, supporting one another, and taking direct action in the form of boycotts, work stoppages, general strikes, and the creation of workers’ spaces such as local co-operatives and union hiring halls. The spirit was best expressed by John Brill’s famous exhortation to Dump the bosses off your back—by which he did not mean to go to a government mediator and get them to make the boss sit down with you and work out a slightly more beneficial arrangement. Dump the bosses off your back! meant: organize and create local institutions that let you bypass the bosses. Negotiate with them if it’ll do some good; ignore them if it won’t. The signal achievements of the labor movement in the late 19th and early 20th century were achievements in this spirit: the campaigns that won the 8 hour day and the weekend off in many workplaces, for example, emerged from a unilateral work stoppage by rank-and-file workers, declared by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, and organized especially by the explicitly anarchist International Working People’s Association, after legislative efforts by the National Labor Union and the Knights of Labor failed. The stagnant, or even backsliding, state of organized labor over the past half century is the direct result of government colonization and the ascendency of government-subsidized unions.

Don’t get me wrong: the modern labor movement, for all its flaws and limitations, is the reflection (no matter how distorted) of an honorable effort; it deserves our support and does some good. Union bosses, corporate bosses, and government bureaucrats may work to co-opt organized labor to their own ends, but rank-and-file workers have perfectly good reasons to support AFL-style union organizing: modern unions may not be accountable enough to rank-and-file workers, but they are more accountable than corporate bureaucracy; modern unions bosses don’t care enough about giving workers direct control in their own workplace, but they care more than corporate bosses, who make most of their living by denying workers such control. The labor movement, like all too many other honorable movements for social justice in the 20th century, has become a prisoner of politics: a political situation has been created in which the most rational thing for most workers to do is to muddle through with a co-opted and carefully regulated labor movement that helps them in some ways but undermines their long-term prospects. It doesn’t make sense to respond to a situation like that with blanket denunciations of organized labor; the best thing to do is to support our fellow workers within the labor movement as it is constrained today, but also to work to change the political situation that constrains it, and to set it free. That means loosening the ties that bind the union bosses to the corporate and government bureaucrats, by working to repeal the Taft-Hartley Act, and abolish the apparatus of the NLRB, and working to build free, vibrant, militant unions once again.

Dump the bosses off your back. Free the unions, and all political prisoners!

Update (2007-04-19): For a long time this post incorrectly attributed the song Dump the Bosses Off Your Back to Joe Hill, the legendary songwriter and organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World. Although it is very similar in style to Hill’s songs — it sets a radical message in simple language to the melody to a popular hymn — the song was actually written by John Brill, another Wobbly songwriter. The song first appeared in the Joe Hill Memorial (9th) edition of the IWW songbook, released in March 1916, four months after Joe Hill was hanged by the state of Utah. This error has been corrected in the post. —CJ