Another from the IWW’s red songbook, written by Joe Hill to the tune of the pop song “Casey Jones” — except, like a lot of people on the folk scene, I heard the union parody before hearing the original song, and I still don’t think I’ve heard the pop song all the way through. Like most people, I got this from Pete Seeger, who I assume got it from the songbook, which was a model for him and the Almanac Singers when they began writing union songs.
It was one of Hill’s first songs to be published, in 1911 or so, and he wrote it for a strike on the Southern Pacific Railroad, though there’s apparently some question about exactly which strike. In his book on Joe Hill, Gibbs Smith says it was almost certainly written for a strike of 35,000 shopmen on the Illinois Central and Harriman lines, the latter including the SP, which lasted from 1911 through 1915.
Smith writes that trains kept running because the train operators — engineers, firemen, and brakemen — belonged to a company union and refused to join the strike, which is the theme of the lyric. He also writes that several trains exploded during that period due to poor maintenance by inexperienced strikebreakers, and quotes a union bulletin on that subject:
Engine 4037 exploded on the Southern Pacific Railroad. Miscellaneous repairs had been made on it by the strikebreakers (scabs) who are employed by this company — an aggregation of moral germs who know no more about a locomotive and its requirements than the cave dwellers knew about the higher principles of mathematics… The engine had been in for repairs. A number of staybolts had been applied, and the engine turned out of the shops without any of these staybolts being riveted. The crew riding in the engine was killed by the explosion.
Once again, an old song that remains all too applicable in the present. The union-busting of the last forty years has brought us back damn near to Joe Hill’s situation — and much as I appreciate some of the rhetoric I’m hearing in the current election cycle, “income inequality” is not going to be seriously addressed from the top down by politicians, unless there is a hell of a lot of pressure on them from the people at the bottom of that equation, which means organizing, which means unions.