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Issue #1712      November 25, 2015

History inspires

Working Voices Choir mark 100 years since Joe Hill’s execution in 1915

The annual Harold Peden Memorial Lecture 2015 delivered by Unions WA secretary Meredith Hammat paid tribute to Harold Peden a senior trade union activist, state president of the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union, senior vice president of the Trades and Labour Council, state president of the Communist Party of Australia and a long-time activist in the peace movement, retiring in July 1985. Peden was a man who took the cause of labour and labour history to his heart. A political activist and proud unionist throughout his working life, Peden was awarded the Order of Australia in 1990 for his services to the trade union movement and Western Australian workers. Each year since his untimely death in 1993 due to boating accident, the Labour History Society celebrates Harold’s life with a community lecture emphasising his work and passion.

Joe Hill.

This year the 100th anniversary of Joe Hill coincided with the lecture. The WA Working Voices choir, led by the legendary musical and singing talents of Bernard Carney, performed a memorable tribute to Joe Hill (“I dreamed I saw…”). Hill, the Swedish-American labour activist, song writer and member of the Industrial Workers of the World (“The Wobblies”) was executed aged 36 by firing squad on November 19, 1915 on a murder charge universally considered to be a frame up.

In addition to singing a rousing version of Joe Hill, the choir sang a song penned by Joe Hill himself (with the melody based on an earlier song called the, “Ballad of Casey Jones”) about an incident in 1911 in California involving a scab engine driver, Casey Jones, who wanted to do the bosses dirty work and break the resolve of 40,000 workers who went on strike over their treatment by Southern Pacific Railroad.

Meredith Hammat delivered her lecture, which was a call to organise, saying that “Workers have a moral duty to protect the wages and working conditions which workers have fought so hard to protect which we enjoy today”. It is going to take a more militant sustained struggle to protect wages and conditions and above all to organise the organised and grow in numbers. Hand in hand with organising, Meredith flagged the marginal seats campaign needed to remove the current anti-worker government.

Though it is a sobering statistic which Hammat quoted from the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics figures which showed national union density at a new low of 15 percent, we should not walk away from our collective resolve to protect our wages and conditions and ultimately a fair and dignified life and society for all.

Workers are being slowly pushed towards the wages, conditions and strong arm tactics of employers utilised in the time of Joe Hill and our response must be similar: workers must realise which class they belong to, be militant and organise as a collective in a union of fellow workers.

Unions and workers, concluded Hammat, had a responsibility to leave something better for the workers who are left behind.

Next article – International maritime workers take action

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