Casey Jones—The Union Scab
Casey Jones—The Union Scab
By: Joe Hill
About the Author: Joe Hill was a Swedish-born labor organizer with the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, and an influential writer of protest songs that rallied working people throughout the United States and beyond.
At the turn of the twentieth century, clashes between workers and business owners reached epic proportions. As industries accumulated wealth and power during the latter decades of the 1800s, millions of American workers struggled in poverty, working long hours in unsafe conditions for low pay. Rapid growth of the labor force, fed in part by the massive influx of immigrants to the United States, resulted in increased union membership. The two sides of the labor movement—restive workers demanding better wages and wealthy owners protecting their profits—reached an impasse many times, and the period was marked by a number of major strikes, many of which ended in violent repression by owners and law enforcers.
The success of any strike relies upon widespread participation among workers; strikes that are unable to significantly inhibit a company's operation fail to command the attention of management. The inspiration for Joe Hill's song "Casey Jones—The Union Scab" was a strike by thousands of shop workers at the Harriman and Illinois Central Railroad System, which included the Southern Pacific—the "S.P. line" referred to in the song. While shop workers had walked off the job, the engineers and others continued to work, enabling the trains to run and undermining the shop workers' ability to negotiate with management.
Hill's song parodies legendary railroad engineer Casey Jones, depicting Jones as a scab, a traitor to the union cause. Born in 1864, John Luther "Casey" Jones became a renowned railway engineer working on the Illinois Central line. In April 1900, Jones was killed when his passenger train collided with a freight train in the town of Vaughan, Mississippi. According to the oft-retold story, Jones told his fireman, Sim Webb, to save his own life and jump from the train, while Jones himself stayed in the cab and died with the brake cord still in his hands. His determination to stay on the train and slow it down reportedly saved many lives among the train's passengers. Jones became a legend after his death, a romantic symbol of the early American railroading tradition. A railroad worker named Wallace Saunders memorialized the beloved engineer in the song "Casey Jones," which became a folk-music classic. By depicting him as a "union scab" rather than a railway hero in "Casey Jones—The Union Scab," Joe Hill turned the Casey Jones legend on its head, converting a heroic figure into an enemy of the working man.
(Tune: "Casey Jones")
The Workers on the S.P. line to strike sent out a call;
But Casey Jones, the engineer, he wouldn't strike at all;
His boiler it was leaking, and its drivers on the bum,
And his engine and its bearings, they were all out of
Casey Jones kept his junk pile running;
Casey Jones was working double time;
Casey Jones got a wooden medal,
For being good and faithful on the S.P. Line.
The Workers said to Casey: "Won't you help us win this
But Casey said: "Let me alone, you'd better take a
Then some one put a bunch of railroad ties across the
And Casey hit the bottom with an awful crack.
Casey Jones hit the river bottom;
Casey Jones broke his blessed spine,
Casey Jones was an Angeleno,
He took a trip to heaven on the S.P. line.
When Casey Jones got up to heaven to the Pearly Gate,
He said, "I'm Casey Jones, the guy that pulled the S.P. freight."
"You're just the man," said Peter; "our musicians went on strike;
"You can get a job a-scabbing any time you like."
Casey Jones got up to heaven;
Casey Jones was doing mighty fine;
Casey Jones went scabbing on the angels,
Just like he did to workers on the S.P. line.
The angels got together, and they said it wasn't fair,
For Casey Jones to go around a-scabbing
The Angels Union No. 23, they sure were there,
And they promptly fired Casey down the Golden Stair.
Casey Jones went to Hell a-flying.
"Casey Jones," the Devil said, "Oh, fine;
Casey Jones, get busy shoveling sulpher-
That's what you get for scabbing on the S.P. line."
Joe Hill, a rank-and-file member of the Industrial Workers of the World, may not have been known personally by many workers, but his songs were adopted as anthems by laborers throughout the United States. Songs such as "Casey Jones—The Union Scab," "The Preacher and the Slave," and "The Rebel Girl" made Hill famous among laborers hailing from all over the world and working in a variety of industries. Many of Hill's songs were published in the IWW's Little Red Song Book, a collection of songs designed to unite and inspire the Wobblies, as IWW members were known.
Decrying the exploitation of working people and emphasizing the importance of laborers uniting for social and economic justice, Hill became an influential protest songwriter and an effective communicator of the IWW's agenda. Begun in 1905 by labor pioneers William "Big Bill" Haywood (1869– 1928), Mary "Mother" Jones (1830–1930), and Eugene Debs (1855–1926), the IWW embraced all members of the working class from all types of industries. This philosophy, represented by the slogan "one big union for all," set the IWW apart from other major unions of the period, many of which were intended only for skilled workers, or only for workers in a particular industry. The IWW promoted a socialist agenda, asserting that tensions between workers and employers would persist until society was restructured and workers took over the means of production. In part because of the radical politics the union espoused, the IWW developed a reputation as a violence-prone organization that encouraged workers to commit acts of sabotage.
In January 1914, during an attempted robbery of a grocery store in Salt Lake City, Utah, a grocer named John Morrison and his son were shot to death. The two masked assailants, one of whom had been shot by the grocer's son, fled the scene. The same day, Joe Hill, living in Salt Lake City at the time, sought medical attention for a gunshot wound that he claimed was the result of an argument about a woman. The doctor reported Hill's injury to the police, and Hill was arrested on suspicion of involvement in the deaths of the Morrisons. In the months leading up to his trial, Hill's case became an important cause for the IWW. The union protested that Hill was being prosecuted not because he was truly suspected of killing the Morrisons but because of his past actions as a Wobbly agitator and organizer. Local newspapers repeatedly emphasized Hill's association with the IWW and portrayed the union in dark and dangerous terms. With minimal evidence and questionable tactics, the prosecution obtained a guilty verdict, and in July 1914 Joe Hill was sentenced to death.
Upon Hill's conviction, a widespread protest arose. Hill's impending death brought him far more fame than he had achieved previously, and he became an idealized symbol of the honorable, brave, and determined working man. Supporters from all over the United States and other nations as well sent letters to the governor of Utah seeking a pardon for Hill. The Swedish ambassador to the United States intervened on his behalf, sending telegrams to President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924). Wilson wrote to the Utah governor asking that the execution be delayed and a full investigation conducted. The efforts on Hill's behalf failed, however, and on November 19, 1915, Hill was executed by a firing squad. The night before his execution, Hill sent a telegram to IWW leader Bill Haywood, concluding with a phrase that became part of his legend: "Don't waste any time in mourning. Organize."
Hill's death transformed him into a martyr for the union cause, and he became a symbol of the sacrifice necessary to achieve a new social order. Many years later, his death inspired Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson to write a song, "Joe Hill," proclaiming Hill as a man who "never died." Like the famed railroad engineer Casey Jones, Hill became a mythic character and a working-man's icon, memorialized in literature and song, in the wake of his death.
Dubofsky, Melvyn. We Shall Be All. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1969.
Fowke, Edith and Joe Glazer. Songs of Work and Protest. New York: Dover Publications, 1973.
Le Blanc, Paul. A Short History of the U.S. Working Class. New York: Humanity Books, 1999.
Murolo, Priscilla and A. B. Chitty. From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend: A Short, Illustrated History of Labor in the United States. New York: New Press, 2001.
Reef, Catherine. Working in America. New York: Facts on File, 2000.
KUED. University of Utah. "'I Never Died …': The Words,
Music, and Influence of Joe Hill." <http://www.kued.org/joehill/voices/article.html> (accessed May 30, 2006).