By Goings, Aaron; Kaunonen, Gary
Michigan History Magazine , Vol. 97, No. 3
In July 1913, Michigan copper miners and employers began to engage in one of the longest and most violent labor struggles of the 20th century. The strike caught the nation's attention, thrusting the region onto the front pages of leading newspapers. For nine months, the mineworkers, represented by the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), battled the copper companies in courtrooms, in the press, and in the streets. Daily parades gave thousands the opportunity to demonstrate their support for the work stoppage, while the WFM coordinated relief drives and established union stores to keep the men and their families fed during the long winter.
The great strike was born of decades of working-class activity in the region. The International Workingmen's Association, Knights of Labor, Socialist Party of America, Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies), and Western Federation of Miners all developed strong followings in the Keweenaw, particularly among immigrant mineworkers. Complementing these radical organizations were dozens of trade unions formed by local workers. The Keweenaw Miner newspaper estimated that there were about 2,000 Copper Country unionists in August 1911.
While unions were allowed in many crafts and trades throughout the region, the one industry where organized labor was unwelcome was copper mining. Conversely, this was the one job where workers needed the most protection. Historian Larry Lankton wrote in his book "Cradle to Grave" that in 1911 alone there were 63 deaths in area mines: more than one death per week. Daily, the mines affected families, friends, and communities, and it was at the local level that the seeds of the 1913-14 strike were sown.
The most visible public displays of working-class community in the region were evident during Labor Day celebrations. These festivities began in the morning with a parade featuring union members marching through town. Following the parade, unionists and their supporters would hold mass meetings at which union leaders, aspiring politicians, and other local notables spoke. The day's events would conclude with picnics, concerts, and sporting events. A June 1913 meeting, described in the Miner's Magazine, noted that "a red letter day in the history of Calumet Miners' Union" was celebrated when 2,000 people paid 25 cents each to attend a meeting where "addresses on unionism were delivered in English, Italian, Finnish, Croatian, and Hungarian."
Mine companies and their allies had long proven their militant opposition to labor unionism. In the 1870s, workers sought to gain some control in their workplace by blowing up a dangerous new blasting agent--nitroglycerin--slated for use at a local mine. From these early activities on up to the 1906 Rockland Strike, during which two Finnish strikers were shot by Ontonagon County deputies, mineworkers attempted to have their collective voices heard. These localized outbursts of unrest alternated with periods of peace. But a confrontation between workers and employers seemed to be looming just over the horizon.
Rumblings of a large-scale labor action were in the wind as early as April 1913. Workers associated with the newly formed Mass Miners' Union Local No. 215 in Ontonagon County appealed to a WFM organizer to draft and send a memorandum to mine management explaining their concerns. They asked for two things: a full break during which workers did not have to sort "drills, tools, etc. at dinner hour" and a reduction in the speed of the skip (a hauling car generally used to hoist mine rock out from underground) when men were riding in the vehicle. Management responded by locking out the local's members.
From April through late spring, spies hired by mining companies warned of escalating worker dissatisfaction. One spy's report on the situation at the Quincy Mining Company caused General Manager Charles Lawton to note, "Many of our best men have joined the Western Federation. …