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Reading 4: Strike!
In the early twentieth century, Michigan’s Copper Country was in trouble. The mining companies faced new competition when copper mines opened in Montana and Utah. The price of copper dropped when more mines produced it and the mining companies looked for ways to save money. Many mine laborers worked long hours in dangerous conditions for under $3 a day and they were not happy that the mining companies would not raise wages for everyone. The companies wanted their income from selling copper to go toward profits, not wages. Some miners had lost their jobs to new technology that the companies brought in to make up for lost profits. Tensions also built between company managers and mine laborers because of the tie between ethnicity and employment opportunities. These conditions led to a strike.
In July 1913, many of the mine workers in the Keweenaw Peninsula went on strike. A strike is an event where employees refuse to work until the managers or owners agree to the workers’ demands. At Quincy and at other Copper Country mines, workers stopped going to the mines, smelters, and stamp mills. They refused to work until the companies improved working conditions. Pro-labor organizations in the United States knew about the strike and supported the strikers. A union sent the strikers a weekly stipend until the strike ended. The stipend supported the men and their families during the strike.
The Copper Country mine workers had several demands. They wanted an eight-hour work day and higher pay. They wanted the mining companies to stop using a new type of mining drill. This new drill was operated by one man, not two.1 This meant that people who used to work on the old drill either lost their job or worked fewer hours, since the new drill needed half the labor as the old drill. This also meant that the drill operator worked alone and no one was there to help him if he was injured. The strikers demanded that the mines bring back the old drill that two men operated. They also wanted union recognition
The strike was also an ethnic conflict, because ethnic groups were often paired with a type of job. Most of the workers who went on strike were part of the most recent wave of immigrants. Their ethnic backgrounds were Croatian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, and Finnish. Mine workers who were least likely to join the strike were from established ethnic groups, including Cornish, Scottish, German, and Scandinavian. Members of these groups were usually in a high-paying and highly skilled position, and therefore unlikely to go on strike. Croatian workers were in some of the lowest-paying and physically demanding mining positions, and nearly all laborers from Croatian backgrounds went on strike.
Another reason that the miners went on strike was the system of paternalism in the mining communities. The workers depended on the mining companies for more than a paycheck. The mining companies were involved in the mine workers’ lives in many ways. The mining companies provided their workers with houses as well as schools, fire departments, hospitals, and libraries. Workers benefitted, but this meant their communities were controlled by their employers. In 1913, the workers rebelled against paternalism when they went on strike and worked with a union. Jack Foley, a former mill owner, said this about the paternal system:
The strike lasted for eight months. The mining companies hired private security guards and the Michigan National Guard went to Keweenaw to keep order. Fights broke out between the supporters of the mine companies and supporters of the strikers. Hundreds of people were arrested. The deadliest night of the strike was Christmas Eve. On December 24, 1913, the Italian Hall in Calumet hosted a Christmas party for strikers and their families. During the party, someone yelled “fire.” There was no fire, but the people in Italian Hall tried to escape. Seventy-three people, including fifty-nine children, died when everyone panicked and tried to get out of the building at the same time. Some people thought that the person who yelled “fire” was sent by one of the mining companies to cause trouble, but he or she was never identified.
The strike ended in April 1914 when the strikers voted to go back to work. The strike was considered a failure. The mining companies did not bring back the two-man drill. Some mines in Copper Country gave their employees an eight-hour workday, but not all. The strikers did not get the raise they wanted. About 2,500 men and their families left the Keweenaw Peninsula after the strike. Some moved to Detroit to work in new car factories. The strikers who stayed had trouble finding jobs, because the companies did not want to hire someone who was part of the strike. Mining, milling, and smelting continued at Quincy Mine, but the community was changed.
Questions for Reading 4
1) What were some of the issues workers had with their employers? What were the three demands of the strikers?
2) What is “paternalism”? How was it practiced at Quincy?
3) How does Jack Foley describe labor relations between mine employers and employees? Do you agree with him? Why or why not?
4) How much of a presence do you think employers should have over its workers’ lives? Was mine ownership of houses, stores, and other community buildings intruding too much into the lives of Quincy employees? Explain your answers.
Reading 4 was adapted from “An Interior Ellis Island: Ethnic Diversity and the people of Michigan’s Copper Country,” Michigan Technological University Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections, Strangers and Sojourners: A History of Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula By Arthur W. Thurner, and Cradle to Grave: Life, Work, and Death at the Lake Superior Copper Mines by By Larry Lankto; and includes excerpts from an interview with Jack Foley by Art Puotinen on August 9, 1972 as part of the Finnish Folklore and Social Change in the Great Lakes Mining Region Oral History Project 1972-197.
1 Lankton, Larry. Cradle to Grave: Life, Work, and Death at the Lake Superior Copper Mines. Oxford University Press, 1993. P 225.
2 Jack Foley to Art Puotinen. Interview. August 9, 1972. Dollar Bay, Michigan.