MESABI DAILY NEWS
“The Miners of the Iron Range
Knew there was something wrong
They banded all together, yes,
In One Big Union strong.
The Steel Trust got the shivers.
And the Mine Guards had some fits.
The Miners didn’t give a damn.
But closed down all the pits.
“It’s a long way to monthly pay day.
It’s a long way to go
It’s a long way to monthly pay day,
For the Miners need the dough...
“... Wake up all Wage Workers,
In One Big Union strong.
If we all act unified together.
We can right all things that’s wrong.”
This song was reportedly written in jail by an anonymous miner in 1916. It tells the story of the second most notable Iron Range strike.
While at the time the miners did band together — with support from an organization known as the “One Big Union” — their efforts were not immediately met with success.
Those early striking Iron Range miners would go back to work three months after the strike erupted under nearly the same conditions they had left.
But their fighting spirit to obtain such things as safer working conditions and better pay — and their battle cry of, “We’ve been robbed long enough!” — paved the road to righting those wrongs for future generations, and biting the hand that had robbed them of the products of their labor.
The Iron Range was far from immune to the labor unrest that escalated throughout the country during the first couple decades of the 20th century. The fight for labor rights that remains important to the area today began in 1907 with a legendary struggle for workers’ rights and fair wages.
Many Mesabi Range miners were European immigrants, recruited by companies including the Oliver Iron Mining Co., a subsidiary of United States Steel Corporation.
Their living and working conditions were poor, and mining companies often openly discriminated against immigrant miners by giving them the most dangerous and lowest paying jobs. Immigrants, who had little money, did not speak English, and were far away from their families were easily exploited.
Many, however, had come from Finland, where socialist and labor movements were well established. Thus, there had been a history of small, spontaneous strikes among Iron Range miners.
But by 1907 — some 15 years after iron mining began on the Range — workers had grown increasingly weary of ethnic discrimination and dangerous working conditions, low wages, and long work days, and the immigrant miners took part in their first major strike.
Virtually ignored by the American Federation of Labor, Iron Range workers employed the assistance of the Western Federation of Miners, which had been involved in labor relation strikes in western states.
In response to repeated requests by local Finnish socialists, the WFW sent its first organizers to Minnesota. The strike, however, happened sooner than WFM union leaders had hoped when on July 16, dock workers in Duluth and Superior, Wis., went on strike.
The dock strike tied up iron ore shipping, and miners on the Mesabi Range had to act quickly or risk that their strike would be overshadowed. Three days later, on July 19, the miners presented their demands to the Oliver Iron Mining Co., including for safer working conditions, a minimum wage, and an eight-hour work day.
About 200 workers were fired immediately. The next day, July 20, the miners went on strike.
More than 10,000 miners participated — many of whom were Finnish. It would be their first experience with an organized strike.
The strike, ultimately, was considered peaceful, despite occasional violence. On Aug. 10, 19 miners were accused of rioting and imprisoned for a month. Local businesses additionally denied strikers credit. Strikers responded by organizing consumer cooperatives. However, the cooperatives were shut down when wholesalers, pressured by mining companies, stopped supplying them.
Minnesota Gov. John A. Johnson stayed impartial and did not use the state militia to suppress the strike. But the strike would turn to failure when few leaders emerged to rally effective support, and Oliver hired numerous strikebreakers — bringing them in from Europe.
By the end of the strike, the company had spent $255,000 on special deputies and strikebreakers.
The strikers urged strikebreakers to join their cause, and a few hundred did, but it was not enough. Finnish strikers held out the longest, but they, too, would give in and return to work by September.
After the strike, hundreds of workers, particularly Finns, were blacklisted and blamed for the strike, even those who had not participated.
While the miners’ demands were not met, their courageous strike launched a legacy of assertive labor activism on the Range.
As the 1910s progressed, Iron Range miners continued to struggle for recognition.
They were paid at the time by ore mined instead of hours worked and charged for such things as fuses, powder and blasting caps used in the extraction of ore. Living costs were high due to the need to import many basic supplies. According to some estimates, living expenses were more than 20 percent higher locally than in the Twin Cities.
Miners began rebelling.
U.S. Steel, however — known for its immobile anti-Labor stance — used a variety of anti-union techniques ranging from keeping an excess labor supply on the Range, to using an extensive network of spies and blacklists to ban Finns from working there.
But the unrest could not be tamed forever.
In June 1916, an Italian worker at the St. James underground mine in Aurora opened his pay envelope and became enraged over his meager earnings under the corrupt contract system. By the time other miners arrived at the St. James for the night shift, production at the mine was halted. All pits in Aurora were soon shut down as the strikers proclaimed: “We’ve been robbed long enough. It’s time to strike.”
Forty striking workers from Aurora, along with their families, then marched through other mining communities on the Iron Range and discontent unfurled.
By the end of June, nearly 10,000 mine workers were out on strike.
Frustrated by previous experience with the Western Federation of Miners and having been ignored by the Minnesota State Federation of Labor, the disorganized strikers appealed to the Industrial Workers of the World for assistance.
“Wobbly” organizers — known for their “One Big Union” concept — arrived to help local strike leaders draw up a list of demands: An eight-hour working day timed from when workers entered the mine until they were outside; a pay scale based upon the day worked; pay days twice a month; immediate backpay for hours worked upon severance; abolition of the Saturday night shift; and abolition of the contract mining system.
With a majority of the strikers being non-English speaking European immigrants, IWW and local leaders conversed with the workers in their native languages — Polish, German, Croatian, Finnish and Italian.
Without asking for union recognition or IWW affiliation, the strikers closed the mines that had been shipping iron ore to plants producing steel for the great European war. The threat to wartime launched an all-out attack against the striking workers, and U.S. Steel companies on the Range deputized 1,000 special mine guards and strike breakers to keep the picket lines open. Bloodshed would follow.
In Virginia, where the strike was headquartered, armed company thugs confronted a group of pickets holding signs of “One Big Union, One Big Enemy” and opened fire on them. A Slovenian striker, John Alar, died of gunshot wounds.
Despite city bans against mass marches, several thousand mourning workers marched from Virginia to the fairgrounds in Hibbing, where speeches in many different languages urged strikers to continue the fight.
A number of IWW organizers were also jailed on trumped up charges, such as that they were accessories to murder, and it was claimed that their impassioned speeches against the bosses sparked chaos.
The mining companies refused to recognize the strikers’ demands, and on Sept. 17, 1916, locals of the IWW voted to end the strike.
Though it seemed a defeat for the workers, their bold confrontation struck fear in the companies, which in mid-October granted a few of the strikers’ primary demands. Two months after the strike’s end, large wage increases were introduced by all of the mining companies.
“Goodbye bosses’ handouts,
Farewell Hibbing Square.
It’s the wrong way to work by contract
You will find no Miners there.
John Alar died of Mine Guards’ guns
The Steel Trust had engaged.
At Gilbert, wives and children
Of the Miners were outraged
“And when they quit their lousy jobs
They must receive their pay.
It’s the wrong way to work, by contract
It’s the wrong way to go.
It’s the wrong way to work by contract
For the Miners need the dough.”
Less than 20 years after an unknown miner composed the words to the song about the 1916 strike, the Congress of Industrial Organizations formed the Steelworkers Union and set up locals in cities and towns throughout the Iron Range.
A few years later, in 1935, workers won their biggest victory. With the passage of the National Labor Relations or Wagner Act, laborers for the first time in American history could band together and bargain collectively.