Calumet: The Copper Miners' Strike of 1913

 

 

Zawada Family History

Labor unions, strikes and violence in the Keweenaw: The Copper Miner Strike of 1913


Labor unions in the Keweenaw
Frank Zawada lived in Calumet, Michigan in the Keweenaw Peninsula from the 1890's until the early 1900's.
He worked hard in the copper mines for the mining giant Calumet & Hecla, and lost his leg in an accident in 1909, which forced his two sons, barely into their teen years, to go to work in his place.

While we do not know whether Frank ever belonged to a union, many of his co-workers did belong to unions, and they demanded safer working conditions, higher wages and equality.

The Knights of Labor was an active union in the Keweenaw Peninsula during the 1890's, but the strikes they led did not yield any success for the workers.
During a strike in 1893, Calumet & Hecla ended the strike by simply firing all the striking miners and replacing them.
The Knights of Labor tried everything they could to have workers not go on strike.
Instead, they opted to try to educate the mining companies about worker plight, and used arbitration.
The problem is, the mining companies were not open to discussing worker options.

The Western Federation of Mines (WFM) was another labor union that came into existence in 1893, and at first they tried the education and arbitration route like the Knights of Labor had been doing.
But once cases under the WFM started going to court and the mining companies remained unwavering, the WFM became more radical in nature.

In 1897, one WFM spokesperson gave a speech to workers reminding them of the Second Amendment (ratified in 1791), which gives "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms".

It was at this point that a new WFM was born - one that used Socialist language such as "wage slavery" and "class struggle".
The WFM would get results for the workers by any means necessary.

The WFM set up camp in the Keweenaw Peninsula by 1903, but the mining companies decided to not call any attention to this group.

The lack of alarm at the existence of WFM offices did nothing to promote their presence, and within 2 years, due to low membership, the WFM left the area.

Labor Strikes in the Keweenaw
There had been strikes in the Keweenaw in 1872, 1874, 1890 and 1893, but they hadn't turned deadly.
In 1906, there was a strike at the Quincy mine when the workers demanded a 10% wage increase. They were offered 5%, take it or leave it, that was the final say from the mining companies.
The workers acquiesced and took the 5% increase after being on strike for three weeks.

That same year however, Finnish trammers at the Michigan mine (located in Ontonagon County) went on strike. They wanted a higher wage and the opportunity to have Finnish people climb the ladder to management for once.
This strike did not end well. A riot ensued and 2 Finns ended up dead, while scores of other Finns got injured in the riot.

Technology as the main source of worker unrest
Around 1910, the mining companies sought to cut back the expenses of mining, and they started to consider lighter machinery such as the J. George Leyner rock drills.
Leyners drills were 154-pounds heavy, compared to the 293-pound drills then in use at the mines. Not only that, but the smaller drills could drill just as much as the larger drills but with only one person to man it, instead of two.

The mining companies tried these drills out with the miners, and it was pretty unanimous; the miners didn't like the new drills.
First of all, the men complained that the drills were still too heavy for one man to carry, set up and operate.
Secondly, losing a drilling partner opened up safety concerns - who would watch out for the guy alone on the drill if something should happen to him in the loud, darkened mine?
Third, but related to number two, was worker concern of being displaced to a lower-paying job or of losing one's job altogether when the one-man drills became the standard.

Well, displacing workers to lower paying jobs or firing them wasn't just a fear, it's what the mining companies had in mind in order to cut costs and stay profitable.

Discontent brewed amongst the workers in the mines, and some miners refused to use the drills. Some got into fights with the management about the drills. And some miners walked off the job or were told to leave for disobeying the new rules.

Before things could get too crazy, winter set in and so the miners calmed the labor unrest. Nobody wanted to start a labor fight over the winter. How would they survive if they had no money to provide for themselves and their families? The miners needed the company as badly as the company needed the miners.

By early 1913, tensions were running at maximum capacity between workers and the mining companies on the Keweenaw Peninsula.

The WFM had returned to the Keweenaw in 1908, but there were very few members. However, this time, the WFM was able to establish a presence in Calumet, and once the miners realized that the mining companies were serious in permanently implementing the one-man drills, they started to join the WFM in droves.

Miners actually started losing their jobs to the one-man drills over the winter of 1912-1913. Half of all miners now felt threatened with unemployment, and it was because the companies wanted or needed to save money to remain profitable.

By spring of 1913, the miners sent a joint letter to their companies, letting the companies know of the issues of importance, and if these issues were not addressed, they would strike.

The main issues or demands were:

  • $3 Minimum Wage for underground workers
  • $.35 increase for surface workers
  • An 8 hour workday
  • 2 men on all rock drills
  • Union recognition

The miners sent the letter without the blessing or proofreading of the WFM, who wanted to wait until more union funds could be raised, so that all those new members had enough union benefits available in the event of a strike.

The letter the miners sent was harsher in its language than the one the WFM headquarters would have liked to have sent. However, in spite of that, the mining companies disregarded the letter in a continuing non-affirmation of the existence of the union.

The WFM had no choice then but to strike, and so they announced the strike on July 23, 1913. Out of a total workforce of 15,000, as many as 9,000 men belonged to the union. The companies responded by calling in the sheriff, who deputized 200 Calumet & Hecla employees to help break the strike. However, per the Calumet & Hecla president, the deputies were not given guns.

The first day of the strike was violent; strikers threw bottles, rocks and steel pieces at the Calumet & Hecla deputies. As a result, the company called off the night shift and called in the National Guard.

For the next three weeks, the National Guard was in town and the mining companies shut down. Strikers held parades and gave speeches to bring people to their cause. Mother Jones even showed up and gave a speech.


The Michigan National Guard, Autumn, 1913 at 4th Street in Calumet

Mother Jones at 8th and Oak Streets, just off the train in Calumet, Michigan.
August 5, 1913


Mother Jones is reportedly somewhere in this strike parade, 5th Street
in Calumet, Michigan, August 5, 1913

National Guardsmen in their tents in Calumet, Michigan. 1913.


Strike parade along 3rd Street in Laurium, Michigan. 1913.

Strikers outside of Dunn's Bar, a favourite among miners.
Just next door to Dunn's was the No. 203 local WFM office.
The sign on the left reads: "Something just as good Miners ask for bread,
Jim [MacNaughton, C&H General Manager] offers lead"
The sign in the middle reads: "One man machine Our Agitator"
The sign on the right reads: "We demand higher wages and better working conditions"
The men in front are holding copies of the Miner's Bulletin, but the
headlines are not clear.


Strike parade along Red Jacket Road, with the National Guard
in their tent city, 1913, Calumet, Michigan.

Strike parade near Pine and 5th Streets, Calumet, Michigan. 1913.


Children in a strike parade. 1913, Calumet, Michigan.

The Michigan National Guard, September 21, 1913, during a snow storm
that rolled in and blew over part of their camp in Calumet, Michigan.


The mining companies also held speeches and printed stories in the papers to show their side of the story.

By early August, some strikers were already tired and broke. Strike benefits still had not been paid, and the strikers were getting nervous. A splinter group of the WFM formed - those who wished to return to work ASAP. This splinter group turned in a revised set of issues for the mining companies to consider, and it did not ask the companies to recognize the WFM.

However, the companies turned this group's demands down, too. The companies didn't want the larger WFM claiming credit for any addressed issues from this splinter group should the companies grant anything to these men.
But it is important to note that some men did meet with the mining companies one-on-one, and they did get their own issues addressed and were put back to work.
Enough of these individuals met with the mining companies and were put back to work that the companies were able to start up the mines again by the middle of August.

On top of the miners being worried about strike benefits being paid, and the fact that the mining companies had not given one inch in weeks, there was also some ethnic division creeping in.
Certain ethnicities were always treated better by the mining companies, and these people didn't want to lose their status. The threat of the one-man drill could put many people of all ethnicities out of work, but the union was fighting to put all ethnicities back to work on equal grounds. Equality meant the possible continuation of job losses, perhaps due to jobs being taken away from one ethnic group and given to another.

"...the relationship between worker and union - only recently formed - was often less secure than the older tie between worker and company. Most C&H employees could measure their WFM membership in months or even weeks. By contrast, when the strike started, 1,660 men had worked between 15 and 45 years for the company - and 1,352 of the company's 4,300 employees were the sons of fathers who also had worked for C&H. Many of these men stayed out of the union altogether, and of those who joined, many soon retreated from their experiment with organized labor." - Cradle To Grave: Life, Work and Death at the Lake Superior Copper Mines, by Larry Lankton, p. 227

Violence Peaks
By the middle of August, 1913, enough of the workforce had returned to staff the copper mines. Shortly after that, half of the Michigan National Guard was called back downstate, leaving just over 1,000 guardsmen on duty.

The strike was still on, however, and so the mining companies hired locals as guards. They also brought in guards from a corporation in New York called the Waddell-Mahon Corp, which had a known bad reputation as being "gun thugs" and violent strike-breakers.

So the miners saw half of the actual peace-keeping Michigan state-sponsored National Guard go away, and then saw thugs being brought in. On top of that, the mines were being re-opened with scabs to take the place of striking workers. The potential for violence peaked pretty much overnight.

Within days of the Waddell men arriving, 2 people were killed by Waddell gunfire for tresspassing on mine property near Seeberville, MI, about 20 miles from Calumet, MI.

This became known as the Seeberville Murders. All the two striking miners did was cut through the Champion mine property while walking on their home in Seeberville. The Waddell men chased them, confronted the men in the front yard of one of the men's homes, a fight ensued and the Waddell men opened fire, killing the miners.


Funeral procession of Alois Tijan and Steve Putrich, strikers who were murdered
at their boarding home in Seeberville, near Painsedale, on August 14, 1913.
The photo above is from the procession through Calumet, MI.
The image shows details as noted in Rebels on the Range, by Thurner p. 75-76;
"The Finnish Humu band lead the procession to Lake View Cemetary...men carried
boughs and wreaths of evergreen, women and girls bouquets of wild flowers...
Following a Croatian custom when death prevented fulfillment of marriage plans,
ten girls dressed in white, with flowing veils, and a young woman attired as
a bride, followed the white hearse of Tijan." -from the pasty.com website.


The Seeberville Murders shocked the community from one end of the Keweenaw to the other, and to call attention to this injustice, a large funeral procession made its way through the Keweenaw.

As a result of these deaths, more people went back to work at the mines. Almost all the mines were open by the beginning of September.

The remaining strikers held more marches, and women and childen began to join the Strikers at the pickets. Violence increased against scabs and strikers alike.

The U.S. Department of Labor, newly created on March 4, 1913, met with the mine companies and managers at the mines to set up a Department of Labor workers committee so they could help negotiate a settlement for the strike.

However, the mining companies gave the same response to the Department of Labor as it had given to the WFM and the miners themselves; they refused the offer and said they'd handle things themselves.

Instead of negotiations with the workers, the mining companies hired a special law firm to circumvent the Department of Labor, and they even defended the Waddell gunmen of the Seeberville murders! The mining companies, through their law firm, locked up strikers and brought in miners from other states to do the striking miners' jobs.

"...During a strike led in 1913 by the Western Federation of Miners, "Calumet and Hecla imported about 1,600 men - an effort being made to obtain nationalities different from those in the Copper Country." On the iron country of both Michigan and Minnesota, writes Vernon Jensen, "a conscious policy of mixing nationality groups appeared destined to keep workers divided." On the iron range the percentage of foreign born ran as high as eighty-five percent, mainly from Finland, Italy, and the Slavic countries. - A Short History of American Capitalism - by Meyer Weinberg
During all this, the mining companies sent out eviction notices to all striking miners living in company housing, but the mining companies ended up not enforcing these evictions. The eviction notices were however effective in scaring some people to pack up and move.

On November 2, 1913, the WFM admitted defeat, and asked if the mining companies would take back the miners on the condition that the miners could keep their union membership. The mining companies refused.

A new group called the Citizen's Alliance sprung up and started denouncing the WFM. They were secretly funded by the mining companies.

The locals began listening to what the Citizen's Alliance had to say, because they too were affected by the strike. When the WFM came to town, they opened their own stores for the striking miners to buy goods on store credit. This took business away from the local stores, and so resentment grew towards the WFM.

After the Citizen's Alliance formed and distributed free newsletters with all of their propaganda against the WFM, the mining companies then announced a shorter workday starting December 1, 1913.

On December 6, 1913, the judge assigned to oversee the strike found 139 strikers guilty of contempt for interfering with workers returning to the mines. However, the judge turned sympathetic and suspended the miners' sentences. The judge's own dad had been killed in the mines years earlier, and this is why the judge went to school, first to become a lawyer to fight cases of injury and death against the mines, and then he went on to become a Judge. As a result of his background, the judge let personal emotions in and suspended the miners' sentences.

This outraged the mining companies and the Citizen's Alliance, who wrote that the judge was on the side of the WFM and violence.
However, more men began returning to work at the mines, so the mining companies were getting some satisfaction out of utilizing the Citizen's Alliance.

The next day, inadvertently proving the mining companies and the Citizen's Alliance correct, four WFM men shot off their rifles at some replacement scab miners' houses in Painesdale in an effort to scare them off.
Three men and a girl were hit by the gunfire. The three men died.
This became known as the Painesdale Murders. Painesdale is about 21 miles south of Calumet, Michigan.

On December 10, 1913, the mining companies gave their employees the day off with pay to attend a Citizen's Alliance rally. The law firm hired by the mining companies, which had circumvented the Department of Labor policies and defended the Waddell gunmen of murdering two men in Seeberville, was the same law firm that paid for the huge Citizen's Alliance rally, including transporting men for free from the mines to the rally and back again via train.

The Citizen's Alliance preached propaganda to continue to get people to rid the area of the WFM.
This in turn got members of the Citizen's Alliance all fired up, and they went after WFM members, shooting up houses and raiding the homes and hangouts of certain ethnic groups more prone to be a part of the WFM. The Citizen's Alliance stripped the WFM members of their guns and harrassed people in the street.

But still the strikers refused to give up.

On December 18, 1913, the mining companies announced that if the strikers did not return to work ASAP, they would be permanently replaced. However, since Christmas was right around the corner, local businesses stepped in and pleaded for the mining companies to wait until January to make this announcement again.
For the first time, the mining companies actually agreed to something, and so they ordered miners back to work by the beginning of January.

The Italian Hall Disaster
To lighten the mood for the holidays, the WFM organized a Christmas party for the children of the striking miners. On December 24, 1913, children by the hundreds gathered with their parents in an upstairs room at the Italian Hall in Calumet.

The WFM made sure that only WFM members and their families attended, so no trouble would happen.

But around 4:30pm, an unidentified man yelled "Fire!" from outside the Hall on the street. A mass panic ensued, and children ran screaming for the only exit - a set of steep stairs leading down to double doors that opened inward. Adults ran and tried to stop the children from panicking.

Someone tripped and fell down the stairs, causing a domino effect, which brought others falling down the stairs, too. People fell over others that were already trapped against the inward-opening doors, blocking anyone from spilling out of the building. One after another, bodies slammed on top of those below and against the closed doors. When the panic fell silent, 73 people, mostly children, were dead. Another died the next day, bringing the total to 74.
This became known as The Italian Hall Disaster.


The doors and stairway into the Italian Hall, Calumet, MI. 1913

The Italian Hall the morning after the tragedy.
Christmas Day, 1913. Calumet, MI


The bodies were carried to the village hall, where a temporary morgue was set up. The entire community was shocked and heartbroken over the tragedy, and people everywhere in the Keweenaw set up a fund for the families of the deceased.

By December 26, 1913, $25,000 had been raised for the families. But Charles Moyer, president of the WFM, who had been in town for the holidays to visit the strikers, announced that his organization would not accept funds raised by non-WFM members. He lashed out at people who just hours before the tragedy were hateful towards WFM members, and said that the WFM would not accept their help or money as a result.
WFM union leaders then pointed their fingers at the Citizen's Alliance, saying that's who had caused the Italian Hall Disaster.

On the evening of December 26, 1913, after Moyer had denounced non-WFM people, a group of men grabbed Moyer from his hotel room down in Hancock (about 12 miles from Calumet) and handed him off to an angrier mob who dragged Moyer across the Portage Lake Bridge to Houghton (which was several hundred feet of dragging). The mob shot Moyer in the back and loaded him onto a train bound for Chicago, where he came from.

Moyer lived, and sued 17 men for assault, but the Houghton County Court acquitted the men!

In an effort to end the strike once and for all, Moyer cut back union pay to the striking men.

On April 12, 1914, 2,500 WFM members cast their votes to continue or end the strike. Eighty percent voted to end the strike, and by Easter Sunday, the strike officially ended, having dragged on for almost nine months.

As a result of the 1913 mining labor strike, Calumet's population began to decline, especially in light of the fact that Ford Motor Company had a few months earlier announced an eight-hour day and a flat payrate of $5 a day.

"Polish people were among those hardest hit by unemployment attendant on the 1913-1914 labor difficulties, and many of them left the community at that time." - Calumet Copper and People 1864-1970, by Arthur W. Thurner, p16.
How did the mass exodus of people, many from the Polish community, affect the Zawada family, who stayed on in Calumet?


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Last updated October 29, 2004
© Copyright Steph Wades, 1999 - 2006