The upper peninsula of Michigan was copper country. Between 1845 and 1912, it produced 2.6 million tons of the ore—nearly 30% of the total output of the United States (only Montana produced more: over 33%). The copper was dug up from the earth by hardworking miners, most of whom were recent immigrants to the US. Of the approximately 104,000 who lived in the region, almost 81,000 were foreign born or had parents who were. In 1910, the majority had Finnish roots, followed by England and a number of western and eastern European countries.

As was common in the era, working conditions were poor and wages kept low. Because workers had so little to begin with they were beholden to whatever handout they could get from the mines—often the only real employer in town (and the only one willing to hire "foreigners"). This led to easy exploitation by mining companies which knew that there would be little dissent because the workers were trying to survive. It was in that kind of situation that many of the great strikes took place. Workers held no power without a union behind them and companies had no desire to concede anything that cut into profit (only the solidarity of a mass strike could cause problems). This was an era of labor violence that has left both a stain on the nation and led to many of the workers' rights existent today. Rights taken for granted, earned by people that sometimes risked their own lives.

Workers made significantly less than other unionized miners (despite being part of the Montana-based Western Federation of Miners since 1909). Working ten or eleven hours (one hour for lunch) a day, plus a half day on Saturday, for an overall average of around $3—though some made as little as $2. They wanted the minimum to be at least $3. All the companies made regular deductions from earnings, making men pay for their tools and equipment, as well as a rudimentary health insurance that worked to varying degrees depending on the situation and the mining company.

Many of the men lived in houses owned by the mining companies and rented to them (low rent compared to other regions). This gave the miners few housing rights and termination of employment would leave them and their families homeless. In fact, housing would later be used as leverage over striking workers who were given the choice of returning to work or eviction (strike leaders were simply evicted). The long hours (as mentioned) were another problem (the idea of a common eight hour workday was a big deal at the time). They also wanted their union to be recognized, something the owners refused to do (refusal to deal with any group that had a representative of WFM was the main reason any possibility of arbitration talks failed).

Another important grievance was the "one-man drill." Previously drills were two person equipment. Workers were concerned about the new tool for more than one reason. One was the fear that it would lead to men being fired because they were no longer needed (statistics do suggest drops in the number of workers following the implementation of the drill—though it isn't entirely clear how many may be attributed to the drill). Another was safety. With two men operating a drill, they could keep an eye on each other and cut the number of mistakes or accidents that could happen. If one did occur, then there would likely be someone who could aid or go for help. It would also mean the single man would be drilling underground, all alone, for hours at a time. Not only making for lonely and dispiriting toil, but increasing the potential for accidents. While the death rate (4.94 per 1,000) among Michigan miners was one of the lowest in the nation, the rate of serious injury (54.88 per 1,000) was one of the highest (the numbers are for underground workers, overall numbers are somewhat lower).

The mine owners would have little to do with the workers' demands (demands that had been made an issue since the previous year), leaving them with recourse only in the union. The WFM had five local unions and claimed around 9,000 workers. A vote was held on the willingness to strike if necessary and after the companies ignored a letter (returned unopened) from the WFM demanding the grievances to be dealt with, a strike was called. It had support of about 98% of the workers. It began on 23 July and by the next day all the mines were shut down (with the exception of two small ones). Between 14,000 and 15,000 workers were involved. Trouble began shortly after.

Strikers began clashing with nonunion workers and, later, people hired as scabs. Riots took place and people were injured. The local authorities felt the many men that had been quickly deputized (in the end there were some 1,700) to deal with the strike were inadequate. The National Guard were asked to come in and the sheriff also called for private strikebreakers (52) from the Waddell-Mahon Corporation. This particularly incensed the strikers who referred to them as "gunmen" and "thugs." The troops (around 2,500, including officers) arrived on 25 July and things quieted down. Strikers then used more peaceful methods of agitation. They held mass meetings, gathered near the mines, and marched through the streets (this doesn't mean there weren't occasionally instances of harassment or beatings).

Things remained relatively calm. Some of the mines opened and managed partial production. On 15 August, a clash between strikers and Waddell men resulted in the death of one of the workers and the wounding (one fatal) of four others. The Waddell men (accompanied by two deputies) had tried to apprehend a man for "intimidation." He escaped into a house. Some men who had been playing tenpins in the yard, also ran inside. The Waddell men claimed one of them had been hit by a tenpin. They surrounded the house on two sides and began shooting through windows and a door (they would claim a shot came from the house). Of the 15 people in the house, two were women and four children—one child in its mother's arms suffered from powder burns. One of the wounded men had been sitting at the table eating dinner. Neighbors claimed, that after the smoke cleared, the men picked up stones and bottles from the street and planted them near the house to make it appear they had been used against them.

The house was searched for weapons. None were found. The men were charged and jailed (though, at first, the sheriff allowed them time to flee) they were indicted with murder in the second degree (the original charge had been in the first degree). They would be released on bail. No one else would be charged with crimes against strikers or sympathizers.

There was a call to disallow the Waddell men to carry guns but the sheriff ignored it. There were also charges that the Waddell men were intentionally inciting the strikers in order to fight them. Others had also been shot at. Waddell was running its headquarters in the sheriff's office and, according to the attorney for WFM, "acting as virtual deputy sheriffs" in violation of law. In September, additional men were brought in—a total of 90—from the Ascher Detective Agency.

During a parade on 2 September, a 14 year old girl was shot in the head. The parade had been moving away from one of the mines at the time it was stopped by deputies. Words were exchanged but the marchers threw nothing and were probably all unarmed. The deputies started shooting into the crowd (at which point the marchers did start throwing things). No shots were fired except those by the authorities. They all emptied their guns, firing about 90 shots. Tragic as it is, it is remarkable that only one person was hit. As the government report on the strike states, she "was struck above the right ear by a bullet and part of her brains oozed out." Even more remarkable is that she recovered. The deputies didn't bother to reload and fled the scene. They were never held accountable.

On 20 September, an injunction was issued that banned all picketing or marching near the mines or "impeding, obstructing, molesting, or disturbing" anyone trying to enter the mines for work. This included "threats, violence, insults, gatherings, parades, or any form of intimidation whatsoever." To their credit, the strikers obeyed the injunction until the 29 September when "peaceful meetings and parades" were allowed. In late October the issuing judge claimed that the injunction was being ignored and ordered the under-sheriff and his deputies to arrest anyone "who may be found by you, or any of you, and in view of you, or any of you, in acts of violation of said writ of injunction." That night they arrested over 200 men. Most were later released after a hearing and warned not to interfere again—they would not be allowed to even call the men crossing the picket line "scabs." On 9 November, 99 more were arrested (some of them women). During the course of the strike, there were relatively few arrests given the scope of the strike. Most were brought before a judge later had their charges dismissed or were given fines.

The companies began shipping in men from out of state to work at the mines for $2.50 a day (they also had to repay their travel expenses). Some were confined to boarding houses under guard by soldiers or deputies. Others left and joined the strikers, saying they hadn't known that was the reason they had been hired. The new workers were further angered by being poorly fed "like a bunch of dogs" (according to one of their official complaints)—when they complained the rations were decreased. They were also harassed by deputies. Many only wanted to work long enough to pay their way back home. Others simply quit and left.

The men supposedly keeping order were failing at that, too. There were incidents with crowds being dispersed by the soldiers at the point of fixed bayonets. Soldiers were frequently drunk on the streets after sampling the local taverns (or "disorderly houses"). There were other incidents involving strikers being beaten and shot at.

Though the strikers were mostly nonviolent, there were plenty of incidents attributable to them. Mostly strong arm tactics, some beatings, and a lot of throwing things, there were some cases when shots were fired that were almost certainly fired by strikers. Given the length of the strike and the number of people involved on both sides, it is surprising that so few died (three strikers and a deputy—the deputy and one striker had killed each other). As noted, there were many beatings. Not just men crossing the line, but the authorities beat many of the workers, including women, with their large clubs or nightsticks.

Feeling little support by nonminers and noting overwhelming support for the mining companies from the local press, the strikers established their own newspaper, The Miner's Bulletin, allowing them to get out their message, increase communication among the workers, and spread news of actions taken against them (legal or illegal) by soldiers, the local authorities, or the private strike breakers. Editorials criticized the governor for allowing the National Guard to intervene and not forcing the companies to negotiate.

About that time, a group calling itself the Citizen's Alliance was formed. Ostensibly it was to protect local businesses from the effects of the ongoing strike (economic, since the government report notes the lack of damage to any of the mines or their equipment by strikers—there were a few sabotage attempts foiled before they were put into action). That may have been part of it, but the group also used as support for the mining companies and their interests.

As the months dragged on, there was some talk of concession by the companies, mainly the eight hour day (eventually they would concede that as well as raise wages). Some workers came back to their jobs, either to avoid eviction or economic pressures. The length of the strike and the low resources for the strikers took its toll. Their numbers began to dwindle. Still many continued on.

Italian Hall tragedy
As December rolled around, most of the mines were open and at full production again. The mines were doing just fine: a 400% stock dividend was announced for shareholders. Things were obviously different for the workers. Union organizers decided to give them a respite from the ongoing hardship. A Christmas party was arranged to be held Christmas Eve on the second floor of the Italian Hall in Calumet, Michigan. There was a tree and a man in a Santa suit to hand out gifts to the children (candy, scarves, mittens). Everything was going fine. People were forgetting the long strike and concentrating on family and the holiday season.

Then someone shouted "Fire!"

Panic ensued. People rushed down the narrow stairs to escape. The problem was that the doors opened inward and people began to be crushed against them and each other. When it was all over, 73 people were dead, mostly from asphyxiation. Almost all of them children.

There was no fire.

To this day, there is no definitive answer to what happened. Some claim that it was a drunken prank, others a mistakenly heard phrase in a foreign language. The prevailing theory is that it was deliberate. That agents of the mining companies had done it to cause panic and disrupt solidarity (whether the deaths were intended consequences or not is also a lingering question). Some people claimed to have seen company men hanging around before the incident. Even if true, it doesn't prove they were involved or simply keeping an eye on the strikers. In the early 1980s, a reporter was told by a man that he had met a man many years earlier who claimed to have been one of two men who had yelled fire in what was a matter of two drunks looking for some fun. The man was soon to die and didn't reveal his partner's name. Nor his own. The story cannot be substantiated and the actual cause of the tragedy will remain a secret.

There were efforts to rush food and other things to the families of the victims but the union told people not to accept the handouts, considering it a form of concession to the mining companies. A poor tactic and it caused a great deal of resentment toward the union. The people were weary and support was dwindling from other unions and from the people who simply could not maintain a strike anymore. The tragedy effectively broke the back of the strike. It ended shortly after.

Copper production would get back to previous levels for a while but it didn't last long and the whole industry in Michigan went into decline. Many workers left for jobs elsewhere—a number of them moving to Detroit and joining the newly established auto industry. It continued its serious decline throughout the twentieth century, the last operating mine closing in 1997.

The "fire" would be later retold by Woody Guthrie's song "1913 Massacre" (though the title is a misnomer). In the 1980s, the hall had fallen into disrepair and would be torn down. The only things that remains are the stones that form the door frame.

Sources: "Strike in the Copper Mining District in Michigan" 1914 Department of Labor Report (quotes from the report) available here:
"Copper Mine Strike of 1913-1914"
"The Italian Hall Disaster, Calumet, Michigan
"Some recent articles"

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.