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Mesabi Range Strike, 1907

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Underground miner, Mesabi Range

Underground miner, Mesabi Range, c.1906.

Tired of ethnic discrimination as well as dangerous working conditions, low wages, and long work days, immigrant iron miners on the Mesabi Range in northeastern Minnesota went on strike on July 20, 1907. Their strike lasted only two months before it was suppressed with strikebreakers, but it was notable for being the first organized strike on the state's Iron Range.

Iron had been mined since 1892 on the Mesabi Range, one of three ranges that make up Minnesota's Iron Range. On the Mesabi, iron ore was originally mined both underground and in open pits above ground. Few skills were required. Many Mesabi Range miners were European immigrants, recruited by mining companies including the Oliver Iron Mining Company, a subsidiary of the United States Steel Corporation.

Living and working conditions on the Iron Range were poor, and mining companies openly discriminated against immigrant miners by giving them the most dangerous and lowest paying jobs. New immigrants were easily exploited because they did not speak English, had little money, and were far away from their families and social support networks.

Before 1907, Iron Range miners had struck often, but their strikes were small and spontaneous. Many Mesabi Range miners came from Finland, where socialist and labor movements were well established. Because of this, the Mesabi Range had more labor strife than any other area on the Iron Range.

In 1905, Finnish socialists on the Mesabi Range invited the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) to organize in Minnesota. The WFM had formed in 1893, in reaction to a violent strike in Idaho. More prominent unions such as the American Federation of Labor were not interested in organizing unskilled laborers like miners and lumberjacks.

The WFM did not have organizing success on Minnesota's Iron Range until 1906, when it realized that its meetings were turning away immigrant workers who did not speak English. It then chose an Italian immigrant named Teofilo Petriella to head its recruitment efforts in the state. Petriella put immigrant miners in leadership positions and divided the Range into three immigrant sections: Italian, Slavic, and Finnish. By June 1907, the WFM's labor movement was growing in Minnesota, and it was clear that a confrontation was on the way.

The 1907 Mesabi Range strike happened sooner than WFM union leaders had hoped. On July 16, dock workers in Duluth and Superior 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 by events to the south. Three days later, on July 19, the miners gave their demands to the Oliver Iron Mining Company. Their demands included safer working conditions, a minimum wage, and an eight-hour workday. Two hundred workers were fired immediately, and union workers were targeted. The next day, July 20, the miners struck.

Between 10,000 and 16,000 miners went on strike in 1907, and a majority of them were Finnish. The 1907 strike was the first experience that most of the miners had with an organized strike. It was considered relatively peaceful, despite occasional violence. This was partly because Minnesota Governor John A. Johnson stayed impartial and did not use the state militia to suppress the strike.

Still, the strike was threatened by local authorities. On August 10, nineteen miners were accused of rioting and imprisoned for a month. No one was badly hurt in the incident, and the miners were tried and found innocent. Even local newspapers, which were strongly opposed to the strike and immigrants, said that the miners should not have been jailed.

Local businesses also hurt the strikers by denying them credit. Strikers responded by organizing consumer cooperatives in several towns. However, the cooperatives were shut down when wholesalers stopped supplying them because of pressure from mining companies.

Strikebreakers hired by the Oliver Iron Mining Company were the biggest reason that the 1907 strike failed. By the end of the strike, the company had spent $255,000 on special deputies and strikebreakers. At first, Mesabi Range strikers asked strikebreakers to join their cause, and a few hundred did, but it was not enough. Finnish strikers held out the longest, but they, too, went back to work by September.

After the strike, Finnish workers were blacklisted and blamed for the strike, even if they had not participated in it. Finns made up 18 percent of the mining workforce before the strike but only 8 percent after it.

The 1907 Mesabi Range strike was unsuccessful, since the miners' demands were not met, but it left a legacy of militant yet peaceful labor activism on the Range.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
  • Bibliography
  • Related Resources

Alanen, Arnold R. "Early Labor Strife on Minnesota's Mining Frontier, 1882–1906." Minnesota History 52, no. 7 (Fall 1991): 246–263.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/52/v52i07p246-263.pdf

Betten, Neil. "Strike on the Mesabi—1907." Minnesota History 40, no. 7 (Fall 1967): 340–347.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/40/v40i07p340-347.pdf

Karni, Michael G. The Founding of the Finnish Socialist Federation and the Minnesota Strike of 1907. Superior, WI: Tyomies Society, [1977].

Related Images

Underground miner, Mesabi Range
Underground miner, Mesabi Range
Blast hole drilling crew at the Mahoning Mine, Hibbing
Blast hole drilling crew at the Mahoning Mine, Hibbing
Underground mining on the Mesabi Range
Underground mining on the Mesabi Range
Miners at Troy Mine outside the town of Eveleth
Miners at Troy Mine outside the town of Eveleth

Turning Point

On July 20, 1907, the Western Federation of Miners calls a strike on the Mesabi Range to demand safer working conditions, a minimum wage, and an eight-hour workday.

Chronology

1892

Mining begins on the Mesabi Iron Range in northeastern Minnesota.

1893

In Idaho, a union called the Western Federation of Miners forms in response to a violent strike.

1904

Scattered strikes break out on the Mesabi Iron Range.

1905

Finnish socialists invite the Western Federation of Miners to organize workers in Minnesota.

1906

The Western Federation of Miners asks immigrants to lead the organizing effort in Minnesota.

1907

On July 20, more than 10,000 men go on strike, but the action is suppressed with strikebreakers by the end of August.









  

Comments

My grandfather was a Finnish immigrant who worked the mines in Eveleth during the strike period (and during his entire work life in America from 1903 until 1927, when he became too ill to work). in 1930 he died of a lung disease as a result of working in the mines. As I was growing up my grandmother (his wife) and my mother always told how the miners, who were of many different nationalities and did not share a common language, developed a language they called "miner's English." This was not really English at all, of course. It had a few words of English, some Finnish, some Italian, some Slovenian, etc., etc.
I wonder if anyone ever had the foresight to document any of what must have been a fascinating language. My grandmother learned enough English to become a citizen but she read the socialist paper every day until she dies in 1977. My grandfather and many of his fellows did not learn English for the following reason: "I spend all day shoveling ore in the dark and I'm not going to sit at a desk at night!" And so many of these same men spoke to their friends of other nationalities in "miner's English" all of their lives.
If anyone knows of any literature, etc., on "miner's English", could cites to it please be posted?
Thanks much.

Some of my great-grandparents were Italians who worked around Chisholm - thank you for posting about "miner's English." How interesting - I'm going to have to look for more information too. I think the blend of cultures on the Range is a fascinating part of Minnesota history.