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Mesabi Iron Range Strike, 1916

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Black and white photograph of miners inside the Fayal mine in Eveleth, 1915. Photographed by William F. Roleff.

Miners inside the Fayal mine in Eveleth, 1915. Photographed by William F. Roleff.

During the summer of 1916, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) coordinated a strike of iron ore miners on the Mesabi Iron Range. The strikers fought for higher wages, an eight-hour workday, and workplace reform. Although the strike failed, it was one of the largest labor conflicts in Minnesota history.

The Mesabi Range strike began on June 2, 1916. Joe Greeni, an Italian immigrant miner, protested the low wages and system of payment in the mines. He inspired workers at the St. James Mine in Aurora to walk off the job. Within a week, the walkout had spread region-wide and as many as eight thousand miners went on strike. Like Greeni, most of the striking miners were immigrants.

The Mesabi miners organized under the banner of the Industrial Workers of the World. The IWW was an industrial union that advocated for the overthrow of capitalism and for workers’ control of the workplace. It had organized a variety of industries, ranging from textile factory workers to migrant farm laborers to timber workers.

The IWW and the striking miners drew up a list of demands to present to the mining companies. These demands included an eight-hour day that counted time descending into and ascending from underground mines; daily wages of $3.50 for underground mining work in wet places, $3.00 for underground work in dry places, and $2.75 for surface work; pay day twice per month; and abolition of the contract labor system.

The demand involving the contract labor system was the most important. Under the contract system, underground miners were paid for the amount of ore dug out rather than by a set daily wage. Workers assigned to easily mined ore consequently earned more. In order to receive desirable assignments, miners claimed that they had to buy alcohol, cigars, and other gifts for mining bosses or participate in bogus raffles administered for the bosses’ profit.

The mining companies met the strikers’ demands with disdain and refused to negotiate. Company officials asserted that a skilled miner could earn more on the contract system than he could without it. The companies also contended that the IWW was misleading and nefarious and was taking advantage of the unsuspecting miners. To combat the strike, officials hired over a thousand armed guards to protect company property and to monitor the strikers’ actions.

Tensions eventually erupted into violence. On June 22, a Croatian miner named John Alar was shot and killed during a skirmish with Oliver Iron Mining Company guards in Virginia. At Alar’s funeral procession, three thousand mourners walked behind a large red banner that read, “Murdered By Oliver Gunmen.” The response of law enforcement officials was to arrest two of the IWW organizers, Sam Scarlett and Carlo Tresca, on a charge of criminal libel.

Violence broke out again on July 3 in Biwabik, when Deputy Sheriff James Myron and a Finnish soda pop distributor named Tomi Ladvalla were killed in another confrontation between strikers and company guards. Following this incident, county and state authorities clamped down on the strikers’ civil liberties. St. Louis County Sheriff John Meining arrested the most prominent IWW organizers on the charge of inciting murder. Minnesota Governor J. A. A. Burnquist outlawed pickets that had been used to intimidate strikebreakers.

After the arrests of its chief organizers, the IWW struggled to sustain the strike. In response to the arrests and banning of pickets, its national publications described how mining company “thugs” violated the rights of free assembly and free speech and had denied those taken into custody a fair and speedy trial. It sent new organizers, including the famed Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, to fill the leadership void. It also opened a cooperative store to distribute food and goods to the striking miners.

The arrests of the original organizers, however, severely curtailed the IWW’s power, and the strikers’ enthusiasm gradually declined. On September 17, the strike ended. Although a negotiated settlement was not achieved, most mining company officials soon implemented several pay raises, reformed the contract labor system, and changed to an eight-hour workday. In December, IWW and St. Louis County attorneys reached a deal that released the IWW organizers from jail.

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Berman, Hyman. “Education for Work and Labor Solidarity: The Immigrant Miners and Radicalism on the Mesabi Range.” Typescript, 1963.

Betten, Neil. “Riot, Revolution, Repression in the Iron Range Strike of 1916.” Minnesota History 41, no. 2 (1968): 82–94.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/41/v41i02p082-094.pdf

Dennett, Tyler. “The Mining Strike in Minnesota: The Other Side.” The Outlook, August 30, 1916.

Dubofsky, Melvyn. We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1969.

Eleff, Robert M. “The 1916 Minnesota Miners’ Strike Against U.S. Steel.” Minnesota History 51, no. 2 (Summer 1988): 63–74.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/51/v51i02p063-074.pdf

Foner, Philip S. History of the Labor Movement in the United States; Volume 4: The Industrial Workers of the World, 1905–1917. New York: International Publishers, 1965.

Hibbing Strikers’ News, July 14–September 22, 1916
Newspaper Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: The “official strike bulletin of the striking iron ore miners or the Mesaba Range.”

Ollila, Douglas J., Jr. “A Time of Glory: Finnish-American Radical Industrial Unionism, 1914–1917.” In Publications of the Institute of History, University of Turku, no. 9, edited by Vilho Niitemaa, 31–53. Vassa, Finland: Vaasan Kirjapaino OY, 1977.

Rachleff, Peter. “Turning Points in the Labor Movement: Three Key Conflicts.” In Minnesota in a Century of Change: The State and Its People Since 1900, edited by Clifford E. Clark Jr., 195–222. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1989.

Vorse, Mary Heaton. “The Mining Strike in Minnesota: From the Miners’ Point of View.” The Outlook, August 30, 1916.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of miners inside the Fayal mine in Eveleth, 1915. Photographed by William F. Roleff.
Black and white photograph of miners inside the Fayal mine in Eveleth, 1915. Photographed by William F. Roleff.
Colorized postcard of the Missabe Mountain open pit mine in Franklin, c.1915.
Colorized postcard of the Missabe Mountain open pit mine in Franklin, c.1915.
Black and white anti-I.W.W. cartoon printed in the Duluth News Tribune on July 1, 1916.
Black and white anti-I.W.W. cartoon printed in the Duluth News Tribune on July 1, 1916.
Black and white anti-I.W.W. cartoon printed in the Duluth News Tribune on July 5, 1916.
Black and white anti-I.W.W. cartoon printed in the Duluth News Tribune on July 5, 1916.
Black and white pro-I.W.W. cartoon printed in the newspaper Solidarity on July 1, 1916.
Black and white pro-I.W.W. cartoon printed in the newspaper Solidarity on July 1, 1916.
Black and white photograph of Carlo Tresca, c.1910. Tresca was an IWW leader during the Mesabi Range Strike of 1916.
Black and white photograph of Carlo Tresca, c.1910. Tresca was an IWW leader during the Mesabi Range Strike of 1916.
Black and white photograph of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, c.1915. Flynn was an IWW organizer and speaker during the Mesabi Range Strike of 1916.
Black and white photograph of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, c.1915. Flynn was an IWW organizer and speaker during the Mesabi Range Strike of 1916.
Black and white photograph of Frank Little, c.1915. Little was an IWW organizer involved in the Mesabi Range Strike of 1916.
Black and white photograph of Frank Little, c.1915. Little was an IWW organizer involved in the Mesabi Range Strike of 1916.

Turning Point

On July 4, 1916, St. Louis County law officials arrest the lead IWW organizers following a deadly confrontation in Biwabik. With the organizers jailed through December, the strike never again regains its early momentum.

Chronology

1905

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union is founded in Chicago.

June 2, 1916

Joe Greeni, an Italian immigrant miner, inspires workers at the St. James Mine in Aurora to walk off the job.

June 15, 1916

IWW organizers and fifteen hundred striking miners draw up a strike strategy and list of demands at a meeting at the Finnish Socialist Hall in Virginia.

June 22, 1916

Miner John Alar is shot and killed during a clash with mining company guards in Virginia.

July 3, 1916

Deputy Sheriff James Myron and soda pop distributor Tomi Ladvalla are shot and killed during a clash between strikers and mining company guards in Biwabik.

July 4, 1916

The lead IWW organizers on the Mesabi Range are jailed for “inciting murder.”

July 11, 1916

IWW organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn arrives in Minnesota to raise money and support for the Mesabi Range strike.

July 26, 1916

Two representatives from the U.S. Department of Labor, Hywel Davies and W.R. Fairley, arrive on the Mesabi with the purpose of mediating the strike; they do not conclude their investigation until after the strike has ended.

August 7, 1916

Iron ore miners on the Cuyuna Range begin a sympathy strike in support of the Mesabi Range miners.

August 25, 1916

Iron ore miners at the Section 30 mine on the Vermilion Range go on strike with the assistance of the IWW.

Septem-ber 17, 1916

The Central Strike Committee calls off the strike.

December 15, 1916

An agreement is reached that releases the IWW organizers jailed for the killing of Deputy Sheriff Myron; as part of the agreement, three immigrant miners accept prison sentences.