Aug 19, 2013
July 1913 marked the beginning of a massive copper miners’ strike in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula near the town of Calumet. The strike came to be known around the world.
Copper mining was dangerous work. At least 47 miners were killed on the job and 643 were seriously injured in the year leading up to the strike.
The company’s push to move from two-man to one-man drill teams was what sparked the strike. A single person had to operate each 154-pound drill! The workers called them “widow makers.”
Nine thousand copper miners walked out on July 23, 1913, out of a workforce of 15,000. Workers demanded the 8-hour day (instead of 10 hours), an increase in the minimum wage from $2.50 to $3.00 a day, two men on all drill teams, and union recognition.
Miners were organizing with the help of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM). Union speeches were given in English, Italian, Finnish, Croatian and Hungarian because there were many immigrant groups among the strikers. Workers participated actively, and there were daily rallies and parades during the strike.
The copper bosses, seeing the workers’ determination, decided on a strategy of violence. The company hired “gun thugs” from Waddell-Mahon, a company specializing in strike-breaking. Within days of the gun thugs’ arrival, two strikers were murdered. Not long after, during a Labor Day celebration, gun thugs shot the 14-year-old daughter of a miner in the head. She survived.
There were numerous more incidents after the bosses started promoting a vigilante group called “The Citizens’ Alliance.”
Strikers’ morale had remained strong even after five months on strike. A wonderful Christmas Eve party was organized for the children of strikers by the Western Federation of Miners. Held in the upstairs room of Calumet’s Italian-American Hall, more than 400 people attended.
Eight witnesses would later testify before the U.S. Congress that a man wearing a “Citizens’ Alliance” button went to the top of the stairs and shouted “Fire! Fire! Fire!” This FALSE statement sent 400 people – mostly children – running down the steep, narrow staircase toward the exit.
In all, 73 people died that day – bodies piled upon bodies at the bottom of the stairs. Victims suffocated from crushed lungs. Of those dead, 69 were children.
The next day, with the union trying to gather evidence about this crime, members of the Citizens’ Alliance, with the local sheriff watching, beat the president of the union. They then shot him and threw him on a train for Chicago, threatening him with death if he ever came back.
Folk singer Woody Guthrie later commemorated these events with his song: “1913 Massacre.”
Finally in April 1914, after nine months, the remaining 2,500 strikers decided together to end their strike.
Nonetheless, while not gaining union recognition, miners gained something from their fight. They achieved an official 8-hour day and a raise in wages – something the copper bosses had vowed they would never give up. Calumet mines would not be officially unionized until 1943 – after many struggles.
Workers’ families in the area keep the memory of the strike alive. There was a special 100th year anniversary ceremony in Calumet this June, honoring the struggle that past generations went through to win better working conditions for copper miners 100 years ago.