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Mesabi Range Strike, 1907

Tired of ethnic discrimination as well as dangerous working conditions, low wages, and long work days, immigrant iron miners went on strike. It was the first organized strike on the Iron Range.

mesabi miner
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
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.

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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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For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.