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Mesabi Range Strike, 1907

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.

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.

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

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 09/12/2012 - 08:42 am.

    a look into the future?

    Once the current Republicans take over the country and start to rule it the way they see fit this could be a sample of what that world will look like for all us unearned-income people.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/12/2012 - 09:46 am.

    Very interesting look into unions.

    “Their demands included safer working conditions, a minimum wage, and an eight-hour workday.”

    It’s interesting to compare those demands, which no one could call unreasonable, with the typical demands of today’s unions.

    Take the protracted Crystal Sugar strike, for instance.

    Crystal Sugar has offered the workers a generous raise in pay, partly it must be noted, to offset a greater contribution to health care costs by union members, but still enough that everyone will realize a greater income.

    The biggest objection is to changes in the companies ability to hire contractors to fill in. On the face of it, that might lead one to conclude that the company plans to replace it’s unionized workers with non-union stand ins but that is not the case:

    (a) The Company shall have the right to subcontract work
    covered by this contract as follows:
    (1) In situations where the Company does not own
    equipment to perform the work;
    (2) In situations where the Company’s bargaining unit
    employees do not have the present skills necessary to
    perform the work;
    (3) In situations where the company does not have a
    sufficient number of bargaining unit employees
    currently working to perform the work; or
    (4) In situations where the assignment of work out of the
    bargaining unit will not cause the layoff of any
    bargaining unit employee.

    (5) No employee will be laid off or bargaining unit position
    eliminated because of the Company’s decision to
    subcontract work under Section 1.6(a).

    Those are the simple, common sense rules the union is going to the mattresses to defeat. The contract seeks to allow the company to make business decisions that do not completely ignore the best interests of the company…hard to argue against it when it is read in it’s entirety:

    Comparing the life and death issues of unionism’s infancy to the excesses of today is one of the things that help thoughtful people conclude that in most, if not all cases, today’s union strikes are emblematic of the truth that power corrupts, and today’s unions are very corrupt indeed.

    I think that many union members are thoughtful people, willing to acknowledge the realities of today’s economic conditions. It is unfortunate that they are hamstrung by greedy union bosses who put their own self interests ahead of their members.

  3. Submitted by Joe Musich on 09/12/2012 - 05:33 pm.

    compared to what ?

    Remember that tune. Oh so crystal cleat. Yep ! Comparing crystal sugar workers demands to business corruption. I don’t see the equivalency.? Do suggest there. Is some is downright manipulative.

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