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The breaking of the 1916 Iron Range strike

Although the strike failed, it was one of the largest labor conflicts in Minnesota history.

Miners inside the Fayal mine in Eveleth, 1915. Photographed by William F. Roleff.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

During the summer of 1916, the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) 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 I.W.W. 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.

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The I.W.W. 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 I.W.W. 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 I.W.W. 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 I.W.W. 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 I.W.W. 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 I.W.W.’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, I.W.W. and St. Louis County attorneys reached a deal that released the I.W.W. organizers from jail.

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