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This Day in Labor History: December 24, 1913

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On December 24, 1913, striking Italian copper workers in Calumet, Michigan were holding their Christmas party in the town’s crowded Italian Hall building. Someone shouted “fire.” Could have been company thugs, but we will never know. In the ensuing panic, people rushed the exit and 73 died, including 59 children.

The copper country of far northern Michigan was dominated by the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company. Like mining companies around the nation, it attempted to control nearly all aspects of workers’ lives, including the use of company housing and company stores. Workers labored 10-12 hours a day, 6 days a week. Pay was poor. Workers were charged for all the equipment they needed to stay alive and see well enough to work underground. This was all too typical for miners around the nation and a major reason why it was in underground mining that so many of the era’s major labor battles took place. In fact, this event would take place at the same time that miners in southern Colorado were going on strike in what led to the infamous Ludlow Massacre. Miners were also angry about the new one-man drill that forced them to work alone in the mines. Working in teams significantly improved worker safety since someone was there for you. If something happened with the one-man drill, you were on your own until someone wandered by. Miners were scared.

Into this exploitative system entered the Western Federation of Miners. The WFM had a long history in mining in the West, having formed after the Coeur d’Alene struggle of 1892. It played a key role in the establishment of the IWW in 1905 but then backed away from that movement in the wake of an internal split. WFM organizers understood the violent methods the mine owners would take against organizing workers. The WFM had made real gains for western miners and sought to expand their reach east of the Mississippi. The WFM first arrived in Calumet in 1908 and slowly built its forces until by 1913, it had about 9000 of the 15,000 miners in the area. This was enough to strike, which began on June 23, 1913. The specific demand in the strike was for union recognition, with everything else following that.

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Copper Country strikers

The response of the business owners, police, and “respectable citizens” of northern Michigan was similar to that in other mining regions–to form a paramilitary organization called the Citizens Alliance. The CA would raid and destroy WFM offices, beat workers, and otherwise sought to intimidate the strikers. The mine owners hired the Waddell-Mahon Detective Agency to intimidate the strikers. Violence resulted. In August, the mine company guards and detectives shot and killed workers Aloiz Tijan and Louie Putrich. Early the next month, a deputy policeman shot Margaret Fazekas, a 14-year old girl, in the back of the head. She barely survived. Mass arrests and imprisonments took place, taking strikers off picket lines and intimidating others. As was common during the 1910s, the civil rights of striking workers were ignored. Scab labor was brought in as well and the mines continued to run, albeit well short of full capacity. The vast majority of these scabs, about 75%, were imported from outside the region, from as far away as North Dakota and Pennsylvania. Most were not told they were coming to scab, but rather were being recruited for well-paying work that was all too scarce.

The WFM tried to publicize this strike nationwide. WFM leader Joseph Cannon gave a well-attended speech about it in New York, an event attended by the likes of Carlos Tresca and Alexander Berkman, noted failed assassin of Henry Clay Frick. There was a lot of coverage in national newspapers about the strike as well. But such events and reporting could do little concrete for workers. United Mine Workers president John Mitchell and Mother Jones visited and gave speeches as well.

The Christmas party itself was a union function, sponsored by the WFM Ladies’ Auxiliary. Such events are always important in long strikes because the poverty, lack of food, and boredom really can suck away the momentum of strikers. People get fired up initially, but can be broken down pretty fast. There were over 400 people there. Someone shouted “Fire!” Eight witnesses later said the person had a Citizens Alliance button on. People stampeded toward the door and children especially were quickly trampled to death in the melee. The New York Times editorialized about the strike, writing in part, “The foreign miners of the district are enraged and grief-stricken over the disaster.”

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Some of the Italian Hall victims

Local officials quickly moved to cover up the situation. Many of the workers did not speak English, yet the coroner’s inquest only spoke to them in English in an attempt to silence the witnesses. The Citizens’ Alliance was furious that the WFM blamed it for the incident. After WFM president Charles Moyer accused the CA of sparking the stampede, on December 26 they attacked him in the nearby town of Hancock, assaulting and shooting him, then placing him on a train with instructions to never return. Moyer quickly returned after holding a press conference in Chicago where he showed off his wound. But the strike faded. The oppression of WFM officials undermined the union’s ability to coordinate the strike. It was also running out of money and workers were getting increasingly desperate. The strikers voted to end the strike in April 1914 and they were required to destroy their WFM cards to regain their jobs.

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Moyer in Chicago hospital after being shot.

The strikers won little. There were some small wage increases and the 8-hour day that the mine owners introduced for scabs and continued for everyone at the end of the strike. The welfare capitalism that dominated the mines before the strike eventually faded while child labor laws drove the children out of the mines. The House Subcommittee on Mines and Mining did investigate the strike, with congressmen coming to Michigan in 1914, in order to understand and hopefully prevent the conditions that led to the strike and its famous tragic incident. However, the mines remained nonunion until the 1930s.

We will never know precisely who shouted “fire.” But the suffering of these workers both in and outside Italian Hall is a sad moment in American labor history.

Woody Guthrie wrote one of his best labor songs about the incident. I personally prefer Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s version. I’m not sure he really holds to Guthrie’s politics, but his voice can really bring out the suffering of Guthrie’s subjects.

This is the 128th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • rea

    This was almost certainly what Justice Holmes had in mind 6 years later, in Schenck v United States, 249 US 47 (1919) , when he got off that famous line about, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”

    • Hogan

      Holmes was, of course, upholding the criminal conviction of a man who distributed anti-draft leaflets during WWI. He also wrote the opinion in Debs v. United States upholding that conviction.

  • DrDick

    Further proof of the unwavering benevolence of our corporate overlords!

    Seriously, this is another excellent addition to this series and a reminder of just how historically illiterate libertarians are.

  • solidcitizen

    There was a lot of coverage in national newspapers about the strike as well. But such events and reporting could do little concrete for workers.

    I’ve observed many unions spend considerable effort trying to get their job actions national publicity. I’ve never understood it. “Who cares if the New York Times writes about your strike, how does that help you win concessions for workers?”, I’ve been known to wonder aloud. Maybe it’s a holdover from these times when there was need to prevent scabbing. It always fascinates me the things labor unions do that seem to have no concrete reason, but we do them anyway because that’s what we do. Spend hours arranging to have a giant rat at a rally? Sure! Chant “No justice, no peace” and then politely disperse when the police arrive? Almost every time. Don’t get me started on the teach-in as a labor tactic.

    I am usually answered that we do these things to get publicity and the publicity “embarrasses” the employer. The embarrassment is, I guess, a form of leverage, but so far in my 42 years, I have seen plenty of people pretty damn willing to suffer a little embarrassment if there’s a lot of money and/or power in it for them. I’d be surprised if any employer today is giving concessions at the bargaining table because they “look bad” in the press.

    • Yeah, it’s hard to argue against this. In fact, this might be worth a post of its own.

    • Brett

      I could see the value of it back then, when there was a very real chance that the state and federal governments might send in troops to break up strikes and smash heads if they spread too far . . . unless it was too embarrassing for them to do it.

      Not so much the case now, especially in disputes with for-profit companies.

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