Why was the Reagan Administration soft on miscegenation?
It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the Nicaragua Canal is not an environmental disaster, not to mention horrible for the people, largely indigenous, who will be displaced because of it. But the combination of China looking to check U.S. power and a Nicaraguan government led by Daniel Ortega, who has every reason to stick a thumb in the eye of the U.S., means this is finally happening after being talked about for more than a century. I confess being a bit skeptical that this is going to succeed in the end and if it does, the consequences on the environment will be pretty significant. But it’s definitely fascinating to watch.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
I know how much some of you love shaving.
Get ready for the Jim Webb wave! The Fred Thompson of 2016 has arrived!
The decline of toy guns seems like it would be an absolute positive. The decline of toy guns so cops don’t mistake them for real and shoot kids means it isn’t. But I’ll go ahead and fool myself into thinking that maybe this, over time, will lead to less of a passion for real guns. I can dream, can’t I?
The good people at SunAnt have helped us update to WordPress 4.1. Let this serve as an open thread for emerging problems or issues; from my point of view, site seems to be loading faster this morning. We did lose the Super Simple Quotes plugin (rotating quotes at the top of the page), which was not compatible with this update, so I’ll be looking to replace over the next few days.
…anyone having trouble logging in (freeze, not password) issues, please let us know over e-mail.
Because it’s my birthday and I have the God-given right to behave insufferably on it, I’d like to complain about this otherwise excellent list of the top 50 comic book artists that Brian Cronin at Comic Book Resources has put together. Obviously, there are problems with objectively ranking art and what-not, but despite a bit of presentism, the list is mostly solid.
My complaint is with the analysis — or more accurately, the lack thereof. For example, Cronin includes this sequence of panels from Amazing Spider-Man #230:
And says this about them: “Amazing. His character work is different now, but his page designs are the same and they’re still excellent.”
I know Cronin’s capable of more — and again, because I have the right to be insufferable today and demand more — I’m going to provide more. Want to know why this sequence by John Romita Jr. warrants his inclusion in any top 50 list of comic book artists?
Panel 1 is open — that is, without defined borders — and that openness is used to indicate that events depicted within it don’t have a predefined outcome as of yet. This kind of non-panel paneling is often used in splash pages at the beginning of epic tight-filled battles, with hundreds of dozens of characters spilling over each other in a mad rush to do justice.
But here, despite the openness of the panel, Romita Jr. opts for intimacy — not only are Spider-Man and the Juggernaut the only two characters in the open panel, but they’ve been transported into a Beckett play. There literally is no world beyond their struggle and the words they have to say about it.
In Panel 2 — properly bordered as the outcome becomes more clear — the Juggernaut is still the dominant figure, and his defiant words occupy the bottom half of the panel.
But as Spider-Man starts to get the upper hand in Panel 3, the compositional balance shifts. Peter Parker’s thoughts start to crowd the action further down the panel, and no matter how hard the Juggernaut tries to pound him off — as indicated by the little stars dancing around Spider-Man’s head — Parker’s indomitable will is proving to be the decisive element in this fight.
In Panels 4 and 5, Spider-Man’s thoughts about responsibility are allowing him to subdue his much more powerful opponent. The weight of those thoughts is allowing the slight web-slinger to defeat a man who goes by nom de guerre “Juggernaut.”
Romita Jr. is using these first five panels to compose a stunning tribute to the power of will to triumph over brute strength — or it’s just a set-up. Panel 6 is a close-up of the Juggernaut’s gums, which had stopped flapping for a few panels there, indicating that he’s having mobility issues. Given the way the world fell away in Panel 1, the close-up in Panel 6 works like the final beat a comic holds before delivering the punchline — which in this case is that the pair had been fighting in a pond of wet cement.
All those words I wrote about how the weight of Parker’s responsibility overpowered the Juggernaut in Panels 2, 3, 4 and 5 remains true — but now it becomes clear that they were also slowly sinking in wet cement. Not that the reader knows that, because they fought in a Beckettian void of will and word, but even after the punchline’s been delivered, the tension remains. Yes, they were sinking into a sea of cement — but they were also engaged in a struggle which, for Parker, was deeply connected to his ever-present and always-punishing sense of responsibility.
And that, my friends, is why John Romita Jr. is one of the top 50 comic book artists of all time.
While I have linked many times to incidents of police violence, I have very little to say about the actions of police unions, largely because I don’t care about them since they do not show solidarity with other workers, or any other cause I believe in. I will say this–the leaders of police unions may be horrible human beings. But a) they should have the right to collectively bargain and I categorically reject the idea that the police should not be unionized, b) getting rid of police unions will do nothing to reduce police violence nor will it preclude other police officers’ organizations from presenting the same positions, and c) there is no evidence I have seen suggesting that non-unionized police are less effective in promoting these positions than unionized police forces. So criticize the actions of police unions all you want to–I certainly won’t say anything against that. But I don’t think articulating the position of anti-unionists will help.