MESABI IRON RANGE STRIKE
By John Spiegelhoff
Northern Minnesota-circa 1905. Immigrant miners primarily from Finland, Italy and from Eastern Europe work twelve hours a day and seven days a week mining iron ore on the Mesabi Range for the Oliver Mining Company. The immigrants mostly do not speak English. The Oliver Mining Company pays them pennies for their work. The working conditions are dangerous: explosions, dust inhalation and falling rock. Debilitating injuries and death are common. There is no workers compensation. If you are injured and cannot work, you and your family starve. To add injury to insult, the company makes you buy your axe pick, your work clothes and your oil head lamp. You rarely see your family. You work all the time. The miners are angry. Something is in the air. You can feel it.
There is also trouble brewing on the iron ore docks in Duluth. The dockworkers have many of the same issues as the Iron Range miners. The miners have had enough. In 1905 they ask the Western Federation of Miners union (WFM) to come to the Iron Range and help them in their plight. Over a period of two years, WFM organizes the workers. The miners only want safer working conditions, an eight-hour work day and better pay. That is not much to ask.
In 1907, the iron ore dock workers in Duluth go on strike. The Iron Range miners follow suit. They give their demands to the company. They are rebuffed. Approximately 10,000 to 16,000 miners, mostly Finnish workers strike. Their cause is just. Enough is enough.
But the company is not concerned about what the miners want and the human toll it takes on them. It is the bottom line: profits. The company sends in strike breakers. The striking miners are fired. Some of the union leaders are jailed for “rioting.” They are later cleared from this bogus charge. Local businesses do not give the striking miners credit so they can buy food for their families. Things look bleak for the brave miners who stood up against the company who exploited them in the name of profit.
Some historians may say that the strike was not successful but they are wrong. They neglect to look at the long view. During this time and throughout the entire country, hundreds of thousands of workers in other industries were also engaged in the same struggle: the eight hour workday, better working conditions and better pay. Yes, the strike was successful. The workers did ultimately achieve what they demanded: better pay, an eight-hour workday and improved working conditions. Over one hundred years later, Unions still carry on this legacy of fighting for workers’ rights.