‘Murder’ and mayhem

A century ago, Minnesota’s mining boom led to a huge strike, followed by violence and unrest

underground mine in Eleveth
The turn-of-the-century mining boom on Minnesota’s Iron Range attracted more than 100,000 people, including many Finnish, Slavic, Italian and Croatian immigrants. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

This year marks the 100th anniversary of one of the largest labor conflicts in Minnesota history — the Mesabi Iron Range Strike of 1916.

By the strike’s end in September 1916, thousands of miners had walked off the job, three people were dead and hundreds had been arrested.

In the early 20th century, the Iron Range was in the midst of a population boom. In 1885, fewer than 5,000 people lived there.

But after iron ore started shipping in 1892, the area’s population soared, reaching more than 100,000 by 1920. Predominantly immigrants — Finns, Slovenes, Italians, Croatians and more — these new residents and made up 85 percent of the mining workforce.

The 1916 strike started with one particular immigrant — Joe Greeni, an Italian miner at the Alpena mine in Virginia. On May 30, he received his monthly paycheck, which was much less than he’d anticipated. He suggested a strike to his fellow Alpena miners and also visited the St. James Mine in Aurora.

Word quickly spread in the region, and within a week, around 8,000 miners, mostly immigrants, had joined the strike.

At the root of the unrest was the contract system that governed miners’ wages. Instead of a set daily wage, workers’ pay was determined by the amount of ore they mined, regardless of how easy or difficult an area was to mine.

Mining captains decided who mined where, and workers complained that captains were susceptible to bribes. Companies also deducted mining supplies like fuses and blasting caps from wages. Thus, miners might not have any idea what their paycheck would be until it arrived at the end of the month.

Unionizing and violence

At the same time, housing and rent on the range in 1916 were estimated to be 20 percent higher than in the Twin Cities, and food expenses were 50 to 100 percent more.

The strikers’ demands included set daily wages for various working conditions, an eight-hour workday that included time entering and leaving the mines. They demanded an end to the contract system.

By then, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) — a national labor organization that focused on groups like unskilled workers, women and immi- grants — was lending its expertise to help organize the strike.

But the mining companies refused to negotiate, including Oliver Iron Mining Company, a U.S. Steel subsidiary that controlled 75 percent of the Mesabi Range’s ore resources. The companies claimed the IWW was manipulating unsuspecting miners into striking and focused on breaking the strike.

They hired more than a 1,000 private guards, reportedly to protect company property and non-striking workers.

Soon guards armed with firearms were present in many communities.

Fatal fighting

On June 22, guards confronted a group of miners picketing on public property. Fighting and shots broke out.

Croatian miner John Alar was killed, and some 3,000 people aended his funeral with a banner reading “Murdered by Oliver Gunmen.”

Police responded by arresting two IWW organizers on charges of criminal libel.

Minnesota Gov. Joseph A.A. Burnquist also got involved, instructing the St. Louis County sheriff to arrest anyone “participating in riots.” The sheriff soon deputized more than 400 private company guards, adding to his own force.

Tension between the two sides continued to grow, and on July 3, several new deputies forced their way into a home in Biwabik, allegedly to arrest a miner for illegal liquor sales.

A fight ensued between company guards and several miners, and two people — Deputy Sheriff James Myron and a Finnish soda pop distributor — were killed. All the miners on the scene were jailed for first-degree murder, and several IWW lead organizers were arrested on charges of inciting murder.

A turning tide

Violence from angry miners only continued to erupt during the rest of the summer. They fired on vehicles carrying strikebreakers, threatened to blow up non-strikers’ homes and attempted to burn a railway bridge.

However, with many organizers in jail and financial resources draining, the miners’ ability to maintain the strike waned. Workers who had previously been supported by strike funds began drifting back to work, and by early September, half the closed mines were back in operation. A vote ultimately called off the strike on Sept. 17.

Federal investigators later reported that they found no evidence that the IWW had stirred workers into a strike, as the companies claimed.

Investigators also blamed much of the strike violence on the companies and their “private army of gunmen,” according to one U.S. Commission of Industrial Relations report.

Within a few months of the strike’s end, the companies implemented wage increases as well as several reforms suggested by federal investigators, including prompt dismissal of captains who tried to exploit miners.

In December, after months in jail for the accused, a deal was finally reached in the July 3 shootings. Three defen- dants pled guilty manslaughter in Myron’s death and the rest were freed.

Lauren Peck is a media relations and social media associate for the Minnesota Historical Society.

See an exhibit

Learn more about Iron Range history, including the 1916 strike, at mnopedia.org. You can also glimpse into the life of an Iron Range miner and experience an underground mine at the Then Now Wow exhibit at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.