Class war at Christmas

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A Woody Guthrie song commemorates the heroic attempts by Michigan copper miners to achieve union recognition in 1913. The bosses resorted to any murderous means they could and in one incident 62 children were crushed to death. John Newsinger looks at how class war was waged in the US.

Take a trip with me in 1913
To Calumet, Michigan in the copper country
I'll take you to a place called the Italian Hall
And the miners are having their big Christmas ball

Woody Guthrie, The 1913 Massacre

On 23 July 1913 members of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) in the Michigan copper mines on the Kewlenaw Peninsula walked out on strike. Some 16,000 men struck at 21 mines, nine of which were owned by the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company, that dominated the area. The company controlled the police, the press, the churches and the politicians, practising what one observer optimistically called "a benevolent feudalism". While miners' pay averaged between $2.50 and $3 for a ten-hour day, its manager, James MacNaughton, was paid $85,000 a year. He was ferociously anti-union, determined to keep the WFM out of the mines by any means and at whatever cost.

The miners were overwhelmingly immigrants or the children of immigrants (Finns, Croatians, Slovenians and Italians). They were demanding an eight-hour day, a $3 a day minimum wage, the withdrawal of the one-man drill (the "widow-maker") and union recognition. Pickets successfully closed all 21 mines and the strikers held daily demonstrations from the union hall past the struck mines. The demonstrations were usually led by a young Croatian woman, Big Annie Clemenc, a miner's wife and one of the leaders of the union's Women's Auxiliary. She always carried the US flag, the Stars and Stripes, emblematic of the strikers' claim to what they believed were US freedoms and liberties.

Before the strike was over, the flag was to be slashed by the sabres of National Guard cavalrymen and trampled under their horses' hooves. Big Annie herself was to be jailed for urging men not to cross the picket line.

The authorities' response to the strike was repression. The state governor, Woodbridge Ferris, a "progressive", elected with trade union support, sent in the National Guard, machine guns and all, to help put the WFM down. The local sheriff, James Cruse, deputised over a thousand company guards and scabs. He hired the Waddell-Mahon detective agency, a strikebreaking outfit providing hundreds of armed thugs. Even while the strike continued, the agency was to circulate other companies, urging them to "watch the progress of the present strike because we know it will... furnish still another evidence of the success we have always met in breaking strikes". The use of private detective agencies to break strikes - providing spies, gunmen and scabs - was routine in the US.

In the course of the strike, over a thousand strikers and their supporters were to be arrested, beaten and imprisoned. With the mining district turned into an armed camp under virtual martial law, the picket lines were broken and strikebreakers were brought in from outside. Many of them were unaware that a strike was taking place, and had to be held under armed guard and forced to work. Men were beaten to make them work and those who escaped were given shelter by the union.

On 14 August, after a quarrel on the picket line, Waddell-Mahon gunmen attacked a boarding house at Seeberville, riddling it with bullets and killing two unarmed strikers, Diazig Tizan and Steve Putrich, and seriously wounding two others. These shootings, MacNaughton complained, had "given a serious setback to the resumption of work". Early the following month Waddell-Mahon gunmen fired on a demonstration, seriously wounding a 14 year old girl. These episodes only strengthened the strikers' determination and rallied public opinion behind them.

The socialist press exposed what was going on in Copper Country. Kate Richards O'Hare, one of the leaders of the American Socialist Party, wrote that on her visit to the district, she found that "there was no law in the Copper Country except the will of the copper barons... I stood in front of the court house and saw strikers, men and women, driven into jail like droves of sheep into a shambles. Men were clubbed and beaten like wild beasts, and beautiful young girls were dragged through the ranks of deputies, subjected to vile insults and jammed into jail, trailing the American flag behind them."

Financial and moral help from the US labour movement helped sustain the struggle.

In an attempt to rally support, in November MacNaughton sponsored the formation of the Citizens' Alliance, a vigilante organisation made up of local businessmen, scabs, lawyers and hired gunmen. This organisation received a boost on 6 December when two scabs were shot dead and Waddell-Mahon gunmen produced a confession from a striking miner, James Huhta, implicating three other strikers in the attack.

The state prosecutor, Anthony Lucas, was convinced that the confession had been beaten out of Huhta and that the killings were the work of the Waddell-Mahon gunmen themselves, a murderous attempt to turn public opinion against the strike. For his pains, Lucas was fired and the unfortunate Huhta was tried and found guilty. The flimsiness of the case against him was shown by the fact that none of the other men he implicated were bought to trial.

Meanwhile, the strikers prepared for Christmas. On 24 December a Christmas party was held for the children in the Italian Hall in the town of Red Jacket. Over 700 people, including 600 children, attended the entertainment. Just before the presents, donated by sympathisers throughout the country, were distributed an unknown member of the Citizens' Alliance burst into the hall, shouting "Fire, Fire, Fire". In the panic that followed, 73 people, 11 adults and 62 children were crushed or suffocated to death.

While the individual responsible was almost certainly only trying to wreck the party as part of the routine daily harassment that the strikers were subjected to, the result was mass murder. The authorities made no serious attempt to discover who was responsible; after all, he was one of their own.

The sheriff's office was not idle, however. On 27 December the local Finnish socialist newspaper, Tyomies (The Worker), was closed down and its staff arrested. It had accused the Citizens' Alliance of mass murder. Moreover, when the WFM leader, Charles Moyer, refused a donation to the dependants fund from the Citizens' Alliance, telling them the union would bury its own and that he held them responsible for the massacre, Sheriff Cruse stood by while he was shot, beaten half to death and put on a train to Chicago.

Although Moyer had been one of the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905, by 1913 he had moved very much to the right of the US labour movement, preaching cooperation with the employers. This did not save him from a near lynching. His attackers had actually brought a rope with them. No one was ever prosecuted for this public attack on a national union leader, although all those responsible were known.

The mass funerals for the victims of the Italian Hall massacre took place on 28 December. Simultaneous services were held in six churches before striking miners carried the dead to the burial ground, the adults in black coffins, the children in white. Thousands of sympathisers joined the procession. As the singer Woody Guthrie put it, "The piano played a slow funeral tune/And the town was lit by a cold Christmas moon/The parents they cried and the men they moaned,/'See what your greed for money has done.'"

The funeral was filmed by a cameraman from the Gaumont picture company. His hotel room was later broken into and all his equipment stolen, but he had taken the precaution of leaving the film at the union hall for safe keeping. It was shown throughout the country.

In the face of this horror, the strike was broken. Far from the misery inflicted on the strikers and their families exciting any sympathy in the hearts of the mining companies, the massacre provided a convenient opportunity to finish the WFM off. There was no let up in the harassment and the union was effectively starved out, its members demoralised by the Italian Hall massacre and their inability to find any redress. In the aftermath of the strike many miners, blacklisted and victimised, left the district. Not until 1943 were the Michigan copper barons to finally recognise the union.

While the scale of the loss of life was exceptional in the Michigan copper strike, the use of murderous force to resist unionisation was a routine feature of the class war in the US right up until the Second World War. Private detectives, company guards, the National Guard and the army were all used to break strikes and crush unions. At much the same time as the Michigan strike, members of the United Mine Workers were engaged in bloody battles for recognition in West Virginia and Colorado that also saw strikers and their families killed.

On 20 April 1914 in Colorado the National Guard attacked a miners' camp at Ludlow, machine-gunning the tents and then setting them on fire. A number of miners and a ten year old boy were shot dead, but others died in the flames. One tent dugout contained the bodies of two women and 11 children, aged from three months to nine years, killed by the smoke and the flames. Three miners were captured by the guard. They were beaten senseless and summarily executed. Once again this massacre went unpunished.

This is how the class war was waged in the US.


To see pictures related to the strike go to the Copper Country website.