The Summer of ’16: ‘We’ve been robbed long enough’

An August 19, 1916 editorial cartoon in “Solidarity” entitled “Someone Has Got to Get Out of the Way.” By far my favorite piece of Iron Range historical art.

Hey, it’s May Day! I wrote earlier about the Mesabi Range Strike of 1907. I referenced, but did not explain the larger strike that came later in 1916. Though this strike, too, was classified as a failure at the time, it did succeed in scaring the mine owners into improvements in workers’ pay and conditions. Thus it is generally recorded as an historical draw and the first semblance of success for organized labor in the region.

This Jeff Pilacinski post in a publication of the Industrial Workers of the World (the famed “Wobblies”) came across my feeds. If you’re feeling curiously radical or radically curious, check it out.

An excerpt:

After a large uprising was crushed with the help of immigrant strike breakers in 1907, Minnesota mine workers were poised to confront the steel trust once again. In a report to the Minneapolis headquarters of the IWW’s Agricultural Workers Organization dated May 2, 1916, one organizer had “never before found the time so ripe for organization and action as just now.” The appeal from one Minnesota miner in the May 13, 1916 issue of the Industrial Worker summarized the workers’ discontent best as “the spirit of revolt is growing among the workers on the Iron Range,” and that there was a need for “workers who have an understanding of the tactics and methods of the IWW and who would go on the job, and agitate and organize on the job.” Less than a month later, an Italian worker at the St. James underground mine in Aurora opened his pay envelope and raged over his meager earnings under the corrupt contract system, whereby wages were based upon the load of ore dug and supplies used, not hours worked. By the time other miners arrived at the St. James for the night shift, production at the mine was halted. All pits in Aurora were soon shut down as the strikers proclaimed, “We’ve been robbed long enough. It’s time to strike.”

40 striking workers from Aurora, along with their families, then marched through other mining communities on the Iron Range and discontent spread like wild fire. By month’s end, almost 10,000 mine workers were out on strike. Frustrated by previous experience with Western Federation of Miners and having been ignored by the Minnesota State Federation of Labor, the disorganized strikers appealed to the Industrial Workers of the World for assistance. Wobbly organizers, including the likes of Carlo Tresca, Joe Schmidt, Frank Little, and later Joe Ettor and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn arrived to help local strike leaders draw up a list of demands. IWW membership in the Metal Mine Workers’ Industrial Union swelled amongst the strikers with the following list of demands crafted: an 8 hour working day timed from when workers entered the mine until they were outside; a pay scale based upon the day worked; pay days twice a month; immediate back-pay for hours worked upon severance; abolition of the Saturday night shift; abolition of the contract mining system. …

The mining companies refused to recognize any of the strikers’ demands and instead red-baited the workers by calling them IWW revolutionaries and vile anarchists in the newspapers. After futile negotiations between U.S. Steel and local businessmen/public officials in support of the strikers, the workers looked to the federal government to mediate. Mediation broke down, and with winter fast approaching, the Iron Range locals of the IWW voted to end their strike on September 17, 1916. Though heralded as a defeat for the workers, their bold confrontation struck fear in the companies, who by mid-October granted a few of the strikers’ primary demands. In November of 1916, only two months after the strike’s end, large wage increases were introduced by all of the mining companies. The bosses claimed these increases were meant for workers to benefit from wartime prosperity, but the IWW and even the otherwise hostile local papers realized what prompted this action. 

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