We all fall down

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Masked men pelted cars with rocks. A mob stopped all traffic from entering or leaving the city. An opposing horde accosted people on the street, including women and children. Smoke bloomed on the horizon.

“Who started the fires?”

“Whose side are they on?”

This isn’t Minneapolis in 2020. This was Hibbing in 1916.

That summer, a century ago, the Industrial Workers of the World spearheaded a general strike among the mostly foreign-born miners of the Mesabi Iron Range. This was no mild protest or demonstration. It was a gritty, unscripted clash between social classes.

The workers had good reasons to strike. Miners toiled in a dangerous environment for low pay. The contract mining system only paid miners for the ore they extracted. They bought their own equipment from the mine at prices set by the mine. Whether or not the miners made a living depended on where their foreman assigned them to work, a power dynamic that sometimes demanded bribes, or worse.

The miners wanted an eight-hour workday, too. But mostly they wanted their lives to matter. Mines saw miners as expendable. New ones could be procured as readily as a shovel. Shovels sometimes lasted longer. Almost every day someone died or was permanently disabled in a mine on the Iron Range.

Meantime, miners attended night school to learn English and tried to escape company housing. But the deck was stacked against them. Most in the first generation couldn’t hope to escape poverty. Instead they placed all hope in their children.

Immigrant miners worried about the consequences of standing up to their powerful employer, but they thirsted for justice. All they needed was something to start the change. The IWW provided the spark. If they hadn’t, something else would have.

Across the state, even across the nation, editors penned scathing editorials savaging the striking miners in northern Minnesota. In most cases these scribes exaggerated the IWW’s numbers, deeds, and intentions far beyond reality. In nearly all cases these editorials brimmed with opinions about how miners should behave, whether their problems were real, and how stupid and violent their base nature must be.

Why? Because these newspapers — representing the moneyed class of their respective towns — were afraid just as much as they were angry. If class power could be overthrown on the Iron Range then it could be usurped anywhere. They believed all those who have rights, property, and status might be robbed by these unworthy masses. Gun dealers did brisk business.

Looking back at each day’s newspaper during the strike, as I have done, you see patterns. Those in power sought to divide and conquer those who sought economic justice. Some thought unions were good, but the IWW was bad. Apologists thought unions forced the company to behave badly. Some thought everything would be fine if those foreigners stopped complaining so much.

Meantime, private guards and anarchists caused as much trouble as the striking workers.

One of the most consequential moments occurred when sheriff’s deputies in plainclothes burst into a boarding house in Biwabik on July 3, 1916. After a scuffle with three miners and a woman with a baby, shots rang out.

To this day, all this time later, we can’t say for certain who shot first or who shot whom. Today there would have been a cell phone video. Nevertheless, a deputy and an innocent bystander on the street lay dead. From that point forward the IWW was labeled a murderous organization, even though there remained credible evidence that the workers were not to blame for the incident.

The newspapers said the 1916 strike failed. After the Biwabik incident, mine owners and their allies successfully locked up IWW leadership. In time, many disorganized strikers gradually returned to work. The newspapermen puffed up their chests and celebrated law and order.

But the mines crunched some numbers and realized they couldn’t afford this again, not during World War I. They increased pay 10 percent and reformed the contract mine system. Years later, World War II forced the mines to recognize the United Steelworkers of America.

Today, those who work at the mine live in similar houses on the same lakes as those who run the mine. This is not the result of a polite request.

Last week we witnessed a series of complicated, frightening, discordant events in Minneapolis and cities across the United States. Like 1916, things might get worse — perhaps much worse — before they get better.

Those who write newspaper columns and the poor souls who read them spout many opinions. So does every jackwagon on Facebook or Twitter. But this is history. Power always tilts when it falls out of balance.

We all fall down. Only then may we rise. And only if we so choose.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and is the creator of the Great Northern Radio Show which aired for eight years on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, June 7, 2020 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.




  1. Thamks for the column, Aaron. This was the Hibbing I grew in in the ’50s & ’60s – Labor (even socialist)-oriented (we werd proud that coops were invented in Northerm MN we had “radical” paintings of workers & farmers on our high school walls, we had strong unions (that’s why miners got summer home on lakes, not because of capitalism) and we had Charley Miller. Hibbing was a tolerant, multu-cuktural community (I say as a Jew growing up there). So what happened? Most of my high school friends are Republicans many support Trump, Republicans get elected to Congress, sufdenly peoole are born-again Cristians, like Hibbing is in Kentucky! Thanks Aaron, for reminding us who we are.

  2. Jan Merritt says


  3. Lee Cornell says

    Thank you! This is really well done. I wish every person would look on today’s events with a bit of historical perspective, knowledge, and understanding.

  4. Awesome analogy. So illustrative of the universality of such uprisings.

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