The Strike of 1913-14, Italian Hall, and Anne Clemenc

The Strike of 1913-14

The cycle of labor surpluses and shortages, falling and rising copper prices, industrial contraction and growth sorely tested Keweenaw peninsula copper miners and mining companies in the early 1900s.

By then the mining companies were struggling with lower grade copper deposits, dropping prices for copper, a need to reduce production costs and to increase productivity,

At the same time, mine workers felt scorned, denigrated and held in low esteem. They complained of low pay, long hours, and hazardous working conditions.

About one man a week died on the job. Mining companies only counted those deaths if they occurred in the mines. As long as a worker made it to the surface alive, his death did not count.

When the mining companies decided to replace the two man drill with the one man drill, the miners had had enough. With two man drills, if one miner was injured, the other could go for help. With one man drills, you were alone and vulnerable in the near total darkness. Besides, the number of miners needed would be cut in half.

The Western Federation of Miners (WFM) began the strike on July 13, 1913. It included both miners and trammers. Trammers loaded tram cars with up to 2 tons of ore, pushed them along rails and dumped them into skips that were then hauled to the surface. A trammer’s hopes of one day become a miner were dashed.

Tram Car

Tram Car

Ore Skip

Ore Skip

The strike’s goals were to get the mining companies to recognize the WFM as the workers collective bargaining agent, increase the minimum wage to $3 a week for underground workers, an 8 hour workday (down from 9), and two men on all drills.

WFM had $23,000 to support strike. One mining company alone, the Calumet & Hecla, had 16 million pounds of copper ingot to sell, 12-13 million pounds of mineral to smelt into 8 million pounds of copper, $1 million in cash, and $1.27 million in receivables.

It was a very uneven fight.

Violence periodically erupted, some instigated by the WFM, some by the mining companies. The moral ground shifted depending on who was killed and who did the killing. The Michigan National Guard was called out, but their numbers dwindled as the strike went on. The sheriff eventually deputized 1,200 men to protect mining  property and workers.

By the end of October, the WFM knew it was beat but unsuccessfully looked for a face-saving way to end it.

The Italian Hall

The Italian Hall was built in 1908. It was home to a saloon and the Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company on first floor. The main hall with a dining room, bar and stage was on second floor. It was also a gathering place for the WFM.

On December 24, striking miners held a Christmas party on the second floor of the Italian Hall. More than 175 adults and 600 children attended. About 4:30pm, as the party was breaking up someone shouted “Fire!” causing a stampede for the only exit. 73 people died, 60 of them children. Despite inquiries, investigations, and congressional hearings, no one was ever held to account.

Although the Italian Hall was razed in 1984, the archway was saved and is a memorial to the disaster.

Italian Hall Archway

Italian Hall Archway

The strike ended on April 12, 1914. The workers got their 8 hour day. The mining companies got their one man drill. Half the miners lost their jobs. Production didn’t drop and productivity increased.

After learning about tragedy, Woody Guthrie wrote “1913 Massacre.” If you want to listen to the song, follow this YouTube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPBbKkemWp0

Annie Klobuchar Clemenc

Annie Klobuchar Clemenc

Annie Klobuchar Clemenc

“Big Annie” Clemenc was born in Calumet in 1888 to Slovenian immigrant parents. She was the daughter and wife of miners.

During the strike, women took to the streets alongside their fathers, brothers and husbands. So did Annie.

She went door to door in neighboring Houghton and Hancock to solicit donations while mine owners’ agents watched her every move.

She marched for miles carrying a huge American flag; stared down the National Guard, suffered beatings, and was jailed.

The Miners’ Bulletin on September 16, 2013 reported: “Two soldiers struck her [Annie] with bayonets, one on the wrist, the other on the breast… she raised the staff horizontally letting its folds fall down in front and said, ‘Go ahead now, do your work, shoot me. I am willing to die behind the flag. If you don’t respect the flag, I do.’”

After two Croatian strikers were killed, she carried the American flag and led the Calumet funeral procession of 5,000 mourners. One striker remarked that she was “…the heart and soul of the cause.”

As president of Women’s Auxiliary Local No. 15 of the WFM, Annie organized the Christmas Eve party at the Italian Hall. Mrs. Elin Lesh had been stationed at the front door to ensure non-union members were not admitted. Otherwise, no one was turned away. About 3:00pm, Mrs. Lesh went upstairs to help give out candy to the children.

In the aftermath of the disaster, when a deputy brought in another dead child, Annie screamed, “Are there any more dead children?”

The deputy crassly replied, “What’s the matter with you! None of these children are yours, are they?”

Grief-stricken, she cried, “Yes! They are all my children!”

Author Lyndon Comstock wrote, “If Annie was the ‘Joan of Arc’ of Calumet, the stake that she was burned at – was the Italian Hall.”

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