Historically Speaking: Strikes shape Marquette County mining industry

By Karen Kasper

Ishpeming Historical Society

When the proposed iron miners strike in March of 1899 was settled without any action on the part of the miners, Ishpeming breathed a sigh of relief. The relief did not last long.

“When it was reported a few days ago that the Mine Workers’ Union had taken action the object of which was to compel all the miners hereabouts to join the union, the rumor was not believed in some quarters. It has, however, been officially confirmed in a document emanating from the officials of the union. A communication from them addressed to the miners in general has been posted up and circulated through the city.” (Mining Journal, (MJ)March 18, 1899

The document read: “At a mass meeting of the Union Mine Workers held March 11, 1899, it was decided by a unanimous vote that an invitation be extended to all mine workers, including surface and underground men, to join their respective unions before the first of April 1, 1899, at which time, if any mine worker is outside of his organization, the unions will take other steps to accomplish this end.” (MJ, March 18, 1899)

“The above document stirred up considerable discussion about the city yesterday and no little apprehension was caused by its appearance. It was believed that the members of the union had found when it came to a showdown that their strength was insufficient to justify them in ordering a strike, and that this means is taken to strengthen the organization.

That the announcement is fraught with meaning cannot well be doubted. It shows that the quiet of the last few days as to the labor situation is not to be construed as meaning that the trouble is definitely settled. The discussion has simply been hanging fire because the men who are dissatisfied with the present wage scale have recognized the fact that their strength is not sufficient to enable them to make a winning fight.” (MJ, March 18, 1899)

“The members of the Mine Workers’ Union have fulfilled the threat they made some weeks ago to stop work on the first of April if the majority of the men employed in the mines in the vicinity of this city failed to enter the Ishpeming of Winthrop unions. The men who are members of the union met in mass meeting Friday night and decided to stop work Saturday. It is understood that the meeting was attended by 700 men and that the vote was unanimous for the walkout. At this date it is impossible to foretell with any degree of certainty the exact significance of the movement.

The extent that the trouble will attain is still problematical as is the course of the men who refused to join the union on the first warning. Whether they will withstand the intimidations of the union and continue to refuse to join the organization remains to be seen.” (MJ, April 3, 1899)

“Although it was known that the members of the union had threatened to take some decisive step if the majority of the miners had not joined by the first of the present month, nevertheless, the walkout came as a general surprise. In fact, the notification to the nonunion men was regarded as something of a bluff on the part of the union. The developments of Friday night and Saturday have proved it to be anything but a bluff and the situation presents several threatening aspects. “ (MJ, April 3, 1899)

For the union, this was make or break time. “Now that the union men have walked out because of the failure of the majority of the miners to join the union, the fate of the organization will be decided in short order. With the situation in its present form there can be no halfway measures or compromises.

The great majority of the men working in the mines will ha ve to be coerced into joining the union or the influence of that body will be forever at an end. (MJ, April 3, 1899)

One of the tactics used by the union on Saturday was to travel to some of the mines in the area and persuade the workers to stop working for the day. “The large delegation of union men that made the trip about the various mines in the morning did most effective work and by the time the noon hour was passed all the men employed in the various mines had been persuaded to stop work and mining was a standstill. In the main, no trouble was experienced in getting the men to leave their work, although it is stated that a few refractory men were hustled about to some extent. The men were given to understand that if they did not see fit to quit of their own accord they would be taken from their work by force. “ (MJ, April 3, 1899)

The mining companies reacted swiftly to Saturday’s happenings. “A writ of injunction was issued from the circuit court bench here yesterday restraining the leaders of the Mine Worker’s union of Ishpeming from entering upon the property of the mining companies and from coercing and intimidating its men.” (M April 4,1899)

“There is no doubt but that a couple of hundred men have applied for membership since Saturday morning’s walkout. The question is, however, how many have not come into line and this number is also very large.

While there is no question but that the movement to join the union has been very decided in some quarters it is almost equally certain that great opposition to any such step is going to be encountered among certain classes of the miners. Generally speaking, the Cornish miners are the most ardent supporters of the union and manifest the greatest willingness to join, while the Finnish miners are almost as a unit against being driven into the organization.” (MJ, April 4, 1899)

“It is generally believed that the crisis of the struggle between the mining companies and the union men will be reached this morning. It is certain that men will be started at work in the various mines and it is problematical whether they will be peaceable allowed to proceed with their duties by the union men. The outcome of the attempt to work nonunion men is looked to with great fear and serious trouble is anticipated.” (MJ, April 5, 1899)

The work stoppage did not last for long. The mining companies responded by hiring new workers. “The trouble at the mines here has caused almost a complete reorganization of the forces at the various properties. The men are being taken on anew and in some instances considerable inconvenience and delay is being cause by the disarrangement of the former conditions. In some cases men have shifted from one property to another and it will require some time to get everything running as smoothly as before the walkout but the usual amount of work will be done at the mines before the middle of next week.”(MJ, April 8, 1899)

“The strike at Ishpeming proved rather a blessing for some of the mines in this county, as it has resulted in them securing large numbers of capable miners from the iron range.” (MJ, Copper Country Department, April 10, 1899)

It would be over 40 years before there would be a serious and lasting strike on the Marquette Iron Range. George Newett had this to say in an Op Ed piece. “The outside press has greatly exaggerated the state of things here. There has been little or no excitement here, and the little that was had was cookedup by politicians who care far more for their own soft jobs than for the homes of the workingmen.” (Iron Ore, April 15, 1899)


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