Thursday, December 22, 2011

King Copper -- Lament

1913 was a hard year on the Copper Range of Michigan.

By December, a worker’s strike against the copper mines was in its 5th month and faltering. The great Calumet & Hecla Mining Company refused to negotiate with the Western Federation of Miners and many strikers returned to work or left the range. The dispute was as always and is still today: the right of working folk to determine the value of their labor versus the right of Capital to determine what return on their investment is acceptable.

Then as now technology played a critical role. A one man drill was introduced to replace the old drill, which required two men to operate. For labor that meant harder work for fewer workers. To the Company it meant increased productivity and greater profit. All too familiar lines were clearly drawn.

On Christmas Eve, the Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Union held a Christmas Party for strikers and their families on the 2nd floor of Calumet’s Italian Hall. Much of what happened that night remains in question.

Perhaps as many as 500 people gathered in the hall. The celebration was barely begun when person or persons unknown yelled “Fire!” Panic ensued. The single stairway down to street level quickly filled with the dead and dying. Some say the doors at the bottom of the stairs opened only inward, which apparently isn't true. Some say they were held closed. There was no fire.

No one can say for certain how many people died that night, crushed to death by friends and family in a narrow stairwell. Most victims were Finns. Most were women and children. Christmas morning, a local Finnish newspaper put the number at 80 dead, all told.

What’s indisputable is that the worst disaster of its kind in Michigan history was the direct result of a bitter dispute that set neighbor against neighbor over the harvest of copper and it occurred on Christmas Eve.

A funeral procession was held. An inquest during which folk who didn’t speak English were forced to answer questions in English proved inconclusive. No one was ever charged. Recriminations followed and however faint, those echo across the region even now.

The strike of 1913-1914 ended in April of ’14, with only 2,500 of the estimated original 9,000 members of the Western Federation of Miners left to vote on the referendum to call off the strike. Little was gained and much was lost. The town of Calumet never fully recovered and the Italian Hall was torn down in 1984. By all reports, it didn’t fall easily.


The good citizens of Michigan receive near to nothing in exchange for their precious resources. If you think Capital pays good value in cash to any community for their irreplaceable wealth, you should think again. What jobs are created last only so long as the resource lasts and that’s rarely very long. Then jobs and the capital to fund them and the resource from which both flow are forever gone.

Always some few hardy people stay, drawn to a land by false promise and remaining for reasons of their own. Some stay for love of place and they put down permanent roots spread wide over hard rock.

What’s true is this: American resources belong to American people before corporations and jobs alone are insufficient to buy them. If the harvest of our resources can’t be made to profit workers and Capital alike, if wealth created from our resources can’t be kept in the communities that earn it and the exhaustion of the resource means the exhaustion of the community, then those resources ought remain untapped until such time as a wiser, more just people can work out better means.

Until we determine what a land and its people are worth when measured in copper or iron or oil or water, we sell our resources and us blindly and our children’s future entirely too cheap.

Because what’s indisputable is that the world and we are one beneath the heavens.

Or at least on Christmas, we’re encouraged to hope and entitled to dream…

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