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Red Metal: The Copper Country Strike of 1913

23 Dec

By NEIL GENZLINGER in The New York Times
Published: December 16, 2013

This has been a year of notable 50th anniversaries, but time didn’t begin in 1963. A sorrowful PBS documentary on Tuesday night notes the 100th anniversary of an event forgotten by much of the country but not by the people of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: a miners’ strike that led to a catastrophic stampede in which 73 people died, most of them children.

The program, “Red Metal: The Copper Country Strike of 1913,” is fairly generic as documentaries go, but in an age of battles over the minimum wage and concern about the distribution of wealth, it resonates. An organizing effort by the Western Federation of Miners led miners in and around Calumet to strike in July, and the companies (the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company was the biggest) were unyielding.

Wages — $3 a day — were an issue, and so was a new one-man drilling machine. Previously miners had worked in pairs, and they saw the new technology as both costing jobs and increasing risk in an already dangerous profession, since without a partner an injured miner could go without aid for hours.

At first the workers and their families plunged into the strike with an enthusiasm that is seldom seen in today’s more timid labor groups, and women took an uncharacteristically vocal role, partly in the hope that company enforcers wouldn’t beat them the way they were beating their husbands.

“These women would be out there shouting rude things that women shouldn’t be saying,” notes Alison K. Hoagland, a historian. “They would dip their brooms in the outhouse and smear the strikebreakers with it.”

On Christmas Eve an ugly strike turned far uglier when, at a party for miners’ children in a building known as the Italian Hall, someone — a prankster? a strikebreaker? — yelled fire. There was no fire, but there was a deadly stampede.

Steve Earle sings Woody Guthrie’s “1913 Massacre” to end the film. In a new age of inequality, it feels like both a remembrance and a warning of what happens when opposing sides won’t talk.

 

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