If it’s to make a comeback, labor needs to look outside the halls of power and influence

September 2, 2020 6:00 am

Members and supporters of the Industrial Workers of the World union display the banner they carried to the funeral of John Alar, a Mesabi Range miner killed in a confrontation with plain-clothes deputies hired by the Oliver Iron Mining Company, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel. The IWW strike burned through the summer of 1916 without significant support from trade unions, an early divide in the labor movement now reappearing in 2020. Photo courtesy of Iron Range Research Center.

Rocks rain down onto a police car from an overpass. Masked men scatter as shots ring out, though the cops get a good look at one of them. Across town a worker is distraught. Does he go to work to feed his family or join the mob downtown? Both choices carry dangerous consequences. Meantime an army of unidentified plain-clothes law enforcement agents march through the streets creating more trouble than they prevent. Women holding babies block their path, hoping to restrain the violence.

This is Hibbing, Minnesota, during the Industrial Workers of the World Strike of 1916. Underpaid miners in the world’s most dangerous profession — most of them immigrants — battled block by block in this and other villages of the Mesabi Iron Range. Their tactics were not pretty, nor were those of the police and government authorities who sought to put down the strike. Every broken window and burning building led to countercharges over which side started it. Often we can only speculate who was telling the truth.

The miners and national IWW organizers saw this as a titanic struggle against U.S. Steel, then the largest and most powerful corporation the world had ever seen. “The Corporation” as it was simply called in the press — because that’s how big it was — saw the strike as a threat not only to its bottom line but to the stability and sanctity of American life.

In this, desperate righteousness collided with oppressive contempt. Not for the first time nor the last.

And yet, in a paradoxical twist, the Minnesota Federation of Labor held their annual state convention in Hibbing that very summer. Their parent organization, the AFL (founded and led by one of the names from your high school history book, Samuel Gompers), wanted no relationship with the IWW. This feeling extended to union leaders in Minnesota, including its venerable anti-socialist President E.G. Hall.

While thousands of workers picketed in the streets across the Iron Range, about 400 labor delegates tended to the business of “real” organized labor. Though the delegation included a few socialists and much spoken sympathy for the miners outside, it could only muster a weak condemnation of the private security forces hired by the mines and hastily deputized by the county sheriff. This resolution came on the same day the union rejected support of women’s suffrage. 

Hibbing’s Mayor Victor Power wanted more. A populist member of a dying breed of progressive Republicans, Power had attracted the Federation of Labor to Hibbing through the force of his pro-labor orations. 

“The object of organized labor,” said Power in his welcome address, “is to live and let live — to love thy neighbor as thyself. You come here, you Minnesota delegates, under peculiar conditions. We have here the biggest mines of iron in the world. This should be the natural gift of society not the gift to certain individuals.

“This great wealth is diverted by a great menace to industrial society, the United States Steel corporation,” said Power. “What the Minnesota State Federation should attempt is to come into this country and organize the men who work in the bowels of the earth into respectable organizations, such as your organizations.”

Power shared the sentiment that the IWW wouldn’t last as a force in Hibbing, but that a “respectable” union could. In public speeches and private meetings, he practically begged the AFL to step in.

They refused. Too messy. Most likely they didn’t want the kind of trouble U.S. Steel doled out, the kind of trouble that would degrade Power’s political and physical well-being over the next decade. 

The labor delegates went home. The strike failed. That was the only outcome the company would accept. The next spring the mines raised wages, eliminated the unfair practices of contract mining, and improved safety: the very demands made by the IWW. U.S. Steel couldn’t afford another strike with World War I underway, so they paid.

This passive aggressive dance between company and workers led to a long process that created opportunities for unions to represent the mines and the origin story of Minnesota’s unique Democratic-Farmer-Labor party. When in 1955 the AFL merged with the CIO, which included a nascent United Steelworkers, miners finally emerged as an established, respectable and — in Iron Range DFL politics anyway — seemingly invincible force.

A hundred years later echoes of this past division ring through the 2020 election. It is the inter-labor (small ‘l’) struggle between what were once called “skilled” trade workers and the “unskilled” general workforce. Though these distinctions often carry ethnic, racial and gender connotations, they are quantified by money: who gets paid more and holds higher political and social status.

But technology has utterly changed the economy where these workers jostle for position. While the economy has added millions of non-unionized service jobs in recent years, it has decimated the ranks of union card holders in mature industries. Thanks to automation and larger equipment, more than 50,000 miners became 16,000 by the 1970s, and no more than 4,000 today. Fewer construction workers build even more elaborate structures. As their numbers shrink, political trends turn against organized labor, causing some car plants in the South to vote down union representation even when European companies like Volkswagen invite them to organize. Unionism on the Range is fading, too, along with DFL vote totals.

Our economy now produces service sector jobs far more prolifically than industrial ones. That fact isn’t lost on people like Javier Morillo, former president of the Service Employees International Union Local 26 in Minnesota, now a fellow at the Center for Innovation in Worker Organization at Rutgers University.

“I think today the AFL-CIO and the labor movement, generally, is still organized along the lines of an economy that no longer exists,” Morillo recently said on the American Public Media’s  “Marketplace” radio program. 

In Duluth last month, a DFL primary pitted incumbent state Sen. Eric Simonson against an upstart challenger, Jen McEwen. Her supporters had already delivered the party endorsement to her earlier this year. For his part, Simonson counted on support from unions, especially trades unions like those once ensconced in the Minnesota Federation of Labor. 

“Don’t forget the L in DFL,” I heard Simonson’s supporters say. They cheered his gradual embrace of proposed new copper-nickel mines in northeastern Minnesota and natural gas pipelines, which promise the storied “good union jobs” of a typical political debate.

But when the votes were tallied McEwen, who had voiced environmental opposition to these projects, had won by a stunning, almost 3-1 margin. Most of her voters had jobs, too, and many of them were in unions; they just weren’t representative of the old labor leadership structure.

That 20th century labor structure has thrown in whole hog with what used to be called “the company.” Build things, hire workers. Done building things? Build more things. Forever. But that philosophy is not only unsustainable, it’s practically impossible and consistently debunked by observable economic reality. Heck, you don’t have to oppose pipelines and mines to see what’s changed.

So, yes, one approach would be to protect the “L” in DFL by stretching further and further to reach an increasingly narrow band of existing private sector workers in older industries like mining. 

But the diminishing returns of this approach are diminished further by the culture wars that define our politics now. We’ve reached the point where a northern Minnesota DFL candidate could get a PolyMet face tattoo and still lose votes to a Republican who promises to stand up to big city liberals. Such opposition easily exploits powerful cultural divisions over religion, race and economic status with nebulous phrases like “our way of life.” This is not new. In fact, it was the same language used in 1916.

But what if, instead, we reconsidered what, and who, the “L” in DFL stands for. The problem with labor isn’t that there aren’t enough mining and pipeline projects. Those promise temporary booms, celebrated because of where they are located rather than how long they’ll last. No, the real problem is that more workers aren’t unionized and protected by collective bargaining across our economy. 

Labor would pack much more punch if it organized the tens of thousands of workers at Walmart and Target as vociferously as it begged for expedited permits for a mining project likely to employ only a few hundred people. The biggest companies in the world are Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook. Who’s going to lay a glove on them? They profited madly through this year’s economic downturn, while front line workers see their COVID-19 hazard pay fall away. 

Why doesn’t labor organize Amazon? Or gig workers, untold millions of them? 

Maybe they’re chicken. Maybe they don’t understand the technology. Or perhaps it just seems too hard. In any event, unions won’t risk what they have, even though they lose a little bit more every year. It’s easier to kick around a kale-munching environmentalist than a multi-billion dollar hedge fund. So much easier that we can all understand why they do it. 

One thinks back to those hand-wringing delegates at the 1916 Minnesota Federal of Labor convention in Hibbing. In a stifling hall, men spoke of organized labor’s strength while workers fought for a fraction of their contract rights in the streets just outside the auditorium’s open windows. 

Just ask any wandering ghosts of the men and women who fought U.S. Steel in 1916. They still pace along these roads of time, these tracks of justice. Their broken bodies and lost livelihoods speak to the sacrifice that gave rise to the most powerful unions today. They are the true heroes of Labor Day. Our nation needs more of them to win the fight ahead. Look outside the halls of power and privilege. They’re out there now, ready for the spark.

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Aaron Brown
Aaron Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author, community college instructor and radio producer from Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range.