Community in Conflict: A Working-class History of the 1913-14 Michigan Copper Mine Strike and the Italian Hall Tragedy

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A mirror of great changes that were occurring on the national labor rights scene, the 1913–14 Michigan Copper Strike was a time of unprecedented social upheaval in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. With organized labor taking an aggressive stance against the excesses of unfettered capitalism, the stage was set for a major struggle between labor and management. The Michigan Copper Strike received national attention and garnered the support of luminaries in organized labor like Mother Jones, John Mitchell, Clarence ...

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Community in Conflict: A Working-class History of the 1913-14 Michigan Copper Strike and the Italian Hall Tragedy

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A mirror of great changes that were occurring on the national labor rights scene, the 1913–14 Michigan Copper Strike was a time of unprecedented social upheaval in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. With organized labor taking an aggressive stance against the excesses of unfettered capitalism, the stage was set for a major struggle between labor and management. The Michigan Copper Strike received national attention and garnered the support of luminaries in organized labor like Mother Jones, John Mitchell, Clarence Darrow, and Charles Moyer. The hope of victory was overshadowed, however, by violent incidents like the shooting of striking workers and their family members, and the bitterness of a community divided. No other event came to symbolize or memorialize the strike more than the Italian Hall tragedy, in which dozens of workers and working-class children died. In Community in Conflict, the efforts of working people to gain a voice on the job and in their community through their unions, and the efforts of employers to crush those unions, take center stage. Previously untapped historical sources such as labor spy reports, union newspapers, coded messages, and artifacts shine new light on this epic, and ultimately tragic, period in American labor history.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“In Community in Conflict, Kaunonen and Goings have truly created a working-class history of the 1913–14 Michigan Copper Strike, presenting valuable new information and perspectives that enrich our understanding of the strike from the bottom up. They have served up an essential antidote to the majority of earlier histories, which treated the strike as a temporary aberration in an otherwise idyllic mining region and the strikers and their larger working-class community as faceless, one-dimensional economic actors.”

John P. Beck, Associate Professor, Labor Education Program, Michigan State University, and Co-Director, Our Daily Work/Our Daily Lives

Community in Conflict emphasizes that the Michigan copper district strike of 1913–14 was not just a local battle between capital and labor. The authors challenge the view that the Copper Country was largely a happy hamlet presided over by benevolent mine bosses prior to 1913. From their perspective, well before the great strike of 1913–14, the region was wrought with social, political, and economic divisions based on race, ethnicity, gender, and, especially, class.”

Larry D. Lankton, Professor Emeritus, Michigan Technological University

Community in Conflict locates the 1913–14 Michigan Copper Strike in the longer history of working-class community and organizing. Using new sources like labor spies’ reports and the local labor press, the authors present detailed and often conflicting evidence that exposes the complexity of class in Copper Country and addresses the unanswered questions about what exactly happened as the bitterly contested strike climaxed with the Italian Hall tragedy.”

Elizabeth Jameson, Professor, Department of History, University of Calgary

“Kaunonen and Goings add a working-class perspective to our understanding of the 1913 Michigan copper strike. Drawing from newspapers, manuscript sources, and even labor songs of the period, the book casts the local strike against national social and labor contexts, providing a view of the conflict from the workforce. A welcome addition to the surprisingly limited scholarship on this important topic.”

Erik Nordberg, University Archivist, Michigan Technological University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781611860931
  • Publisher: Michigan State University Press
  • Publication date: 7/1/2013
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 358
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Gary Kaunonen is a labor, immigration, and social historian with a master’s in Industrial History and Archaeology from Michigan Technological University and is currently a PhD student in Tech’s Rhetoric and Technical Communication (RTC) program. Aaron Goings is Assistant Professor of History at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington.

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Read an Excerpt



By Gary Kaunonen, AARON GOINGS

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2013 Gary Kaunonen and Aaron Goings
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61186-093-1




TheCalumet and Hecla corporation has been able for many years to chloroform its slaves and others by the "benevolent feudalism" it so zealously practiced.


On the afternoon of April 4, 1914, Joseph Cannon of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) was addressing a group of radicals and workers with news of the great Copper Country Strike still under way in Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula. The well-attended speech was delivered to some of the leading lights of American radicalism, including Carlo Tresca and Alexander Berkman. In spite, or perhaps because, of the significance of the topic as well as the notoriety of those in the crowd, the speech was broken up by police who clubbed their way through the crowd, attacking and injuring some of the attendees. While the subject of Cannon's speech was the Michigan Copper Strike, the event occurred more than a thousand miles away in the heart of New York City. That a speaker could draw a large crowd in the center of urban America to hear a speech about a copper strike in an isolated corner of the country was proof positive of the strike's relevance to the nation's labor and left-wing movements.

As this incident suggests, the Michigan Copper Strike was a conflict of great national significance. However, most of the key features of Copper Country labor relations—including important aspects of the 1913–14 strike—were not unique to the region, but part of much larger historical trends sweeping across industrial America. These include the forms of anti-unionism practiced by Copper Country employers, the roles of political progressivism and socialism in shaping the industrial relations landscape, and the place of paternalism in quieting worker organization. In the Copper Country, as in numerous other industrial battlegrounds, employers and their allies resorted to mass, organized violence in order to quell worker organization. Indeed, while some scholars have analyzed the unique attributes of Copper Country labor and industrial history, the parallels between its most famous conflict and other contemporary labor events ending in violence such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the Lawrence Textile Strike, the Ludlow Strike, and the various "massacres" of Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or "Wobblies") members in the Pacific Northwest are quite striking. In many of these conflicts, including the Copper Country Strike, citizens' alliance groups—vigilante businessmen's groups formed to attack and destroy unions and radical associations—were used to disrupt the strikes and destroy the organizations leading the strike.

Despite its significance to U.S. history, the 1913–14 strike has been met with a wall of silence by those writing general histories of American labor. It goes unmentioned in most surveys of American labor history. Furthermore, evidence that the strike has not penetrated the national consciousness can be seen by its exclusion from American history textbooks.

Regardless of its exclusion from twenty-first century general U.S. and labor history texts, the Copper Country Strike was without question among the most significant labor conflicts during a decade full of labor militancy, political radicalism, and antilabor violence. The strike was waged for nine long months through a brutal Copper Country winter between an interethnic group of strikers united under the banner of the WFM and a well-organized, aggressive, and ruthless group of employers. Those employers emerged victorious in a struggle that drove the WFM deep into debt and contributed to a period of major decline in the fortunes of one of the most militant unions of all time.

The strike also led to a major congressional investigation, as members of the U.S. House of Representatives conducted an analysis of labor relations in the Copper Country, trying to, in the words of Edward T. Taylor, chairman of the Subcommittee on Mines and Mining, "make a thorough and complete investigation of the conditions existing in and about the copper mines in the counties of Houghton, Keweenaw, and Ontonagon, in the State of Michigan." Ultimately, the strike's greatest significance came in its most tragic episode when between seventy-three and seventy-nine members of striking workers' families were killed during the Italian Hall tragedy, one of the greatest losses of life in all of labor history.

One measure of the strike's significance was the great deal of press coverage that it received. Throughout late 1913 and early 1914, the Copper Country and its labor war were the frequent subjects of articles written in national newspapers such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Boston Daily Globe. In response to events at Italian Hall, the New York Times ran a long, detailed piece commenting on the tragedy, while contextualizing it as part of a wider struggle between workers and employers. Thearticle read: "Calumet, which has been the scene of so much disorder by reason of the copper strike, is almost in a state of terror to-night as the result of the catastrophe.... The foreign miners of the district are enraged and grief-stricken over the disaster."

While mainstream newspapers carried regular news of the Michigan Copper Strike, the struggle always remained a labor conflict, one that was widely supported by many sectors of the American labor and radical movements. Thus, the International Socialist Review covered the strike heavily, writing long, detailed reports of the strikers' courage in the face of employer violence. One such article read: "So far they have been unable to intimidate the miners. The men are standing firmly. Parades are held every day along the 28 miles which comprise the range. Meetings of from three to six thousand are held every day in Calumet, Hancock, South Range, and Mass City. There is no sign of weakening on the part of the men."

Keen observers of the labor movement likewise understood the implications of the strike, noting that it stood to possibly reshape the nature of U.S. labor relations. Thus, national figures in the labor and leftist movements of the United States visited the strike zone seeking to investigate and report upon the conflict or aid the strike. This group included Charles Moyer, president of the WFM; John Mitchell, vice president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and longtime United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) official; and Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, the labor organizer known as "the miners' angel." During his speech on August 22, Mitchell informed a large crowd that the AFL sympathized with the WFM during the strike and was committed "to better the conditions of life and labor for the miners in this field." Mitchell also appealed to workers across the country to aid the Michigan strikers. In Butte, Montana, the labor leader asked that city's workers to stand by their fellow miners "through thick and thin," and stated that "every labor organization in the United States should really support the Michigan men."

Labor and Violence in the Early Twentieth Century

The presence of Mitchell, Moyer, Jones, and other noted members of the American labor movement certainly generated enthusiasm among the Copper Country strikers, but their presence at the strike scene should not be taken as an indication that the 1913–14 Michigan Copper Strike was a uniquely climactic or violent struggle. Instead, the copper miners' strike occurred in a period of great labor tumult as strikes, labor riots, free speech fights, and tragedies occurred across the nation. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City and the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado, two of the most notable tragedies in the history of American labor, share significant characteristics with the Italian Hall tragedy.

Just two years before the events at Italian Hall, on March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which employed hundreds of mostly young, female laborers. The fire quickly engulfed the building as well as the workers, who were unable to escape the blaze because their bosses had locked or blockaded the exits. All told, 146 workers perished in the fire, while an untold number of others were hurt. Decrying the act she blamed on the factory owners, socialist Clara Lemlich argued that if "Triangle had been a union shop there would not have been any locked doors, and the girls would have been on the street almost an hour before the fire started." A circular distributed at the victims' funeral went further, urging workers to "never forgive the enemies of our class." Many Copper Country workers no doubt saw parallels between this so-called industrial accident and the deaths of their children during the Italian Hall tragedy on Christmas Eve 1913.

Three years later, at roughly the same time as the Michigan Copper Strike, 10,000 coal miners struck in southern Colorado, leading to one of the longest-running, bloodiest labor conflicts in United States history. A bitter climax to the strike was reached on April 20, 1914, when Colorado militiamen attacked one of the strikers' tent colonies, set fire to the tents, and rained machine-gun fire down upon the colony. At least thirteen people, including at least eleven children, died in the massacre. The killings caused outrage across the nation, as workers, unionists, radicals, and others described the troops in terms appropriate for mass murderers. The cover of the June 1914 issue of the Masses, a socialist magazine, featured a cartoon image of an armed Ludlow striker protecting his wife and children against the armed militiamen who killed men, women, and children during the great Colorado coal strike.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the Colorado coal strike, as well as several other labor conflicts in which workers were the victims of murder or large-scale accidental killings, also set the stage for the most infamous event of the 1913–14 strike, the Italian Hall tragedy on Christmas Eve 1913. Shock and disbelief were only two of the many reactions expressed by the public at the loss of life suffered by Copper Country working families on December 24, 1913. Among the striking miners, their families, and their supporters around the globe, however, a more common reaction was anger, for these groups blamed the employers and their allies for the deaths of so many children. Charles Moyer labeled the tragedy a "mass murder," as did the staffs of Työmies, the Hancock-based newspaper of the Finnish Socialist Federation (FSF), and the Miners' Magazine, the newspaper of the WFM. Even the New York Times reported that if the person who yelled "Fire!" was caught, he would meet a violent end at the hands of angry Michigan workers. On the day after the tragedy, the newspaper commented: "Every policeman and detective in this region is searching to-night for the man who gave the false alarm of fire, and if he is caught he will probably be lynched."

The deaths resulting from the Italian Hall tragedy were without question the most painful and notorious acts of violence experienced by the strikers and their families. But those were far from the only casualties suffered by Copper Country workers during the period of the strike. Strikers Steve Putrich and Alois Tijan were shot dead by mine guards and Waddell-Mahon Detective Agency gun thugs on August 14, while Margaret Fazekas, a fourteen-year-old girl who was picketing on September 1, was shot in the back of the head by local law enforcement. Describing her injury, Fazekas commented that "Dr. Roach said some of my brain came out, but he put it back in again, and he took a bone out of it—a small bone." Additionally, WFM president Charles Moyer was shot on December 26, 1913, in a Hancock hotel and deported from town by a group of ruffians he described as "New York gangsters."

While these violent acts differed dramatically from the day-to-day social conditions of Copper Country residents, they were by no means unique in terms of early twentieth-century labor relations. In fact, the period of labor violence that marked the Michigan copper miners' strike can best be understood as one of the many "labor wars" that occurred across the nation between the Gilded Age and World War II. Thus, the various forms of antilabor violence experienced by Copper Country workers were only one part—albeit a significant part—of the war upon labor activists by employers and antilabor state officials across the nation.

It is only within the context of these various "labor wars" that the antilabor violence experienced in the Copper Country during 1913 and 1914 can be understood. Indeed, throughout the early twentieth century, unionists, strikers, and radicals were subjected to beatings, torture, murders, arrests, frame-ups, and long prison sentences for their political beliefs and actions. Among the favorite targets for physical abuse were members of the IWW, whose activism—as well as persecution—was national in scope in the years after the union was founded in 1905. The historian and journalist Patrick Renshaw captured part of this violence in a chapter of his book The Wobblies: The Story of the IWW and Syndicalism in the United States entitled "Three Martyrs," in which he describes the lives, activism, and deaths at the hands of employers or anti-union state officials of Wobbly activists Joe Hill, Frank Little, and Wesley Everest.

Still, Hill's, Little's, and Everest's deaths were only the tip of the iceberg of violence experienced by the IWW. John Alar, a striking Croatian immigrant mineworker, was shot dead by company guards during the 1916 Mesabi Range Strike, while Wobblies were gunned down in the cities of Everett and Aberdeen, Washington, and lynched in Butte, Montana, and Centralia, Washington. During the 1913 Paterson, New Jersey, silk strike, Valentino Modestino was killed by an imported gun thug. Reacting to Modestino's murder, William "Big Bill" Haywood both excoriated the acts of the killers and praised the heroism of strikers willing to brave the dangerous picket lines: "In spite of being subjected to such indignities, the strikers are no sooner released than they go back on the picket line, there to face the assassins, detectives, and thugs employed by the manufacturers. They have not been backward about firing their guns into crowds of strikers, as was shown by the case of Valentino Modestino, who was killed by two detectives who aimed at the strikers."


While violence was a common feature of early twentieth-century labor struggles, municipal police forces were only occasionally the perpetrators of the violent acts committed against labor activists and strikers. Considering that small municipal police forces were usually unable to serve as effective strikebreakers against unionists or strikers that outnumbered them by many-to-one, local officials sometimes turned to deputizing private citizens, allowing them to break strikes—and sometimes strikers' bones—all with the sanction of the state.

These groups, which were frequently allied with employers' organizations such as local chambers of commerce, were organized throughout North America, mobilizing local "citizens" to attack strikers and uproot unions in places as diverse as St. Louis, Minneapolis, Winnipeg, and San Diego. In many places, including the Copper Country, these groups were called citizens' committees or citizens' alliances, and because these forces were mobilized to break strikes, it should come as no surprise that their ranks frequently included members of the employing class. During the 1911–12 Aberdeen, Washington, free speech fight, more than 500 businessmen formed a citizens' committee and were deputized in the municipal police force. The group harassed, physically assaulted, and arrested Wobblies. One of the committee members provided a report of how they handled the radicals: "We organized that night a vigilante committee—a Citizens' Committee, I think we called it—to put down the strike by intimidation and force.... We got hundreds of heavy clubs of the weight and size of pick-handles, armed our vigilantes with them, and that night raided all the IWW headquarters, rounded up as many of them as we could find, and escorted them out of town."

These so-called citizens' committees were mobilized with great effect at rounding up and intimidating strikers and disrupting strikers' public displays. In San Diego, an informal citizens' committee consisting of vigilantes assisted local police and employers in their efforts to restrict IWW members from speaking on the city's streets. Abram R. Sauer, the editor of a pro–free speech newspaper who was attacked by the San Diego vigilantes, concluded that "the personnel of the vigilantes represents not only the bankers and merchants but has [as] its workers leading Church members and bartenders. Chamber of Commerce and the Real Estate Board are well represented."

Excerpted from COMMUNITY IN CONFLICT by Gary Kaunonen. Copyright © 2013 by Gary Kaunonen and Aaron Goings. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


PREFACE....................     vii     

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS....................     xi     

INTRODUCTION....................     1     

CHAPTER 1. Context....................     9     

CHAPTER 2. Community....................     25     

CHAPTER 3. Immigrants....................     45     

CHAPTER 4. Troublemakers....................     67     

CHAPTER 5. Organization....................     81     

CHAPTER 6. Union....................     105     

CHAPTER 7. Company....................     135     

CHAPTER 8. Tragedy....................     167     

CHAPTER 9. Fire!?....................     199     

CHAPTER 10. Cave-In....................     221     

CONCLUSION....................     239     

NOTES....................     245     

BIBLIOGRAPHY....................     281     

INDEX....................     299     

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 9, 2014

    I enjoyed this book immensely. Too often, books offering a detai

    I enjoyed this book immensely. Too often, books offering a detailed and historical account of significant events are dry and boring. In this book, the authors successfully created an interesting, and story-like read, while maintaining a strong intellectual and scholarly quality within the work. It is genuinely interesting to read, and the vivid descriptions combined with the many testimonies of those who were there, can easily make the reader momentarily feel as though they were transported back in time. The large amount of revealing and significant information gleaned during research, makes it evident that Goings and Kaunonen spent a great deal of time ad work creating this book. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in labor and working class history, but I believe it would capture the interest of those interested in general American history as well.

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