Italian Hall, December 1913
by David Robb
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is cold in the winter, with temperatures often dipping below zero, but Christmas Eve 1913 was particularly cold. The region’s 9,000 unionized copper miners – mostly immigrants from Italy, Poland and Croatia – had been on strike against the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company for nearly six months. Times were tough, but they were about to turn tragic.
The strike had been bloody and violent from the beginning. Strikers attacked and intimidated strike-breakers, and local deputies attacked and intimidated the strikers. The National Guard had been called in to keep the peace, but most of them were recalled in August. Mother Jones, the famous labor and community organizer, had joined the picket lines, but the day she left, two strikers were gunned down and killed by local deputies. As the strike dragged on, more and more of the strikers’ wives and children took to the picket lines to keep the company’s guards from beating their husbands and fathers. It didn’t help. During one melee, a 12-year-old girl was shot and nearly killed.
In good times, the little copper-mining town of Calumet was a company town. Now it was like a company prison. Armed thugs hired by the company patrolled the streets, along with members of the Citizen’s Alliance – a vigilante group funded by the company to break the strike.