The labor strike takes shape

The Western Federation of Miners had, from its beginning, acquired a reputation for violence, intimidation, dynamiting homes and industrial buildings, and even for murder, in the western states where the union had conducted labor strikes. The sudden eruption of violence on the afternoon of the opening day of the strike in Michigan’s Copper Country had convinced many local residents that the reputation was more than just anti-union propaganda.

In response to the July 23rd, 1913 violence, Houghton County Sheriff James A. Cruse wired a request for troops to Michigan Governor Woodbridge Ferris at 2:00 a.m. on the 24th. In his appeal, Cruse wrote, “Armed rioters have begun to destroy property and have threatened the lives of men who want to work.”

Two and a half hours after sending the telegram, Cruse received a simple response: “Have ordered troops sent to copper country [sic] immediately.”

By July 27th, the entire force of Michigan’s militia was present for duty in Houghton County. Three regiments (each consisting of 12 companies), two troops of cavalry, two batteries of artillery, along with two ambulance companies, one company of engineers, and three brass bands, comprised the force of 211 officers and 2,354 enlisted men deployed.

If the non-striking residents of Houghton County felt at all relieved by the presence of troops, Western Federation of Miners members were furious. At a July 27th union meeting, a letter of protest against the presence of the militia was drafted and adopted by the strikers, and WFM Vice-President C.E. Mahoney, presented it to Governor Ferris personally the same day.

The order to send troops, Ferris said in an interview on July 28th, “was issued after the authorities informed me they were powerless to control the situation. I believe the troops are necessary at present to protect lives and property.”

The troops, under the command of Brigadier General Pearley L. Mahoney of Kalamazoo, were not withdrawn, nor were their numbers reduced, in spite of WFM protests. With the arrival of the troops, violence stopped at least for the time being.

James MacNaughton and other mine managers were quite pleased with the turn of events since the opening morning of the strike. Many of the deputies in the employ of Calumet and Hecla Mining Company had been beaten, had their badges torn from their clothing, and roughed up pretty thoroughly in the opening violence. In the managers’ view, actions like those amply demonstrated the WFM’s complete lack of respect for the law and for authority. Only the arrival of a trained military force was sufficient to stop strikers from their destruction and violence. The turn of events was proof that the WFM’s reputation was, in fact, true.

In the weeks and months before the strike began, Cruse had deputized something like 430 men at the request of the various mining company managers. Nearly all those deputized were company employees and served in the capacity of guarding company property. After the strike began, the number of deputized watchmen gradually increased until by November 1st, they numbered some 1,700 men. As these men were deputized, duly sworn men under the legal authority of Sheriff Cruse, they were authorized to carry guns. The managers, however, forbade the carrying or the use of weapons other than clubs manufactured by company shops.

At least for the time being, with the arrival of troops, the strike settled into a series contests between the union and the law enforcement agencies, which played out in newspapers and courtrooms.

While union executives protested and filed court actions, the strikers themselves did not remain idle. They organized what was then referred to as “parades,” which were simply organized, mass picketing, sometimes involving thousands of strikers. The parades were timed to march along routes taking the picketers passed mines and surface plants at the beginning and end of each shift, in a union show of solidarity, and to show non-strikers that they were fighting for a cause that affected every worker.

In the coming weeks of the strike, however, tensions would again escalate. The union soon learned that while most of the men deputized by Cruse were local residents and company employees who had never favored the union or the strike, there were other deputies who had no personal connection to the community at all. The legality of these deputies would be called into question. At the same time, local residents would soon become tired of the striker’s parades and the inconveniences and intimidations they caused. As it was playing out at mines and in the streets of the Copper Country, this strike soon began to look like it would become long and ugly.

Graham Jaehnig can be contacted at