Tag Archives: labor history

The 1946 Marquette Iron Range Strike and Paul Robeson

At 12:01 a.m. on February 8, 1946, nearly 3,000 iron miners on the Marquette Iron Range in Michigan’s central Upper Peninsula walked off their jobs.  It was the first major labor action in the region since 1895.  Three thousand inexperienced union miners on the Marquette Iron Range joined 750,000 steelworkers nation-wide in a strike of the steel industry led by the recently formed United Steel Workers of America (USWA).   The nation-wide strike against the steel industry lasted just nine days, but the strike on the Marquette Iron Range against the iron mining companies lasted 104 long and frustrating days and finally ended on May 22 when the companies capitulated to the union’s demands for recognition, dues write-off, and 18.5 cents per hour more in wages. Towards the tail-end of this bitter strife stepped an extremely unlikely hero, but one that would reinvigorate community support and give the strike a lifesaving morale boost.

Negaunee strike parade

Strike parade through downtown Negaunee (Central UP and NMU Archives)

Today, very few people remember the famous Broadway star and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Rutgers University, All-American football star, and accomplished lawyer, Robeson by 1946 was best known for his stellar Broadway performances of Othello and Showboat, where his rendition of Ol’ Man River became a sensation and is still considered a standard. However, Robeson was also an ardent and tireless supporter of organized labor, making numerous appearances at labor rallies throughout his career. Historians also suspect that he was a member of the Communist Party USA, although no direct evidence exists.

othello robeson

Robeson in The Theatre Guild performance of Othello, 1943 (Wikipedia)

Oddly enough, Robeson’s arrival in Ishpeming, Michigan, on April 25 had nothing initially to do with the iron miners’ strike. In the fall of 1945, Robeson had embarked on a national concert tour that took him to all the far-flung regions of the country. George Quaal, part of a wealthy Ishpeming mercantile family, had engaged Robeson for a performance as part of a concert series that he sponsored and held in the Ishpeming public auditorium. Soon after his arrival at the train station, leaders of the strike, including District Director Jack Powell, besieged the famous singer in his Mather Inn room. Although it is likely USWA officials had reached out to Robeson prior to his arrival, they had little difficulty encouraging him to publicly lend his support to the strike effort.

paul robeson in mather inn

Paul Robeson and the USWA’s press officer in the Mather Inn (Central UP and NMU Archives)

On the afternoon of April 26, Robeson and strike leaders drove out to the Mather Mine (at present day Negaunee High School) and joined the picket line.  Surprised and excited miners and their families crowded around the famous singer as he shook hands and offered words of support.  Robeson then stepped up to a sound car and gave a Broadway worthy performance.   Along with his standard repertoire, he serenaded his audience with a number of radical working class songs, such as “Joe Hill.”   Home on leave from the Army shortly after Robeson’s visit, retired labor activist Ernie Ronn was struck by the effect the singer had on the strikers.  “I don’t know of anyone,” he remembered, “who was on that picket line that day who ever forgot.  Robeson built-up their spirit and morale.”  In fact, one observer described Robeson as a “heroic physical type of man” possessed of “innate dignity and emotional sincerity.”    For many of the miners and their families, Robeson’s appearance was their only chance to see the famous performer, since few could afford the $5.00 ticket price for the concert.

robeson picket line

Robeson on the picket line with striking miners and their families. Standing to his left is Jack Powell, the local USWA district director and strike leader. Powell is a member of the Upper Peninsula Labor Hall of Fame located in the Superior Dome. (Central UP and NMU Archives)

On the following day, Jack Powell interviewed Robeson on WDMJ radio.   The activist recounted the poverty of his early childhood and expressed support for the struggle of the working class.  Because of the country’s great wealth and productive capacity, Robeson told his listeners, the sight of the miners and their families huddled on the picket line was a travesty of justice.  “It should be plain to all,” he declared, “that these people have a right to share more equally in the wealth they create.”  For their part, the iron mining companies denounced Robeson and decried the USWA’s use of a known communist agitator.

radio

USWA strike radio program on WDMJ. Labor Hall of Fame member, the late Ernie Ronn is second from the right. He was home on leave from the Army. (Central UP and NMU Archives)

Ten years after his appearance on the Marquette Iron Range, Robeson’s radical support for labor, civil rights, and his alleged connection to the Communist Party caused him to be dragged before the House of Representatives’ “Un-American Activities Committee” (HUAC). Black-listed and his career ruined, Robeson fled into self-imposed exile eventually returning to the United States in 1963. He died in relative obscurity and poverty in New York in 1976.

But to the iron miners and their families on the picket line that cold April afternoon, Paul Robeson made their struggle something more than a demand for an additional 18.5 cents per hour.  He crossed race and class boundaries to remind them that economic and social justice is a universal and moral goal and that music and courage can create “a real meeting place of hearts and minds.”

To learn more about the 1946 Iron Miners Strike, please visit the Central UP and NMU Archives. Our new fall hours are Monday/Wednesday/Friday 10 AM-5 PM and Tuesday/Thursday 10 AM-7 PM.

Written by Marcus Robyns

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Happy Archives Month!

October 1st was Ask an Archivist day on Twitter (#AskAnArchivist). We had multiple people and groups that tweeted questions and comments to us. People asked about alumni at NMU, current projects the Archives is working on, and our favorite photographs of previous strikes in Marquette County. Here are a few of the pictures that we posted on Ask an Archivist day:

blog pic 1In December of 1968, the Black Student Union sat in at an NMU basketball game to protest unfair treatment of African American students by NMU security police among other concerns.

blog pic 2USWA strike April 25, 1946 at the Mather Mine in Ishpeming. Singer Paul Robeson happened to be in Marquette for a performance and came to support the strikers.

blog pic 31949 Gossard Factory strike picket line. The Gossard was a factory in Ishpeming, MI which made bras and underwear. Other than the mines, it was the main employer in Ishpeming in the first half of the twentieth century.

We have multiple events coming up later in October to celebrate Archives month.

October 15th at 6:30/7 PM: Archives Open House and Evening at the Archives: The Embezzling Bishop: The renovations at the Archives are finally complete! To celebrate, we will be holding an open house before our Evening at the Archives event. Come get a tour of the Archives, including our processing area and stacks which are normally closed to the public.

The presentation will begin at 7 PM. Elizabeth Oliver, one of our Magnaghi visiting scholars over the summer, will present on Hayward Ablewhite, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan in the 1930s who went to jail for embezzlement. In a bizarre twist of events, he worked at the Ford Foundation after his release from jail. Refreshments will be provided.

Embezzling Bishop PosterPoster for the upcoming Evening at the Archives event.

October 29th at 7 PM: Dr. Chet Defonso will speak on the role of Archives in documenting LGBT history. He will also discuss materials related to LGBT history here at the NMU Archives. Refreshments will be provided. We’ll keep you posted with more details about the event as we have them.

Edit: Please note: this posting previously contained an announcement for a screening of the movie Anatomy of a Murder on November 1. Due to complications, we have cancelled the event for this semester but do plan on hosting a screening next semester. Check our blog and Facebook for upcoming announcements regarding this event!

Happy Archives Month everyone!

Labor Day Weekend Spotlight: Iron Workers Local 783

The fall semester is well underway, but there is still one last holiday weekend before the real grind begins: Labor Day. In addition to enjoying the outdoors and grilling hamburgers, one longstanding Michigan tradition is the annual walk across the Mackinac Bridge. For almost sixty years, curious and adventurous residents from above and below the bridge partake in the event.

Especially on the eve of such a holiday, we should not forget the iron workers who risked their life to create one of the world’s longest suspension bridges.
During the construction of the Mackinac Bridge, iron workers banded together to form Iron Workers Local 783 of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, and Ornamental Iron Workers. After much planning, Marquette’s local chapter was officially installed on November 23, 1957 just three weeks after the Mackinac Bridge opened to motorists. The NMU Archives is lucky enough to have a collection, MSS-24, which documents the creation and administration of Local 783.

sarapiconeA copy of the original 1957 union agreement.

The original charter says roughly 70 men signed the original charter as founding members of the chapter. In addition, this folder also contains a letter from the General Treasurer which outlines the initial funds supplied to the chapter, Due and Benefit Stamps (100 each) for paying members, and confirmation that Local 783’s seal was officially on order. (Box One, Folder 10).

In a copy of the 1964 approved union bylaws, monthly dues were $6.00 a month for journeymen and $5.00 a month for apprenticeship members. The bylaws also carefully outline election procedures for officers, how the revenue from union dues would be used, and how worksite stewards must be placed on each job immediately (Box One, Folder 7).

sarapictwoThe first of two books which document meeting minutes.

In addition to the original charter list and the bylaws, the collection also contains meeting minutes, financial and benefit records, and election information. The records span from the chapters founding in 1957 to 1994 when the Local 783 merged with Local 8. In addition to these union records, you may also be interested in Sheet Metal Workers Local 94 (MSS-044), UAW Local 2178 (MSS-104), and UPIU Local 209, 110, and 21 (MSS-094) manuscript collections.

As we celebrate Labor Day this weekend, let us remember those who fought for early labor rights in America. For more on our collections, including more records pertaining to the labor movement in the UP, please visit our collections website here.

Blog written by Sara Kiszka