Tag Archives: labor

Collection Spotlight: Geraldine DeFant Papers

This week we thought that we would highlight the Geraldine DeFant papers, a small but fascinating and important collection. Geri DeFant grew up in Chicago, where poor conditions during the Depression caused her to become interested in politics and especially the labor movement. After graduating from high school in 1933, she spent several years volunteering and then working as a union organizer. She came to Marquette County in 1948 to organize the strike at the Gossard factory in Ishpeming. She stayed in Marquette after the strike and married attorney Michael DeFant (who had been the lawyer for the union) in 1950. After Michael DeFant became county probate judge, Geri had to stop working as a labor organizer.

She remained active in politics, however, serving as the Chairwoman of the Democratic Party for the 11th Congressional District and an aide to Senators Philip Hart and Donald Riegle. She also earned a bachelor’s in political science from Northern Michigan University, was a director of the Manpower Training Program in the Upper Peninsula, served as a Marquette County Commissioner from 1982 to 1991, and served on the Marquette Women’s Center Board of Directors, the Michigan Women’s Commission, the Michigan Civil Service Commission, the Friend of the Court and Childcare Taskforces, the Alger/Marquette Community Mental Health Board, and many more organizations and boards. Geri died in 1996 at the age of 79.

Our collection contains an oral history interview (which is online!), documents relating to the 1949 Gossard Strike, a scrapbook, photographs, newspaper articles, and her resume. The oral history interview documents her early life and the 1949 strike in great detail, but does not give much information on her later political activities. At the interview in 1990, contemplating the vast scope of her life’s work, Geri DeFant commented,

…My basic value system has not changed from…when I was 17, 18. It still is pretty much the same. It’s taken different routes. I was a feminist then I believe, and I am certainly feminist now, and have been active. I believed in participatory democracy and I do now, and I have been active in the political arena. I’ve been a county commissioner for ten years and I’ve looked for ways in which I could make a change in terms of benefits and the ease of living and support of those groups in our community that need support. So I feel I’ve been a fairly consistent woman in what I’ve tried to do.

Geri DeFant

While our materials from Geri DeFant are limited, many other collections at the archives shed light on the 1949 strike and other elements of her life’s work. We have an article on the Gossard strike, photographs from the strike, and a legal file about the strike in the John D. Voelker collection. Newspapers from the time would also provide much information. A copy of Bruce K. Cox’s book Gossard: The Great Bra Factory Strike of 1949 is also available at the archives. Our collection of County Commission minutes include both paper and audio records for the period in which DeFant was a commissioner, and the official minutes can be found online. We also have a collection of oral history interviews from the Marquette Women’s Center which are also available online. Many of the interviewees mention DeFant’s role in the Women’s Center and note that she was a mentor to many of the younger women involved in the Center’s founding.

Other Sources on Geri DeFant:

Tribute to Geraldine DeFant from the Congressional Record

geri defant 2

Interested in viewing any of these collections? You can look at them at any time at the archives! Our hours for this semester are Monday/Wednesday/Friday 10 AM-5 PM and Tuesday/Thursday 10 AM-7PM.

Written by Annika Peterson

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.

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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

Collection Spotlight: The Bay de Noquet Company Records

Bay_de_Noq2

This week we’re highlighting a collection at the Archives which many may not be aware of: the Bay de Noquet and Oconto Company Records. The Oconto Company was a logging company in northern Wisconsin which operated from 1867 to 1944. The Bay de Noquet company was a subsidiary of the Oconto company which operated from 1881 to 1952. It logged in Alger, Delta, and Schoolcraft Counties in the UP. Its headquarters were in Nahma in Delta County.

The records include tax records, land records, operation records, and correspondence. The land records include the sale of land which would later become part of Nicolet National Forest. Much of the correspondence is with various companies who were customers of Bay de Noquet and Oconto. However, there is also correspondence between Bay de Noquet and the company’s office in Chicago, as well as correspondence with federal agencies during and after World War II. The collection also contains minutes from the meetings of the directors and stockholders of the companies. Newsletters from the Northern Hemlock and Hardwood Manufactures Association and various other business associations with which the Bay de Noquet and Oconto Companies were affiliated are also part of the collection.

The records show how federal agencies oversaw production during World War II, how companies kept track of which employees were eligible for the draft, and how the federal government tried to control costs and prices after the war to prevent inflation. Other newsletters discuss organized labor in the period. The correspondence with the Chicago office of the company also contains discussion of federal oversight and organized labor, as well as customer service, sales, and the logging industry as a whole. The finding aid for the collection further expresses the historical importance of these records:

“While the records for each company are scattered, the combined records give a reasonable picture of the problems faced by the industry in the upper Great Lakes region due to the declining availability of usable timber and the Great Depression of the 1930s, as well as some of the issues faced by the companies during World War II.  The items from the Northern Hemlock and Hardwood Manufacturers Association help to put the situation in the upper Great Lakes into a national context.”

For more information about this collection, see the complete finding aid or this article about how the collection was acquired.

Blog written by Annika Peterson