In Northern Michigan laborers lost lives – and children – for workers' rights

Dana Ferguson, Congressional candidate for Michigan's 1st District, references a history lesson to reiterate the importance of protecting workers. Ferguson is a former union laborer and endorsed by nine organizations representing over 100 unions and more than two million Michigan workers.

NEGAUNEE, Mich. – Since the early 1900s unions fought for the rights of hard working Northern Michiganders and Yoopers who built our economy. On Labor Day, we honor those who’ve toiled, and some who have died, as a result of past exploitive machines that undermine their safety.

When we stand up for people before profits, our economy is better because working families are protected and thrive.

No one knows hard work quite like the First District‬, which is why today’s holiday is especially important here. We have a rich history of miners, lumberers, and other hard labored workers that make Labor Day weekend much more than just a three day weekend.

More than 11,350 workers worked on various aspects of building the Mackinac Bridge – including 3,500 at the bridge site; 7,500 at quarries, shops and mills around the area; and 350 engineers. Five men died.

On Christmas Eve 1913, the worst mass killing in 20th century Michigan history took place as 73 people, mostly the children of striking miners, were killed when bosses’ thugs yelled “Fire!” at a crowded union Christmas party, then held the exit doors shut so panicking children and their parents on the stairs were crushed by others who tried to flee.

The Calumet and Hecla Mining Company (“C&H”) was the single largest copper mining company in the copper country in the Keweenaw Peninsula of northwest Michigan. One of the longest strikes in the copper country took place in 1913.

At the time, there were perhaps 15,000 men working in the mines and the WFM claimed 9,000 of them as members. The membership voted in favor of demanding union recognition from management, and asked “for a conference with the employers to adjust wages, hours, and working conditions in the copper district of Michigan." The membership also voted to declare a strike if management refused to grant a conference or concessions.

After the vote was held, the WFM sent letters to the mines demanding the conference. The mine managers refused the request and the strike was called on July 23, 1913. The strike would not end until April 1914. The miners and the mines were still at a standoff at Christmas, 1913, in a strike that was then five months old.

Seventy innocent 1st District children died because of opposition to organized labor. Today, these same philosophical disagreements over wages and workers’ rights / safety are still eroding the backbone of our economies. We see it with nurse staffing levels, a move toward privatization of food service workers in prisons, and the repealing of prevailing wages. The consequences today are less deadly, but the fight endures.

“Labor Day differs in every essential way from the other holidays of the year in any country,” said Samuel Gompers, founder and longtime president of the American Federation of Labor. “All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man’s prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another. Labor Day…is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation.”

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

It was this week in 1895 that the meaning of Labor Day engraved itself into Northern Michigan culture with a tragedy of huge historical significance. Paying tribute to miners who impacted the socioeconomic environment of the First District, and all those who toiled generations before us, is why Northern Michigan holds today’s holiday in such high regard.

On Sept. 7 in 1895, a fire was quietly sparked in the Osceola Mine Number 3 just south of Calumet. It wasn’t too unusual in those days for fires to ignite in a mine shaft and most were quickly put out but there in the Osceola the design of the shaft and the abundance of timbers became a deadly combination as the fire quickly spread.

Smoke and fumes overflowed into shaft four and five, hampering desperate efforts to evacuate some 200 miners that work underground. Most of the casualties were due to smoke and gas inhalation including several boys on the crew.

The final death toll climbed to thirty, the most lives lost in a signal mining accident during the copper boom.

In the Copper Country

In 1913, Mother Mary Harris Jones — a labor hell raiser and internationally prolific agitator — came to the aid of the Western Federation of Miners in Michigan’s Copper Country, this was known as the Copper Country Strike of 1913–1914.

Dana's Vision for Workers

“Our labor unions are not narrow, self-seeking groups. They have raised wages, shortened hours, and provided supplemental benefits. Through collective bargaining and grievance procedures, they have brought justice and democracy to the shop floor.” – President John F. Kennedy