On June 2, 1916 labor tensions on the Mesabi Range in northern St. Louis County boiled over between immigrant workers and the Oliver Iron Mining, a subsidiary of the giant mining conglomerate known as US Steel. At the time, Oliver paid miners on a piecework rate basis on the amount of iron rich ore they produced in a day. That meant their pay depended wholly on where the “company men” placed them in the mine and how they measured piles, leaving miners uncertain of their monthly wages. These immigrant Oliver miners marched through the Range spreading the strike, demanding better living conditions and hourly wages. Soon violence erupted between the company men and the strikers with pitched battles occurring in the streets.
Local community leaders’ appeals for help from the St. Louis county government that was more beholden to the mining industry only made the situation worse. St. Louis County Sheriff John R. Meining’s response was to deputize the company men and organize impromptu militia units of these new deputies to attack the strikers. A request was made for assistance from Republican Governor J.A.A. Burnquist; he chose to side with the companies, sending the above June 30 telegram to Sheriff Meining. To the strikers this was a clear indication that the state was siding with the companies. This was particularly evident in the publicized statement from the governor that the strikers should be prosecuted before a Duluth magistrate. For the strikers, that was akin to saying you are going to be arrested, prosecuted and judged by the company.
Some may look back at history and think that Republican Governor J.A.A. Burnquist was just your old school big business Republican fat cat that was so reviled in the early 1900s — the kind of Republican that Teddy Roosevelt would have attacked. That characterization could not be further from the truth. Burnquist rose up in the ranks of the Republican progressives and was a strong supporter of Roosevelt. I know this may come as a surprise to many today, but Minnesota Republicans were the lifeblood of the progressive movement in the early 1900s. Republican standard bearers, including Burnquist, moved progressive railroad legislation, child labor laws, workers compensation, minimum wage and workweek standards forward.
Unfortunately, it seemed as if the European socialist unrest and world war brewing at the time unhinged Burnquist from his progressive moorings. His response to the request from the communities could have been wholly different, in line with the progressive patterns established by Roosevelt as president only a decade earlier in several other incidents of labor unrest. Like Roosevelt, he could have publicly sent a truly neutral special envoy to the area to get independent assessments of the facts. Also, he could have sent the National Guard to create a buffer between the newly deputized company men and the aggrieved strikers. Further, Roosevelt was never afraid to call in the company leaders to shame them into following the progressive policies around employment.
The pattern was there, but Burnquist intentionally broke from that established progressive playbook. His later infamous actions through the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety that trampled on the constitutional rights of Minnesota citizens would later cement the Republican break in Minnesota from the progressive movement. This led to one of the most vibrant third-party movements of any state in the history of the United States, known as the Farmer Labor Party.
In the next two blogs we will delve into how the recent Republican statewide and congressional candidates seem to be falling into the same trap that Burnquist fell into nearly a century earlier. The statewide and congressional Republican candidates had an opportunity to distinguish themselves in a positive way for the betterment of Minnesota as a whole in relation to the dangers of new mining that is now being proposed on the Iron Range, but they seem to have missed that opportunity.
As we enter this discussion, I want to make it very clear that Conservation Minnesota is not opposed to mining in this state. As a Republican lobbyist, I’m proud of how Conservation Minnesota works hard to find bipartisan solutions to statewide conservation issues. What Conservation Minnesota is saying is that the role of the state of Minnesota is that of a regulator, carefully ensuring the protection of property owners, workers, taxpayers and our natural resources. As the citizens of the states we are collectively the owners of these minerals and we need to be assured that we are getting the fair value for this one time removal of our resources.
As is obvious from our name, it is a central part of Conservation Minnesota’s mission to ensure that these multinational corporations bear the burden of cleanup and any potential environmental disasters. The truth about this new mining being proposed on the Iron Range is that environmental disasters have followed almost every single one of these mining operations in recent history in other regions. To learn more on that, go to the Mining Truth website.
Therefore, in our next two blogs we will explore the Republican position on mining. First, we will look at how we Republicans received absolutely no benefit from attempts to create a wedge issue around mining, making the same mistake that J.A.A. Burnquist did a century ago by siding with these multinational corporations. Second, we will look at how the new House Republican majority should frame this issue going forward. I believe there are strong positions Republicans can take that fit squarely within our core values of protecting property rights and taxpayers. I contend that emphasizing these core values around the mining issue will strengthen our position with the statewide electorate and solidify our growth in the state as a viable statewide party. Simply parroting the tired old regulation rhetoric of the multinational mining companies makes us look like out of touch fat cats from the 19th century.