VIRGINIA — Iron Range Historian Harry Lamppa sits in a room at the Virginia Area Historical Society, surrounded by boxes stuffed with papers and documents, timeworn photos, and yellowed newspaper clippings.
He produces a large receptacle filled with files of his own research and the writings of others. It contains a just a fragment of all that can be told about the history of labor unions — in the United States and on the Iron Range, in particular.
Lamppa sums it up in but a few words.
“It’s like a roller coaster,” he says of the ebb and flow of unionism during the past century. From latent unionism to the waves of union growth, decline and regrowth.
Laws, court rulings and national crises played a role in those patterns, he said.
It’s all very interesting to the longtime, 85-year-old historian. But certain twists and turns on that roller coaster ride are of particular curiosity for Lamppa.
“Have you ever heard about the ‘Spies of Steel?’” he inquires.
Or how about the almost-lynching of an Ely mining superintendent during a worker’s strike in 1904?
And what about the years of great mining company paternalism that turned local workers pro-company union?
Lamppa takes out notes compiled from Rudy Pinola’s 1957 Ph.D. thesis, “Labor and Politics on the Iron Range of Northern Minnesota.”
The Range was far from immune to the labor unrest that escalated throughout the country during the first decades of the 20th century. There were two major strikes on the Range during that time. The first in 1907, the second in 1916.
Much has been told about those strikes, particularly the latter.
But as Lamppa pages through the photocopies of the detailed document, he comes across and reads aloud a summary of a lesser-known, spontaneous strike among Iron Range miners.
It seems, he says, that back in 1904, Capt. Charles Trezona “so enraged the men” at the Chandler and Pioneer mines in Ely that “the men refused to work unless he resigned.”
Lamppa pauses. “Listen to this…”
He continues: “Conditions were ripe for a lynching of Trezona.” Lamppa looks up with wide eyes, then reads on:
“The saloons all closed … and 600 miners met at the Pioneer Mine and passed a resolution warning the town that if Trezona had not left the community in 24 hours he would be lynched.
“Trezona was to sign an affidavit promising to stay away from Ely forever. But when the time came to sign, he never appeared.”
Deputies from Duluth arrived and convinced the captain to leave on the afternoon train, but again he didn’t show up, according to the document. He had taken off on foot, but he was later picked up by the train between Ely and Tower.
In the end, Lamppa reads: “Strikers and businessmen conferred and a delegation was sent to the Oliver office in Duluth. Wage adjustments were made and Capt. Trezona would return to Ely as superintendent for the Oliver Mining Co.”
The best part, Lamppa says, is “Trezona was later elected mayor of Ely.”
A month later, according to the next entry on the document, “400 men walked out at Eveleth’s Fayal mine when the company announced wage reductions from $1.75 to $1.60 per day.
“The strike leaders were jailed and a milling crowd demanded their immediate release or else the jail would be stormed. The authorities refused until the mayor ordered release of the strikers. In retaliation, the company closed the mine.”
Lamppa shakes his head in awe.
“People were raw back then,” he says.
The historian sets down on the table Florence Peterson’s book, “American Labor Unions,” which has been revised several times since 1945, and opens to one of the first pages.
A chart depicts membership totals starting in the 1930s in the country’s two largest labor organizations — the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations — which in 1955 merged to form the AFL-CIO.
Today it is the largest federation of unions in the United States.
The book outlines the history of American unionism starting with the medieval guilds of Europe which were the precursors of modern unions, Lamppa explains.
Ultimately, unions are defined “as an association of wage earners existing to improve conditions of employment.”
But interestingly enough, he says, there were times when workers were rather disinterested in joining unions.
One of those periods was in the 1920s following World War I. Expanding postwar industries paid high wages and the cost of living was relatively stable, Lamppa said.
It was also an era of welfare capitalism. Employees were offered pension plans, group life insurance, and medical services that protected against the hazards of life.
Employees were further encouraged to buy stock. By 1928, more than a million employees in the country had purchased more than a billion dollars worth of their employers’ securities.
Locally, Lamppa noted, Oliver Mining Co., increased workers’ wages in 1922 by 10 percent, and other companies followed. A common laborer made $3.75 per day rather than $3.25. The following year, another 10 percent increase was provided, raising the daily wage to $4.20.
True collective bargaining was lacking on the Range during that decade. And while the International Union of Mine, Mill & Smelter Workers, an affiliate of the AFL, had a chapter in the Virginia-Eveleth area, its activities were “so confined” it could only be considered “latent unionism.”
The following decade, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, also known as the Wagner Act, went into effect, guaranteeing the right of workers to organize and providing a framework for collective bargaining.
The Wagner Act had outlawed Employee Representation Plans, essentially “company unions,” which were dominated or influenced by the employer. Features of area company unions in violation of the act were therefore voided.
Yet, locally in May of 1937, during an election for a bargaining agent, 1,400 of 1,600 miners voted for the company union.
Lamppa refers to it as one of the “phases” — a “paternalistic” one — when workers were loyal to the company because “they were doing good things for people.”
In addition to having pension plans and health insurance, workers were provided with “visiting nurses,” for instance, and miners’ wives and children were taken care of, even sometimes treated to recreational activities.
A person can read all about the Wagner Act; the 1947 Labor-Management Relations Act that restricted the power of labor unions; the formation of the AFL-CIO; and the many other ups and downs of the country’s labor unionism history.
But something more difficult to get one’s hands on is a copy of Lamppa’s treasured “Spies of Steel.”
“This took place right here on the Range,” says the historian, holding a copy of the booklet copyrighted 1928.
Penned by 1920s Denver Express newspaper reporter Frank Palmer, it tells the story of Iron Range “spies” who, Lamppa explains, “masqueraded as union people” on behalf of the mining company.
It could be your local barber taking part in the espionage for the “Steel Trust” — “on the payroll of the mining company,” he said. The network of spies “sold out their fellow workers,” reporting back to the Trust on union activity.
In the early winter of 1928, Palmer arrived on the Range to investigate the story of the spies leaked to him by a person he called “Mr. X.”
He traveled from town to town in an effort to not only pursue the story, but to prove it by collecting handwriting samples matching the spy reports he had been given.
“Why do they do it?” he asked in the publication.
“The office spends several days on the Iron Range looking over the men picked and sizing them up,” he wrote. “He gets certain information about them; the size of their family, whether there is any sickness in the family, whether the man is buying a home and how his payments are being made… in short how much of an appeal money will make to him. …
“He (the potential spy) is told he will be paid cash every month ($75 or $100). He is told he will never know anyone else who is reporting, nor will anyone else ever know him. He will never sign his name but only a number. He will be protected absolutely.
“Is it so surprising that the power of the Steel Trust can break the honor of these men and that they so often surrender?”
“Spies of Steel” was printed late at night “high in the Colorado Rocky Mountains in the small mining town of Fairplay,” according to the book’s addendum written by Tom Selinski in 1997.
When the pamphlet appeared in northern Minnesota in May of 1928, “many of the spies named in the book left the area,” Selinski wrote. “In the Eveleth area, some spies awoke to find their sidewalks and fences painted yellow by fellow workers.”
When a group of individuals accused of being spies traveled to Colorado to convince Palmer he was wrong, the newspaperman produced the files from his safe as proof.
Mining companies on the Range bought up the books, paying $5 per copy — then a full day’s wages. “Because of near destruction of this book in the 1920s, few original copies exist today,” according to Selinski.
But, he wrote, “the book and the evidence Palmer uncovered were submitted in a sworn statement during Congressional hearings in the 1930s, and the evidence has never been disputed.”
Now that’s some interesting stuff, he says.