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Flames of Discontent

The 1916 Minnesota Iron Ore Strike


Gary Kaunonen

Flames of Discontent

A working-class history of a 1916 miners’ strike in northern Minnesota, one of the most important events in organized labor of the early twentieth century

On June 2, 1916, forty mostly immigrant mineworkers in Aurora, Minnesota, walked off the job—a labor disturbance that would mushroom into one of the most contentious battles between organized labor and management in the early 1900s. Gary Kaunonen tells the story of what this pivotal moment meant for workers and immigrants, mining and labor relations in Minnesota and beyond.

On June 2, 1916, forty mostly immigrant mineworkers at the St. James Mine in Aurora, Minnesota, walked off the job. This seemingly small labor disturbance would mushroom into one of the region’s, if not the nation’s, most contentious and significant battles between organized labor and management in the early twentieth century. Flames of Discontent tells the story of this pivotal moment and what it meant for workers and immigrants, mining and labor relations in Minnesota and beyond.

Drawing on previously untapped accounts from immigrant press newspapers, company letters, personal journals, and oral histories, historian Gary Kaunonen gives voice to the strike’s organizers and working-class participants. In depth and in dramatic detail, his book describes the events leading up to the strike, and the violence that made it one of the most contentious in Minnesota history. Against the background of the physical and cultural landscape of Minnesota’s Iron Range, Kaunonen’s history brings the lives of working-class Finnish immigrants into sharp relief, documenting the conditions and circumstances behind the emergence of leftist politics and union organization in their ranks. At the same time, it shows how the region’s South Slavic immigrants went from “scabs” during a 1907 strike to full-fledged striking members of the labor revolt of 1916. A look at the media of the time reveals how the three main contenders for working-class allegiances—mine owners, Progressive reformers, and a revolutionary union—communicated with their mostly immigrant audience. Meanwhile, documents from mining company officials provide a strong argument for corruption reaching as far as the state’s then governor, Joseph A. A. Burnquist, whose strike-busting was undertaken in the interests of billion dollar corporations.

Ultimately, anti-syndicalist laws were put in place to thwart the growing influence of organizations that sought to represent immigrant workers. Flames of Discontent raises the voices of those workers, and of history, against an injustice that reverberates to this day.

Flames of Discontent

Gary Kaunonen is an independent historian of labor and immigration and a documentary filmmaker based in International Falls, Minnesota. He is author of Finns in Michigan along with two award-winning books, Challenge Accepted: A Finnish Immigrant Response to Industrial America in Michigan’s Copper Country and, with coauthor Aaron Goings, Community in Conflict: A Working-class History of the 1913–14 Michigan Copper Strike and the Italian Hall Tragedy. His documentary Northern Minnesota’s Labor Wars examines the 1916 and 1917 strikes in that region and their significance to World War I–era political deportations and repression.

Flames of Discontent

Preface: Kitchen Table Politics
Introduction: Workers’ Rights, Immigrant Voices
1. A Place Hard as Iron: Mining’s Divided Landscapes
2. The Seasonal Struggle: Labor and Politics in Northern Minnesota
3. Wobbly Firebrands: Organizing the Finnish Working-class
4. From Strikebreakers to Solidarity: The Slavic Worker Revolt
5. The Rhetoric of Revolution: Communicating the Strike
6. Flash Point: Dissent and Violence in 1916
Conclusion: Rising from the Ashes