Flames of Discontent: The 1916 Minnesota Ore Strike
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.