Home » 10th Season (2022-2023) » How Unions Struggle: The 1913-1914 Copper Strike in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan 

How Unions Struggle: The 1913-1914 Copper Strike in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan 

By Avery King

How Unions Struggle: The 1913-1914 Copper Strike in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan 

Editor’s Note: This paper was completed as a part of the History Research Fellowship, a one-semester course available to sixth form students.

Student-Submitted Note: This is my History Research Fellowship paper. I took the fall semester to research the Michigan Copper Strike of 1913-1914.

The small piece of copper my grandmother kept in her kitchen fascinated me as a child. When she saw me staring at its glowing hues masked by green verdigris, she would smile, explaining that it was shaped like Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. My dad’s side of the family immigrated to the Upper Peninsula from Finland in the 1880s. I was enthralled by stories about my great-grandfather, who worked for General Motors, and his dad, my great-great-grandfather, who worked in the copper mines. It was only when I got older, however, that I began to realize how important her stories about the copper mines are, not only for my family but for organized labor everywhere. 

My great-great-grandfather on the paternal side of my family was a member of the Western Federation of Miners, a prominent mining union that operated in both the Colorado Coal Mines and the Michigan Copper Mines. On the night of Christmas Eve, 1913, my great-great-grandmother, Ida K. Putansu, took her six children (including my great-grandfather Richard Putansu, who was seven years old at the time) to a Christmas Party at Italian Hall in Calumet, Michigan. Italian Hall was a public meeting place and, this night, its second floor was the site of a Union supported Christmas celebration. This meant that one had to show proof of membership in the union or have another union member vouch for them to enter the hall. The party was a nice diversion for the union members, who had been involved in a bitter strike, and their families. The crowded party was full of laughter and celebration until an unknown person shouted, “Fire!” The ensuing chaos left seventy-three people dead. 

My family survived because of my great-great grandmother’s practicality. Instead of rushing into the mass of crushed bodies on the staircase, Ida kept her children upstairs in a corner. My Grandma claims that Ida said that she would “rather burn alive than get trampled to death.” The Italian Hall Massacre gained national attention because the large death toll made Americans aware of the strike. In the early twentieth century, unions allowed miners who worked in dangerous conditions the opportunity to gain power through collective bargaining. Although the wealthy mining companies tended to abuse their power, unions acted as a resource for laborers and fought hard to prevent the hierarchical abuse that existed in this capitalistic labor system. Learning about this incident made me wonder more about the copper strike and how unions operated. Why was there so much conflict between unions and the companies? Why did workers join unions? Did doing so have any impact on their working conditions? 


Avery King is a VI form day student from Holliston, MA. Avery’s favorite classes have been in the humanities departments. She plans to expand her global citizenship studies in college.

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