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Eye On Mining: A look back at the Iron Range labor union battle

CHISHOLM, MN — The history of labor in Iron Range mines is complicated and in some cases dark.

“It was terrible working conditions,” said Pamela Brunfelt, an Iron Range Historian. “These were immigrant miners who couldn’t speak the same language and they were vastly underpaid. In many cases, it was often like a sweatshop.”

The beginning of mining on Minnesota’s Iron Range, a stark contrast by today’s standards.

“They had to pay for all their tools, they had to pay for anything they broke,” said Brunfelt while visiting the Blue-Collar Battleground Exhibit at the Minnesota Discovery Center. “It was a very difficult way to make a living and no amount of pay was going to make up for the dangers.”

Eventually, the miners said enough is enough and began striking.

“They periodically fought against the forces of a raid against them. They never gave up.”

But at that time they were in the fight alone.

“They were fighting without the aid of the government so every single strike was doomed.”

Brunfelt said trust was also on the decline as mining companies hired spies from within to try and break the labor unions.

“Many spies were extorted, in other words, the companies knew they had something in their lives that they needed money for and they would go to them and say we’ll pay you this much money and then you can take care of your problem and then they were trapped.”

Despite the many obstacles the miners pressed on in their fight.

“They were committed to fairness and it didn’t matter if they spoke English or not, they wanted fairness, they wanted a fair system in the workplace.”

That commitment paid off when the National Labor Relations Act and the Wagner Act became law.

“It put the government on the side of the workers and it has empowered them the way they had never been empowered before.”

Brunfelt said there’s no doubt the work done by those miners of the early 1900s still lives on today.

“The number of people who are in labor unions has dropped precipitously and that’s not the case on the Iron Range. It’s still a strong, important part of the Iron Range community.”

If you’d like to walk through that part of history yourself you can do so by visiting the Blue-Collar Battleground Exhibit at the Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm.

Kristen Vake

Anchor, Reporter

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