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Superior ore dock strike helped shape labor rights

Almost a century ago, two men were crushed to death and several other "ore punchers" were injured on the Allouez ore docks of Superior. The accident came after workers complained for a year that working conditions were dangerous. About 500 worker...

"Ore punchers"
Workers unload ore from a rail car at the Duluth ore docks in this circa-1920 photo. Two "ore punchers" like these were crushed to death in 1913 at the Allouez ore docks in Superior, which led to a strike by 500 workers. (Photo courtesy UWS Lake Superior Maritime Collection)

Almost a century ago, two men were crushed to death and several other "ore punchers" were injured on the Allouez ore docks of Superior. The accident came after workers complained for a year that working conditions were dangerous. About 500 workers walked off the job.

The July 31, 1913, incident is an example of Wisconsin's influential role in the organization of American workers, said labor author Richard Hudelson of Duluth. Wisconsin Public Radio interviewed him and others with a historical perspective on labor unions in the aftermath of this year's fight over public workers' collective bargaining rights.

"The men were just angry," Hudelson said of the ore-dock workers in 1913. "Angry about what had happened; and they wanted to stick it to the company. So things went downhill pretty quickly."

Ore punchers stood high on the ore docks or on heaps of ore in rail cars, breaking up frozen ore with their poles. The men who were killed were bumped off the dock by trains being moved without giving the workers notice.

During the strike, replacement workers, called "scabs" by labor organizers, were brought in along with armed guards. Sympathy strikes erupted at other ore docks. And then union organizer Frank Little was kidnapped.

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"He was held there under armed guard," Hudelson said. "Someone told the strikers where Little was being held. So they got guns and surrounded the farm (just across the state line in Minnesota) and demanded Little's release. Little was released."

The strike was settled, but it would be another two decades before the workers unionized.

Long, hard struggle

Kenneth Germanson was president of the Wisconsin Labor History Society for 20 years, until 2009. He says the early laborers trying to organize were often fired quickly without recourse.

"Having union literature, going to a union meeting," Germanson listed as reasons for dismissal. "There was a system of labor spies that would report back to the company. Nothing like collective bargaining. There was no recognition of collective bargaining. That kind of thing that we came to take for granted, at least for a while. I don't know if it's disappearing or not. It took many generations of our predecessors just to get us the eight-hour work day and all of the union benefits that everybody's been enjoying for all these years."

He said extreme actions dot the state's labor history. In 1886, workers at Milwaukee Iron Co. in Bay View marched to end 10- to 16-hour work days.

Dying for 8-hour work day

"Workers who were fighting for the eight-hour day were fired upon by the state militia as they approached the old Bay View rolling mills," Germanson said. "Seven were killed."

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Other Wisconsin milestones include the country's first workers compensation law, passed in 1911. "Prior to the passage of a workers comp law, if you got injured on the job the employer owed you nothing, didn't have to worry about your treatment or anything," he said. "Your only recourse was to go to the court and sue."

Germanson said the first public employees unions formed in Wisconsin, with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in the 1950s. That led to Wisconsin passing the nation's first collective bargaining law for public employees in 1959.

Teachers' rights took longer

But it took longer for teachers to get that right, since it is illegal for teachers to strike. Retired teacher and Superior Federation of Labor President Rick Lange remembers striking in the early 1970s.

"I guess when you're put up with that choice between take whatever piece of meat they'll toss you, or stand up for what we thought was a valiant cause, I just did it. It was totally illegal," Lange said. "We were threatened with injunctions and chased around the county by the Sheriff's Department trying to serve injunction papers. It was a time when you needed antacid most of the time. It was pretty disturbing. I never wanted to consider myself a lawbreaker."

When Gov. Scott Walker proposed cutting back collective bargaining for most public employees in February, tens of thousands of people protested around the state, including at Belknap Street and Hammond Avenue in Superior.

Still picketing today

On a recent Wednesday in August, four people held protest signs at that corner. Welder Lee Popovich of Duluth was among them. He said he believes the vigil must continue to remember the hard-fought rights won years ago.

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"Employers kind of got the message that if you want them to work, you'd better treat them right," Popovich said. "And now, businesspeople, they've forgotten that."

Germanson said the battle, like labor history, doesn't always end in victory for laborers.

"Even if you lose, you do throw an understanding into managements that working people, when their backs are up against the wall, will go to rather extreme points to make good on something," Germanson said.

He said it might take years to resolve. The longest strike in U.S. history was in Wisconsin against the Kohler Co. It began in 1934 and didn't end until 1962.

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