Reliving history

HOUGHTON – Sunday marked the 100th anniversary of the end of the Western Federation of Miners Copper Country strike, and Thursday through Saturday academics from around the region and around the world gathered in Houghton and Hancock for a pair of concurrent conferences that helped mark the strike’s place in history and to consider Finnish and international influences on the American labor movement.

Prior to the keynote dinner Thursday, a performance of songs and poetry from the strike performed by the 1913 singers – many in strikers’ native languages – brought home some of the strike’s emotion.

“When the people from Finland saw them singing in Finnish, that’s something they’ll always remember,” said Michigan Technological University professor Gary Kaunonen.

The Retrospection and Respect: 1913-1914 Mining/Labor Strike Symposium of 2014 was a first of its kind academic gathering. Finn Forum, an annual gathering of scholars studying the Finnish and northern European diaspora, came to the Copper Country for the first time, and this year’s theme of Work, Workers, and the Finn Factor in 20th Century Labor Relations dovetailed with the Symposium’s focus.

The event was hosted jointly by Michigan Technological University and Finlandia University, and drew about 70 scholars to the academic sessions, with another 30 or so people buying tickets for the opening reception. According to event organizer Beth Russell of the Michigan Tech Archives, the majority of the scholars were from out of town, with about 10 coming from other countries.

Russell said she considered the event a success, especially in how it built bridges between scholars with different backgrounds and specialties.

“What I really enjoyed was the break,” she said, “seeing people who didn’t know each other last night, once they’d got some context, enjoying the new relationships that had been built.”

Jim Kurtti, director of the Finnish-American Heritage Center at Finlandia, echoed that sentiment, noting the conference had been a great opportunity for scholars to make connections that would increase their knowledge.

“Once the path is made, it’s certainly easier to make another visit,” he said.

One theme of the conference was how working, living and striking together created solidarity between various ethnic groups in the Keweenaw.

Kaunonen said one of the biggest challenges for labor was the variety of languages spoken by the miners involved, and getting all of them to present a united front.

“Singing was a part of that,” he said, “a way to get all of them on the same page.”

The keynote address focused on small-scale gardening and farming in the Lake Superior region. Arnold Alanen, a retired professor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said gardening was a shared endeavor that also built bridges between people of different ethnic groups.

“If you saw someone growing something you didn’t have down the block, you wanted the seeds,” he said.

Saku Pinta, an independent scholar from Thunder Bay, Ontario, said his work has touched on both the labor similarities and personal connections between Upper Peninsula Finns and those on the north side of Lake Superior.

“The labor situation was much the same,” he said, noting that Finns often worked in logging and mining on both sides of the border. “The reason is they were filthy jobs” that better-established ethnic groups didn’t want to do, he added.

Pinta said he had a grandfather who had moved back and forth between the two countries and worked in Marquette-area iron mines, and added that many Ontario Finns were readers of the Tyomia Finnish language newspaper published in the Copper Country.

Kurtti said it was important for Finlandia to engage with labor history, an aspect of Finnish culture that may once have been excluded.

“It’s important that though Finlandia wasn’t on the side of labor, we don’t have those same divisions anymore,” he said.

Kaunonen drew the parallel between the strike, when no single ethnic group could have stood up to management, and the conferences, which were enhanced by the joint efforts of the two universities.

“The strike was about collective effort, and the conference was too,” he said.