Upper Peninsula writers look at copper strike

HOUGHTON – Writers and educators from the region and beyond investigated the role of how writing interacts with the working class at this year’s Writing Across the Peninsula Conference.

The annual conference changes themes and rotates locations. This year’s, held at Michigan Technological University, was “Revolutionary ‘Riting: Working-class Perspectives and the 1913-14 Michigan Copper Strike.”

Gary Kaunonen, a history author and organizer for the festival, said the conference began as a way to highlight to writing, and has grown to include topical issues.

Each of the locations, including Northern Michigan University and Lake Superior State University, comes up with its own take on the topic. Next year’s conference, held at NMU, will consider natural and community environments.

“This year, of course, with the (centennial of the miners’) strike, we thought when we were organizing it that the topic would fit quite well,” he said.

Keynote speaker Dana Cloud, a professor at the University of Texas-Austin, spoke about the 1995 Boeing Company machinists’ strike profiled in her new book “We Are the Union: Dissent in the Ranks of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.” Boeing workers won numerous concessions, including retraining for workers whose jobs were outsourced and wage increases.

Cloud became interested in the topic after hearing a talk by Keith Thomas, a Boeing machinist in Park City, Kan., who helped organize the strike.

The final agreement, described at the time as a rare win for labor, came after the rejection of Boeing’s second proposal, which had won the backing of labor higher-ups. Thomas said the rejection of that offer, which he called “terrible,” was his proudest moment as a union member.

Higher-ups had been so confident of a settlement, he said, that letters were sent out prematurely welcoming the strikers back to work.

“People on the picket lines were waving their ‘welcome back’ letters to the cameras and to the general public when folks would go by,” he said.

That triumph was the high-water mark for the union caucus. Thomas and other rank-and-file members received hate mail.

Cloud said some of the union’s lost ground came from backlash due to harassment of members such as Thomas, and some avoidable mistakes. For instance, Thomas decided to sue the union under the Labor Management Recording and Disclosure Act.

While the union was forced to disclose information it had been hiding from members, the information was able now available to Boeing, weakening the union position in negotiations.

The members also didn’t bring up members under them in leadership roles, meaning others weren’t available to succeed them as they began to burn out.

Cloud, who described her work as “partisan scholarship,” said she struggled with addressing the contradictions of the rank-and-file in her work. She wound up showing the manuscript to Thomas and David Clay, who was behind the concurrent worker effort in Everett, Wash.

“One of the chapters is a dialectic chapter where (Thomas is) trying to refute everything I’m arguing,” she said. “He has some really good points. (It) really honors what he learned.”

Cloud said the trends of the 90s have only intensified since, calling for a revival of labor efforts.

“Small teeny groups of people cannot do that on their own,” she said. “Hopefully the next wave of agitational struggle will be an opportunity for some rank-and-file leaders to insert themselves into that process and see what hay can be made in terms of building an oppositional caucus.”

Another presenter was Aaron Goings, who along with Kaunonen wrote the recent “Community in Conflict: A Working-class History of the 1913-14 Michigan Copper Strike and the Italian Hall Tragedy.”

Goings, a professor at St. Martins University in Lacey, Wash., described the similarity between the Copper Country of the 1910s and Gray’s Harbor County in the Olympic Peninsula, the top lumber-producing area of the day. Both areas had high concentrations of Finnish workers, leading to a large movement of Finnish-language periodicals for working-class perspectives.

They were also sites with vigorous labor movements, which were met on both peninsulas with organized intimidation and terror campaigns by citizens’ groups.

Goings noted differences between the areas, including the much greater amount of archives and historical resources available in Michigan.

“I actually did more work in Michigan and in New York, looking at the Communist Party of the U.S., than I was able to do in Washington,” he said.

Later sessions Friday included a variety of panel discussions and presentations on topics such as the Copper Country Women’s Heritage Project and formal and informal writing in the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Thursday events included performances of working-class songs from The Thimbleberry Band and The 1913 Singers, followed by a screening of the documentary “1913 Massacre.”