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Red Metal: The Copper Country Strike of 1913 (DVD Review)

3 Feb, 2014 By: Mike Clark

$24.99 DVD
Not rated.

I would watch just about any PBS documentary on 20th-century American history, including an hour-long look at, say, at the invention of the Flavor Straw. This one, though, especially piqued my interest because it concerns the event that inspired Woody Guthrie’s indelible “1913 Massacre,” which would have been an apt one for the Coen Brothers’ Llewan Davis to sing whenever he was in a socially conscious mood (and one that Bob Dylan himself at least halfway did when he borrowed its melody for “Song to Woody”). Here, it’s Steve Earle giving it a whirl (man, that’s some beard there, Steve).

The centerpiece of the story and inspiration for the song was what is known as the “Italian Hall Disaster,” though this is getting ahead of a story that deals with the currently relevant issue of class warfare and unusually intense animus between management and wage slaves. The setting was Calumet, Mich., which is way, way up there in the Upper Peninsula (also hometown of the long late George Gipp of Ronald Reagan “Win One for the Gipper” fame). At the time, metal mining was the most dangerous type of mining in America for its predominantly immigrant practitioners — the copper sub-category being the most dangerous of them all because the statistic was that one out of every 200 who did it would die. I was intrigued to hear one of the documentary’s interviewees note that nearly every photograph of a mine’s innards is misleading because the photographer’s flash illumination lightens up what is one of the darkest workdays out there (or rather, down there).

There are all kinds of dreadful “company town” subtext to a story in which an employee could be kicked out his company home for any reason — and woe be the widow whose husband had been one of the one out of 200. With Calumet and Hecia Mining Company office managers working to control everything in an industry where profit margins were very small, the corporation was ripe for professional agitation from the WFM or Western Federation of Miners, which had learned some hard-knocks lessons organizing strikes in Colorado. They were savvy on a lot of levels, including the printing of their fliers in multiple languages to reflect the melting pot of company employees — and also in the realization that if you launch a strike, don’t do it in the winter but during more humane weather. Meanwhile, the company hired and (for a fee) transported replacement workers off the boat in New York — making them sign contracts and thrusting them into immediate debt after shuttling them halfway across the country.

The documentary is stylistically functional at best, but the content is strong — and it is interesting to see shots of the town today that don’t exactly convey bustle (the last of the mines were pretty well gone by the ’60s, but the industry started to go downhill in the Midwest long before that). The headline story forever here in the Italian Hall Disaster itself, in which a Christmas Eve party of miners — the summer strike had indeed stretched into winter — became tragically aborted when some unknown person (this is still an unsolved case) yelled, “Fire!” when there wasn’t one. The building’s escape routes were roughly of “Triangle Shirtwaist Company” caliber (you can Google that one), and the vast majority of the 73 who were trampled to death on some narrow stairs were miners’ children. There is an unforgettable photo of young corpses lined up inside a nearby theater, and you have to wonder if the shot made it into any newspaper.

The company pledged $5,000 for a relief fund, covering its behind, and the strike was soon settled (or broken). At which point those whose jobs survived kissed the behinds of management in a written proclamation that still exists and is shown here. This part of the story is not the stuff of Woody Guthrie balladeering.

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