The major Finnish immigration to the United States began with the post-Civil War impetus of the American Industrial Revolution which brought a mass wave of newcomers from all over Europe to work in the developing mass industries. Many were illiterate with no schooling, but this was not true among the Finns. Most industrial and agrarian working class Finns knew how to read, because this skill was required by the Lutheran Church if one was to be confirmed or marry. But life was hard in the old country. There was no work in the Finnish countryside, particularly in the north or Pohjanmaa, with large families and farms only able to support the eldest son per laws of primogeniture so younger sons were left to roam the countryside without sustenance or to crowd into the Finnish cities to seek work which didn’t exist to absorb many of them. The same was true of the young women.
So when the word came out for recruitment of immigrants to work in the factories, mines, forests, fishing lanes, farms, and maidservants and cooks in the homes of the wealthy in America, the onrush came, with the main migration between the years 1880 and 1920, when the immigrations laws tightened up, so that perhaps up to about 350,000 of our ancestors arrived from 1830 to 1930, according to Turku University Historian Auvo Kostiainen. So the port of Hanko in Southern Finland particularly up to World War I was where most of the emigrants went to embark by ship via Hull and Liverpool in England to get to New York.
About 80% of these Finns joined the American blue collar working class, and usually moved into areas where other
Finns had preceded them to form numerous ethnic communities of their kind. Few knew English so it was more
comforting to be among one’s own. The largest cluster of Finns settled into New England and New York on the East
Coast , the Great Lakes states (particularly Northern Michigan and Northern Minnesota), and in the Far Western
states of California, Oregon and Washington. There was considerable movement into the Mountain states with
Finnish communities being established in places like Butte and Red Lodge, Montana, and further south in Bisbee,
A HARSH LIFE.
Life was no picnic to these entrants to the New World. This was an era of Robber Baron capitalism and the “streets were not paved with gold,” as had been an illusion for some. Work was hard, hours long, safety and health measures non-existent and pay abysmally low with no overtime after eight, no fringe benefits, no pensions, no social security. But our forebears were gritty people and most made do somehow. They were no strangers to hard work as their native work ethic was powerful. And they did form their communities for mutual aid and association. We were the “talkoo kansaa (The work bee folks), as my old Alaska friend Niilo Koponen describes us. Drinking was rife, probably a national curse of our ethnicity, so temperance societies were formed that pursued cultural and social activities to provide a healthy alternative to the saloon. Churches began to make their appearance.
But they were not a complacent people, most of them, who just meekly accepted their lot and knuckled down before the yoke. They were not the kind that would immerse mutely into some amorphous American melting pot. They were a proud, gutsy people who were willing to fight for something better for themselves and their families. The late Carl Ross in his book The Finn Factor--In American Labor, Culture and Society, says that the Finns made an entirely different kind of contribution to the positive development of American society in their being “stubborn, non-conformist, often rebellious, and generally clung to their own ethnic community and sub-culture.” This was not true of the entire community, but certainly of a highly significant portion of this transplanted blue collar class.
Finnish workers began to participate in the struggling American labor movement which was trying to organize
workers in collective action for social and economic justice. In 1892 there was a strike by stone quarry workers on
Cape Ann in northeastern Massachusetts which lasted two months, short strikes in 1894 and 1897 and again in 1899
which resulted in a regular 53-hour work week and time and a half for overtime Finns were ardent activists in these
efforts. In fact, Carl Ross says that both English and Finnish were used at meetings of the Paving Cutters and
Quarrymen’s Union. And these unionists were beginning to talk about socialism as a means of ending exploitation.
THE ADVENT OF SOCIALISM
Meantime in the waning years of Czarist rule in Finland, a strong worker-based socialist movement came into being at the beginning of the 20th century. A then-Marxist Social Democratic Party was formed which rapidly became a major factor in Finnish politics. The 1905 General Strike gave a mighty impetus paving the way for universal franchise which gave the Finnish workers both a voice and a vote in government. My father Antti Siitonen took part in that strike in Helsinki as a young 17-year-old baker. In 1907, the SDP surprised everyone, driving fear into the hearts of the “establishment” of that time by winning 80 seats in the Parliamentary elections and becoming the largest single political party in the Diet.
Of course, the tidings of this new workers’ movement attracted a lot of the immigrants here and in Canada as well as new arrivals who came to the New World in those years. These ideas became part and parcel of the thinking of not only the relatively formally uneducated Finnish worker immigrants, but of political leaders of that movement who came to North America to escape the wrath of Czarist repression which was taking measures to stamp out dissent and rebellion in Mother Russia itself as well as in its increasingly rambunctious Grand Duchy of Finland. Among them were members of Parliament escaping jail sentences for treason and other charges. Some of these leaders became main actors in the Finnish-American labor movement, like Santeri Nuorteva, Yrjo Sirola, Taavi Tainio, Leo Laukki, Kaapo Murros, and Frans J. Syrjala.
Probably the most colorful and charismatic of these revolutionaries was Matti Kurikka who was not a Marxist and marched to a different drummer of Utopian Socialism, a dreamer who espoused theosophy, anti-church Christianity, Tolstoyan love and pacifism, laced with the ideals of the epic poem The Kalevala.. He had been a controversial but brilliant editor of a Finnish socialist newspaper in Helsinki, the Tyomies (Workingman). But the bug of a utopian community hit him where he could put his philosophy to practice. After trying and failing to establish such a mecca in Australia, he was invited by kindred spirits to come to Canada to spark one. So Sointula (Place of Harmony) was established on Malcolm’s Island (Malkosaari) in the wilds of British Columbia in 1901. Realizing he was long on ideals but short on pragmatism, he invited A.B. Makela, a fellow editor at Tyomies to come and join him in building Sointula. Makela was of a Marxist orientation and was considered to be a more practical person in helping to build the community. But due to bad planning and execution and a disastrous fire which took several lives, the commune fell apart and Kurikka lest Sointula in disgrace. But although the land was divided into private farming lots, half the people stayed, built their hall, a co-op store and a fisherman’s union and their descendents live to this day at Malkosaari.
But the Marxian Socialist apostles, influenced by the ideology of German Marxism as propounded by Karl, Kautsky, August Bebel and others, who came to these shores strove to organize the Finnish-American workers into the labor movement and for socialist politics. The first of these missionaries was Dr. A. F. Tanner, a medical student and free thinker who fled arrest in Finland to inspire support for Socialism in the United States His first success was in firing up the workers in the Cape Ann area of Massachusetts to form the first Finnish Socialist club in the United States in Rockport, Mass. in 1899. It was called Myrsky (The Storm) and became affiliated with the Socialist Labor Party of Daniel DeLeon. This aroused a storm of controversy and invective among more conservative Finns. Bishop Johan Wilhelm Eloheimo in Calumet, MI called him the “devil’s apostle”. He also participated in starting a Finnish language labor newspaper in New York in 1900 called Amerikan Tyomies (American Workingman) which lasted for eight issues.
Workers’ clubs were coming into existence even before the advent of the socialist project. The Imatra Aid Society
was formed in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1890 and the Saima Society in Fitchburg, Mass., in 1894. They were modeled on
the Wright movement in Finland which was nationalistic rather than radical, and was based on self-help, education,
mutual aid, and temperance from alcohol. Imatra never did become socialist although Saima did link with this
burgeoning political movement.
SOCIALIST FIRE IGNITES
So, in the early 1900s, the Finnish-American socialist movement grew like wildfire, with organizers like Martin Hendrickson, inspired by A.F. Tanner, criss-crossing the country preaching the Marxist gospel. Workers were receptive as wages were poor, hours long, living costs high and housing often deplorable. The Eastern seaboard was more stable and established and the Finnish socialists in the Northeast were somewhat less militant and revolutionary and were strongly influenced by the more moderate socialist parliamentary politics of the newspaper Raivaaja (Pioneer), founded in 1905 in Fitchburg, and its powerful Kautskyist editor Frans J. Syrjala. Outside of the stone quarries in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and the logging camps in Maine, most of the men and women worked in established factories or the men in skilled building trades, so to the extent there was unionization, they tended to be more oriented to the more conservative craft unionism of the American Federation of Labor.
In the Far and Midwest the raw and brutal capitalism of the extractive industries like logging and mining, in which
most of the Finns worked, was much more exploitative and oppressive. So these workers by the very nature of their
conditions were more attracted to a more militant, revolutionary form of socialism than their Eastern counterparts. The more syndicalist anti-political stance found in the industrial unionism of the Industrial Workers of the World
(IWW) founded in Chicago in 1905, appealed to thousands of them. But for now, all became part of the same
movement which soon affiliated as the Finnish Socialist Federation of the Socialist Party, USA.
FOUNDING OF FSF
Already by 1904 there were local Socialist clubs coming into being, some from evolving from left-leaning Temperance movement local societies. A meeting in Cleveland for the purpose in 1904 failed to bring about a national organization of these socialist groups. But by 1906 they were ready to do so and met during the last week of July in Hibbing, Minnesota to bring it to birth. Two worker newspapers were already established at that point and were getting on solid footing. The first was Tyomies (Workingman), founded in Worcester, Mass., but soon after moved to Hancock, Mich. where the board felt they would have a better chance to succeed. The other was the Raivaaja (Pioneer) founded in Fitchburg, MA in 1905. (The latter still exists, as a bilingual non-partisan weekly which celebrated its 100th anniversary in April, 2005.) Taavi Tainio, an important figure in the moderate wing of the Finnish SDP was its first editor, who returned to Finland, shortly after. Two dozen delegates attended the Hibbing meeting from as far as Philadelphia, Diamondville, Wyo., and Seattle.
The convention considered favorable positions on the cooperative movement, temperance and women’s activities, and decided to leave the matter of religion as a matter of individual choice. Delegates voted to affiliate with the Socialist Party of America. (The SP at first was queasy about foreign language affiliates but by 1908 it voted in the Finns as their first and eventually largest ethnic language federation, followed by a dozen more. When that happened Finns comprised 12 percent of the entire membership of the Party at that time!)
The most contentious debate of the convention centered around the issue of the position toward the American trade
union movement, whether to officially give preferential endorsement to the IWW. Kaapo Murros, then editor of the Tyomies, introduced the IWW concept contrasted to the narrower craft unionism of the AFL. A more conservative
faction led by Alex Halonen attacked the concept. The convention voted a compromise resolution which condemned
those craft unions which “groped after bourgeois support” and “opposed class warfare” and which developed along
socialist lines, according to historian Douglas Ollila, Jr. This issue would rise again in dramatic form in ensuing
years. But the Suomalainen Sosialistijarjesto (SSJ) as the FSF was called in Finnish was off and running. At its
height, before schisms took their toll, it had about 17,000 members.
West Coast FSF members felt they needed a newspaper of their own since the Tyomies and Raivaaja were too far away for them. So in 1907 the FSF approved a third newspaper in Astoria, Oregon with its large Finnish population, where much of the population made its living through the fishing industry. It was called Toveri (or Comrade) and eventually became a daily. Women never took a back seat in the Finnish movement and were pioneer working class feminists. So they insisted on their own newspaper, which the FSF granted to be printed at the Toveri plant. It was called Toveritar (or Woman Comrade) which launched on a long an illustrious history of raising issues of interest to Finnish women socialists. The names of its greatest editors, Selma Jokela McCone, Maiju Nurmi, and Helmi Mattson need to be recognized. People should read the excellent chapter on their campaign for women’s rights by Hilja J. Karvonen in the book For the Common Good (Tyomies, 1977).
The Finnish newspapers, whether Socialist, temperance, or conservative were important links within the Finnish
community. Most immigrants didn’t know English when they came and these papers were their windows to the outer
world, national and international. They could read news of Finland. There were articles on economics and history
and Socialist theory as well as poems, short stories and serialized novels. Practical household advice as well for other
problems were published. News about what was going on culturally and politically in their own communities were in
the reading fare. Correspondents from other locals or communities published their news in these papers. There were
even personal ads for single people looking for potential life partners. The Socialist papers were called often as “the
workers’ universities”, or ‘the worker’s best friend” who came to visit every day. Both of my parents came to the
United States in 1915, settling in Quincy, Mass., where they met at the Veli Socialist Hall. From the beginning they
were avid readers of Raivaaja. Reading it was a highlight of their day. I actually learned to read Finnish as a young
boy by struggling through the Raivaaja. It has been coming into our family as a subscription for 92 years now!
One of the institutions that stood out in the life of the FSF locals was the local Socialist Hall, their meeting place. It served the same purpose for the Temperance people as well. It was a cultural and political center which served as a secular alternative to the church. It was the center of their social and cultural lives. They had their political speakers and lecturers of course as well as political rallies. The Comrades’ Hall (Toveri Tupa) in Berkeley, California held a rally in their main auditorium in 1911 for the successful campaign of J. Stitt Wilson for mayor of the city, to which 800 people came, with the Comrades’ brass band providing entertainment, But these halls served many other functions. Most halls had theatrical groups which would perform plays sometimes weekly. There’d be dances, choruses, bands and orchestras, gymnastics classes, wrestling exhibitions, poetry readings, and wedding receptions. My father Antti Siitonen and my mother Hanna Saikkonen were married in a civil ceremony at the Quincy City Hall in October, 1917 and sponsored a reception and dance at Veli Hall the following Saturday. In fact, they met at the hall. My father was on the wrestling team and was into gymnastics as well, and took on the task of teaching the women’s gymnastic class. My mother was working as a maid and cook for the mayor of Quincy and decided to enroll in the class on her Thursday maid’s night off in 1916. Their eyes met and the rest was history. So it was a whole way of life for these young immigrants and a rich and variegated one. They worked long, hard hours on their jobs, but they were young and enthusiastic and the hall was the place to go! In fact, many of these halls were built by the volunteer labor of their members as were the two Finnish halls in my present hometown of Berkeley.
The teaching of the Finnish language to their young children was important to most of the Hall immigrants who wanted their progeny to retain their ancestral culture and language. The Finnish Lutherans had their Sunday schools for that purpose where children learned Finnish through their Bible study texts. But the Socialists also had their secular Sunday schools which they called the Ihanneliitto (or Idealistic League.) Instead of Bible studies for their language learning, the Socialists adopted their own children’s primer, called the Tyovaen Aapinen (or Workers’ Primer.) The texts dealt with a Marxist approach to a class society with its exploitation of workers and their conditions, written in a format digestible by children. So socialism instead of religion was taught. By the time I became of school age in the early 1930s the Ihanneliittos no longer existed in the Socialist Party Finnish circles in the Fitchburg, Mass., area where I grew up. They probably vanished sometime during the 1920s.
WORK PEOPLES COLLEGE
One of the most important early institutions in the Finnish labor movement was the Tyovaen Opisto, or Work Peoples College, founded as such in 1907, although it had started as a liberal church seminary in 1894. Residential labor colleges existed in several areas in the United States, including Brookwood Labor College in New York State and Commonwealth College in Arkansas. The Finnish version was in Smithville, Minn., near Duluth. It drew many radicalized immigrant men and women to study in this live-in institution with board and room and nominal tuition. The Finnish version was the longest lived, lasting until about 1940. Subjects taught included Finnish, English, evolution from a materialist viewpoint, math, bookkeeping, general history, and the history of socialism. Purpose was to train organizers for the labor and socialist movements, to staff the growing consumer coops which became a way of life in many Finnish communities, and editors for the radical newspapers put out by the movement. Two of the most prominent early teachers were Yrjo Sirola who came from Finland in 1910 and became the director of WPC until 1913 when he returned to his homeland where he figured prominently in SDP politics. The other was Leo Laukki who came in 1908, who had fled Finland after the Viapori fortress rebellion where as a young Czarist army lieutenant he was part of the uprising in 1905. He was a left socialist and soon became an advocate of industrial unionism. One of the most prominent later graduates was Niilo Wallari who had jumped ship in Boston at age 16 to enter the States and became a Wobbly or IWW member. He was a good friend of the labor folk singer Hiski Salomaa. He was deported as a “dangerous radical” in 1921, and eventually became the militant legendary president of the Finnish Seamen’s Union. For some, their four months or less tenure at WPC was the only formal education some of these workers ever had. Jack Ujanen, an IWW quarry worker and the last editor of the Industrialisti (Industrialist), the Finnish-language IWW newspaper which published between 1916-1973, had never attended school in Finland but had learned to read from Bible pages pasted onto the walls of the family hovel he grew up in, that served as insulation against the bitter Pohjanmaa (Northland) winters. His time spent at Work People’s College was his only formal education.
The Midwestern Socialists who operated WPC were a much more militant breed than their more moderate Eastern comrades and the ideas of IWW industrial unionism increasingly predominated in the school curriculum as compared to the ideas of the electorally focused viewpoint of the parliamentary socialists. The school became a focal point of quarrels and dissension within the FSF at its conventions and media which, among other things led to its first large political schism in 1914.
Finnish workers were immersed in the wave of strikes which dotted the American landscape in the early 1900s in a tumultuous period of labor-management struggles. In July of 1906 a Finnish speaking organizer for the Western Federation of Miners union, headquartered in Butte, Montana, addressed a Temperance society function in the small copper mining town of Rockland, Michigan and stirred the miners into action to bring the union into their lives. With the wretched conditions at the Michigan Mine which employed 300 men, at the end of the month 280 mine workers, a majority of them recent Finnish immigrants, walked out on strike, according to Carl Ross. A confrontation developed in which the unarmed miners were not to blame, in which sheriff’s deputies opened fire on the crowd without warning, killing two men. A roundup of the Rockland Finns was conducted by the Sheriff’s men that night so 110 Finns were locked up for “disturbing the peace. Thirteen were charged with murder. It became a cause celebre in the Finnish Socialist press, meetings were held throughout the country and funds were raised for legal fees throughout Finnish America. The strike itself was lost but eventually the legal battle was won as charges were dropped against the defendants. But the Rockland issue was a big boost to the Finnish Socialist movement in recruitment among the workers, who also identified now in many communities with the Western Federation of Miners with it reputation as a militant industrial union as their organization.
Thousands of Finnish miners were employed in the iron ore mines of the Mesabi Range in Northern Minnesota. Again, the working conditions were hideous, the hours long, and health and safety conditions non-existent. There were numerous miners of other immigrant ethnicities from Southern and Eastern Europe. All of these groups, including the Finns, were discriminated against in employment advancement. Numerous wildcat strikes had been the pattern for some time on the Iron Range for little gain except firings and blacklistings. However, by early summer of 1907, the WFM had enrolled 2500 miners into the union. Finnish workers were among the most enthusiastic recruits, according to the late historian Michael G. Karni in the book For the Common Good. WFM organizers had planned to present a set of demands to the Oliver Iron Mining Division of U.S. Steel, the Mesabi’s largest employer, once they had at least 50% of the miners signed up with the union. But they were forced to move earlier, because of a spontaneous strike by non-WFM miners on the Iron ore docks at Duluth and Superior on July 16, 1907. So on July 19, the WFM asked Oliver for an 8-hour day, an end to petty bribes and bonuses, a daily minimum wage of $2.50 for open pit workers, and $3 for those working underground. There was a point blank refusal to negotiate, a policy among Range companies until after World war II. 300 union members were fired. On July 20, the first Mesabi strike began. The strike lasted for two months and was lost by the workers. There was a lot of mostly company-induced violence but it cost Oliver over $250,000 for “special deputies” and strikebreakers alone, which turned the tide. Finnish socialists fought hard for the union. Finn halls became strike headquarters and women and children held sympathy demonstrations to support mass picketing.
The WFM hired organizers of the main ethnicities involved in the strike to help overcome language barriers so strike solidarity could be maintained. Two Finnish organizers gained prominence for their role as WFM functionaries. They were John Kolu and John Valimaki. Kolu was a typographer from the Range, and Valimaki was at various times an editor of all Socialist newspapers, Raivaaja, Tyomies and Toveri.
The employers did everything to break the strike, There were mass illegal arrests of the strikers and sheriff’s beatings. Credit was cut off by businesses. So the strikers formed consumer cooperatives and companies put pressure on Duluth wholesalers not to supply them. Newspapers attacked them, with the Mesaba Ore of Hibbing editorializing about a demonstration, that “90% of those in line were Finlanders--fiery followers of the Red Flag…” Further it distinguished between two classes of “Finnlanders”, the older men who were “good citizens,” and the others, “a set of lawless young fellows who will not work, who are infused with the lessons of Socialism and Anarchy…” However, they averred that some of these could be saved, if the “agitators” were gotten rid of. Conservative Finns in the community, led by some clergymen, were embarrassed by this as a condemnation of all Finns, and tried to emphasize their loyalty to the establishment by forming a Citizens’ Committee which condemned socialism as “Eastern-Asian barbarism”.
Blacklists became rife after the strike and hundreds of Finns and others became unemployable on the Range. Many
left the area with their families, others settled on marginal small farms to try to eke out a living. The strike also
spawned an espionage network among employers to suppress organized labor. But thousands more Finns joined the
Socialist Party as a result, and the militant IWW gained increased strength to wage future battles.
NUORTEVA IN OREGON
Another major industrial struggle emerged in 1912 on the West Coast. At the end of 1911, Santeri Nuorteva, an important Finnish socialist who had been an SDP member of Parliament, arrived in the United States with his family to escape charges of treason against the Czars. Contrary to most immigrants, Nuorteva was a Helsinki University-educated man, a brilliant intellectual and writer, who was reputedly at home in at least eight languages. American Finn socialists welcomed him with open arms and he was immediately employed as an editor in Astoria, Oregon on Toveri. But on the radical West Coast, he also made his share of enemies in the movement. He was seen then as a moderate, pragmatic socialist, who took issue with the anti-political syndicalist direct action bent of the Industrial Workers of the World Finns, who were part of the SP still at the time. He wrote editorials and delivered polemics against them. He and the industrial union supporter Leo Laukki at Work Peoples College became bitter opponents.
It came to a crux when Nuorteva, an eloquent orator, went on a speaking trip to California during a course of a
struggle to organize lumber industry workers on the West Coast between the IWW and the AFL Shingle Weavers,
Sawmill Workers and Woodsmen’s Union. Because of his English language skills, this AFL Union hired Nuorteva
as an organizer, and in 1913 he had to flee California from logging company agents. The Wobblies wanted to
organize across the board both skilled and unskilled workers industrially and attacked Nuorteva for his work for the
AFL craft-minded Shingle Weavers. John Viita, who later became a leading Finnish Communist, argued at an FSF
district meeting that Nuorteva didn’t even know the meaning of “class” and did not understand the concept of
“historical materialism”. He was considered one of those middle class types who came “to lead the workers from
above.” The district meeting voted to support Nuorteva from the attack. The latter soon returned to the East Coast
to work for Raivaaja. But this incident was one of the many that led to the ultimate separation of the IWW from the
FSF in 1914.
COPPER COUNTRY STRIKE
1913 saw one of the epic labor battles in which the Finnish community was involved, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula Copper Country, focused around the mining towns of Hancock and Houghton and the Keweenaw Peninsula town of Calumet. The Copper Country was a truly large Finn turf, with temperance societies, newspapers like Tyomies, Suomi College (then a seminary for the Suomi Synod), churches, workers’ clubs, co-operative stores and the fraternal Kaleva lodges. But dominated by East Coast-founded Calumet & Hecla Mining Company, there was serious labor dissent brewing in the rich copper mines of the area. There had been numerous earlier industrial outbreaks in the Copper Country but the 1913-1914 work stoppage was the big one. The Western Federation of Miners had been quietly organizing in the area of several years and had signed up many workers, and well among the Finns. Initially, the WFM had been part of the IWW when it was founded in 1905 and had withdrawn by 1908 with a more conservative leadership as its famous firebrands Big Bill Haywood and Vincent St. John elected to stay with the IWW. The more cautious Charles Moyer was now its president. Haywood had been expelled from National Committee of the Socialist Party in 1913 on charges of his anti-electoralism and that the Wobblies’ direct action tactics included “sabotage”, even violence. (Actually, the IWW was quite non-violent as contrasted to AFL strikes such as the LA Times bombing by the McNamara brothers and the violent shooting wars in miner’s strikes in places like Kentucky’s Harlan County. What the Wobs considered sabotage was usually wildcat work stoppages, sitdowns, slowdowns, work to rule tactics and other such direct action workplace devices.)
So when the Copper Country strike came, the WFM had a more conservative national leadership than before. At issue in the main was the introduction of technological time savers like the one-man drill which meant dangerously increased workloads and layoffs. Piecework was to be introduced which meant workers pitted against each other rather than working in solidarity. So on July 23, 1913 the workers struck after an overwhelming favorable strike vote, 7000 to 126. There were 14,300 workers in the mines at the time of the strike, the majority Finns, although English, Italian, and Croatian miners joined in. At first events moved favorably for the strikers with a lot of community support demanding union recognition and an honorable agreement. In its early days, the Suomi Synod newspaper Amerikan Suometar printed articles and letters supporting the strike, among others. John Valimaki, Frank Aaltonen and WFM District Secretary Charles Hietala came aboard as organizers, as moderate Finnish Socialists. There was tremendous support, financial and other, from Finnish labor and socialist groups nationally besides the American labor movement. But Calumet and Hecla refused to negotiate, just like Oliver in Minnesota in 1907, even with a liberal Democratic Michigan Governor in Lansing urging the corporation to bargain for an equitable solution. Instead, the company got the local sheriffs to deputize vigilantes, important goons from around the country and instituted a reign of terror against the miners and their families. People were killed . A conservative Citizens Committee led by local businessmen and increasing numbers of ant-Socialist Finns joined in. The Tyomies newspaper strongly supported the strike, printing its English language strike bulletins and handbills, and was denounced by the mining interests and their supporters. At one point an armed worker militia positioned itself in the building averting a nocturnal vigilante attack to thrash the premises. Editors were arrested exercising their First Amendment rights. Charles Moyer was beaten by hired goons, and the aging WFM president was literally ridden out of town on a rail. So it was only a matter of time when the Mesabi Range pattern was repeated.
The greatest tragedy occurred on Christmas eve at a miners’ party at the Italian Hall in Calumet, where the besieged strikers and their families crowded to celebrate the holiday. Someone yelled “Fire” and in the panic dozens ran downstairs and were crushed against the main street door. 74 men, women, and children, mostly Finns, suffocated and died. There was no fire. Nobody knew for sure who spread the alarm, although Tyomies charged “that pinned to the lapel of his coat was a Citizens’ Alliance button.” Folk singer Woody Guthrie even wrote a song about the Italian Hall tragedy.
Men began to stream back to work over the severe winter, and in April the district union polled its members and 3,104 men favored return to work from 4,740 voting. The bitter, nine months strike ended on April 14, 1914. Again many were blacklisted and had to leave the area to seek work elsewhere. The Tyomies was vociferously attacked, and lost most of its advertising and many readers, and had to exit Hancock, too. It moved to Superior, Wisconsin, where it published until the late 1990s.
THE FIRST SCHISM.
With the buildup of the hostility between the IWW and the decisive leadership of the Socialist Party, the Wobblies
were forced out, including its Finnish component with 3000 Finns leaving in 1914 to set up their separate IWW halls
throughout the country particularly in the Mid and Far West. In the East there were Wobbly Finn halls in a few
places like the Tarmo club in Manhattan and a hall in Brooklyn, CT. There was a battle over the control of Tyomies
which the Socialists won in a proxy battle. The Finn Wobblies and the Left Socialists like John Viita and Elis
Sulkanen joined to form a new newspaper in Duluth called Sosialisti. Dissension arose between these two elements
with the IWW Finns taking control under Leo Laukki and Fred Jaakkola and eventually changing the name to the
Industrialisti which gained a high of 10,000 readers at its height, eclipsing the Tyomies at first. The Industrialisti
survived until 1975. It was the only IWW daily newspaper in any language, which showed the strength of the Finns
in the Union at first. With Laukki, the apostle of industrial unionism, being the director of Work Peoples College,
that institute of labor education became an IWW-oriented school until about 1940 when it closed down.
In 1916, the IWW was in control of the labor movement on the Mesabi Range, urged to organize by Duluth Finns. There was disillusionment over the WFM on the Range over collaboration with the bosses and the rustling card deal
in Butte, MT which had victimized several hundred Finnish Socialist miners. So there was increased support for the
IWW. The Wobblies had the support of the Finns if they could provide organizers speaking English, Italian and
several Slavic tongues to gain support of other nationalities. Before it really got started a strike broke out in Aurora
on June 2 which spread like wildfire so by June 14 all of Mesabi was out on the streets, with 16,000 miners. 4000
IWW cards were issued. The program included $3.50 a day for wet places, $3 for dry places, $1.75 for surface
work, an 8-hour day instead of 10 to 12, miners to enter and come out on company time, abolition of all contract
work. The Wobblies tried to run a peaceful strike, but company vigilantes and police repeated the old pattern of
1907, and 1913 in the Copper Country. The IWW sent in its big guns like Carlo Tresca, Sam Scarlett, Frank Little
and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. It was a courageous effort, but sacrifices were many. Three Montenegrin miners went
to jail as sacrificial lambs on manslaughter charges for allegedly shooting two deputies who were raiding their
boarding house. In September there were tips that the bosses might improve conditions for workers if they didn’t
have to formally deal with their hated IWW. So strategy was discussed among the union locals and since nothing
further could be done, they decided to vote to go back to work and call off the strike on Sept. 16. World War I was
coming on and the market was hungry for ore, so the company generally took the miners back to work without
discrimination as they were desperate for help There was a 10% raise and a promise of an eight hour day on the
following May 1, so something of a victory was salvaged, although the IWW was never recognized as a bargaining
WORLD WAR I
The Finnish Socialist Movement came under severe attack during World War I. Unlike most Social-Democratic parties in Europe which supported their own countries’ bourgeois governments in the war, the American SP declared itself against the war in its famous Missouri Declaration adopted at its 1917 St. Louis convention. Its many times Presidential candidate Eugene Victor Debs was sentenced to Atlanta Federal Penitentiary for an ant-war speech in Canton, Ohio. Other Socialist leaders like Kate Richards O’Hare also did time. Finnish Socialist newspapers were put under government pressure and surveillance. Articles dealing with national and international affairs had to be translated into English and given to government censors to inspect. All were cautious in what they printed. In Astoria, Toveri editor William N. Reivo was arrested and did prison time because the newspaper published an anti-war book in translation by American Socialist and pacifist writer George R. Fitzpatrick.
But it was the IWW which caught the biggest assault. Although the union took no official stand against the war, the system considered the organization as dangerous and traitorous. 166 Wobbly activists were arrested and brought to federal trial in Chicago and found guilty. Among them were Big Bill Haywood and five Finns: Charles Jacobson, Fred Jaakkola, Leo Laukki, Frank Westerlund and William Tanner, a blacksmith. The jailing of Laukki was a severe blow to the Finnish IWW. Both the Industrialisti and Work Peoples College almost went under, but did survive. After Laukki and Jaakkola were released on bond, both became Communists, as did Haywood. While on bail, Laukki, Haywood, and Jaakkola jumped bail and fled to the new Soviet Union. Finnish Wobblies were angered at Laukki and Jaakkola for not only betraying their cause ideologically but by hurting their Fellow Workers who had put up their bail money. Haywood died a natural death in the 1920s and is buried in the Kremlin Wall. I don’t know what happened to Jaakkola but Laukki disappeared in the 1936 Stalinist purges.
There were two important wartime mining area strikes in, involving numerous Finns. In July, 1917, in an IWW-led strike in Bisbee, Arizona, against the Phelps-Dodge copper mines to restore wage cuts, the Bisbee Loyalty League posses rounded up 1200 IWW organizers, strikers and sympathizers at gunpoint, tried them in a kangaroo court, herded them into cattle cars and shipped them into the New Mexico desert where they were without food or water for several days and were interred for months in an Army stockade until released without charges. Most were blacklisted from working in Bisbee. Among them were many Finns. Matt O. Hanhila, who later became president of the Glendale (AZ) Community College, was a little boy then. His father Felix was one of the desert deportees. He and his mother joined Felix later at the stockade and the Army soldiers called young Matt as “the littlest striker”, according to his memoir of that time.
At Butte, Montana, where the Anaconda Copper Company held reign, the Finns were the second largest ethnic group, next to the Irish. The Finnish miners were among the most radical, and the Finn Wobbly hall was the only Finn hall in town. Butte was always full of labor strife. The Speculator Mine explosion, in which numerous Finns perished among others, caused a powerful reaction and a series of strike actions. Company spies infiltrated both the IWW and Butte Miner’s Union and created dissension. IWW General Executive Board member and its premier organizer Frank Little came into town and addressed a crowd of strikers at the Butte baseball park on July 31. That night a group of vigilantes hauled him out of bed in the Finnish rooming house where he was staying next door to the Finn IWW hall, and tied him to a car bumper and hauled him out of town and hung him on a railroad trestle. Little’s murder aroused the miners and citizens and perhaps five thousand people walked in his funeral procession several miles to the cemetery where he was interred. The late Reino Erkkila, a retired San Francisco longshoreman and union official, recalled being in that parade as a small boy with his parents, his miner father Herman Erkkila being an avid Industrialisti reader.
In the immediate post war era during the Palmer raids, numerous foreign-born radicals were deported from the
United States to their countries of origin, including Finnish Wobbly Niilo Wallari who later led the Finnish Seamen’s
THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION AND FINNISH CIVIL WAR
In the spring of 1917 the momentous Russian Revolution came with the overthrow of Czarism. followed by the
Bolshevik Revolution in October. This aroused great fear among the world capitalist powers and high hopes among millions of workers and the dispossessed. Finns for the most part rejoiced in the initial stages, regardless of politics.
It could mean independence for Finland which it eventually did. The Finnish workers organizations, both Socialist
and IWW, joined in the celebration here as a harbinger of a new freedom for the world’s workers. But then came the
Finnish Civil War in early 1918 when Finnish socialists hoped they could repeat the experience of their Russian
brethren against Finnish White reaction. It turned out to be a horrid tragedy. It divided not only the Finnish people
but the American immigrants. Conservative Finns generally supported the Whites, the Finnish-American labor
movement, all factions included, the Red Guard and the Socialists. With the assistance of a German expeditionary
force, General C. G. E. Mannerheim’s White Guard overcame their opponents in brutal bloody fighting. The
victorious White government showed no mercy and thousands of Red prisoners were shot or died of hunger and
disease in concentration camps. These included two of my socialist uncles, Pekka and Matti Siitonen, neither of
them having fought in the war. In fact, my uncle Pekka was a Tolstoyan pacifist. Eventually, the situation calmed
down, and amnesty was granted by President K. J. Stahlberg to the remaining Red prisoners. Thousands of the Red
Guardsmen had fled to Russia, with most of the leaders of the ill-fated Socialist government who escaped, turning
Bolshevik. Democratic rule, albeit conservative, came back in Finland and the SDP was resurrected under Vaino
Tanner along more moderate lines, and the trade union movement was resuscitated again. The Communist Party
All of these events had a profound impact on the Finnish-American labor movement, leading to the Second Schism. Although at first most tendencies in the FSF as well as the IWW supported the new Soviet system, soon fissures began to appear. While many accepted uncritically this dawning of a new day, others began to look more sharply at the nature of Lenin’s Bolshevik government. It outlawed other political movements which helped overthrow Czardom: the Menshevik Social Democrats, Social Revolutionaries, liberals, Anarchists and Anarcho-syndicalists. Their newspapers and public assemblies were shut down, others were imprisoned and shot. And the Okhrana, the terrorist police organization, was replaced by the equally repressive Bolshevik Cheka. So East Coast moderate Social Democrats led by F.J. Syrjala begin to criticize this turn of events; where was the promise of democracy and freedom? Surprisingly, fellow Raivaaja staffer Santeri Nuorteva, long considered a moderate social democrat, sided with the Bolshevik Revolution and left Fitchburg to set up an office in New York initially to aid the short-lived Finnish Red Government and later became the initially representative of the Soviet government to the United States. This led to his deportation to Russia where he served as a party functionary, eventually dying in 1929. On the other hand, Oskari Tokoi, who had been a Minister in the Finnish Red Government, had fled to the Soviets and turned against Lenin’s regime for its lack of democracy. He was already under a death sentence by the Finnish Whites, but now also was sentenced to death by the Soviets. Fortunately he was able to escape the country and eventually surface in the United States as a Raivaaja editor.
The division within the FSF grew and the partisan bitterness increased, With the influence of people like Wilho Boman, active in SDP politics before immigrating here, the split of the FSF from the Socialist Party of America came in 1920. Syrjala and his Eastern allies fought this split but to no avail. So the FSF majority left the SP and remained independent until the end of 1921 when it affiliated with the new legal Workers (Communist) Party. Most of the Midwestern and Far Western Clubs and a sizeable East Coast minority went with his change, enthused by what they saw as the great hope of the Russian Revolution to workers. The Tyomies and Toveri newspapers went with the pro-communist faction, while Raivaaja remained under control of the Social Democrats with Syrjala. Sixty clubs mostly in the East, numbering 2000 members formed a new federation that continued its association with the Socialist Party. With the loss of the Raivaaja from their control, the FSF set up a rival newspaper Eteenpain (Forward) in May, 1921, under the editorship of Elis Sulkanen in Worcester, Mass.
In 1922, when the FSF affiliated officially with the WP, it became its single largest component group Until the mid 20s, the 7000 members of the Federation made up about 40% of the Party’s membership! The Finnish communist press peaked at 40,000 readers. Considerable numbers of Finnish IWW supporters went over to the Communists, like Leo Laukki. But the majority stayed and supported the Industrialisti. There was initial interest within the IWW for affiliating with the Moscow-run Red Trade Union International, but when Moscow demanded that it be given the power to choose the IWW General Executive Board, the Wobblies backed out, saying only the IWW ranks themselves had the right to vote on their GEB.
Besides the battle over control of the newspapers, there were fights over the control of the halls, both physical and legal. The losing faction would build its own hall. So now there were three sets of halls competing for Finnish working class supporters, the WP (later the FSF became the Finnish Workers Federation.), the SP and the IWW. All had the same kinds of programs: bands, dances, theaters, choruses, athletics and children’s secular Sunday schools. One’s outlook on the Soviet Union, was a continuing key point of division.
There were defections from the WP (CP) ranks particularly when the Comintern tried to impose a Bolshevization
discipline over the former FSF clubs, which were used to their ethnic, democratically member-run formats. So local
clubs and individuals left. In 1927, prominent Finnish Communist leaders Elis Sulkanen, Wilho Boman, and Henry
Askeli were expelled on account of “opportunism”. Sulkanen later became a leading Social Democrat and Raivaaja
editor and strong anti-Communist. Askeli, who had been FSF national secretary at the time of the 1920 split, set up a
health resort on Cape Cod, and became a Raivaaja columnist. Boman, a major Socialist intellectual, dropped out of
politics and became a masseur in New York City.
By the late 1920s, consumer cooperatives were a major contribution of the Finnish socialist immigrants to American
life, particularly in New England and the Midwest. In the post-World War II, a large and successful Berkeley
Consumers Cooperative was founded in California which lasted for 50 years. In New England, influenced by the
Raivaaja, the large United Cooperative Society market was built in Fitchburg , Mass. and the United Cooperative
Farmers Inc/ was operated by New England-wide Finnish farmers. Raivaaja also set up the Workers Credit Union
which still exists. I grew up on a poultry farm in Westminster, near Fitchburg, and our family belonged to all three
of these co-op entities. I had my first savings account in the Workers Credit Union, and for some years my father
worked in the retail “U-Coop” bakery. In the Midwest it was the giant Cooperative Central Exchange, headquartered
in Superior, WI, with 20.000 members serving 65 communities. In 1929 a bitter political struggle arose over control
of the CCE. An FWF faction led by Communist organizers Oscar Corgan and Matti Tenhunen fought to have the
Co-op make a money donation to the struggling Soviet regime in Russia. Others objected including the manager,
George Halonen, a CP member himself. Tyomies denounced him as a traitor and in 1929 he was expelled from both
the FWF and the WP. In 1930, a membership vote upheld the position of the co-op’s political non-partisanship
decisively and the Co-op evolved into a consumer cooperative entity run on Rochdale principles. Halonen and his
supporters set up an independent left wing newspaper, Tyovaen Osuustoimintalehti (Workers’ Cooperative Paper)
which published into the Post-World War II years.
In the early 1930s there was a large exodus of perhaps up to 10,000 Communist influenced North American Finns to
the Republic of Karelia in the Soviet Union, answering a recruiting call of its Finnish-run government for skilled
workers to help build socialism in Russia. This was during the Depression years so the call appealed to many. Oscar
Corgan and Matti Tenhunen served as paid recruiters to expedite this emigration. Many of these idealistic workers
believed that the Soviet Union was the hope of the future and sold everything and went with their families. Conditions were draconic and brutal, and some were able to return. But others stayed despite all in high hopes. Then came the great Stalinist purges of 1937-38 and thousands of these Finns were imprisoned and hundreds shot by
NKVD firing squads. Corgan and Tenhunen also met that fate, as they, too, had moved there with their young
families. Some got back to tell the tale, but papers like Tyomies and Eteenpain were in denial that such butchery was
possible by the Kremlin. The books: They Took My Father, by Mayme (Corgan) Sevander and Laurie Hertzel and
Karelia-A Finnish-American Couple in Stalin’s Russia, 1934-1941, by Laurence and Sylvia Hokkanen with Anita
Middleton, are instructive. This “Karelian Fever” period was one of the great tragedies of the Finnish-American
Activity still continued within the Finnish labor movement through the 1930s and 1940s and later, but steadily diminishing, as there was no substantial new immigration, the first generation was getting older and passing on, and relatively few of the younger generation of “Red Diaper Babies” were politically interested enough to continue in their forebears’ ideological footsteps. Due to dwindling readership, Toveri was shut down in 1930 in Astoria, and in post-World war II years the Eteenpain which had been published in Yonkers, NY since 1930, merged with the Tyomies and the combined paper published into the late 1990s in Superior, with a much more moderate political tone with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Halls kept closing all over due to declining memberships. Daily papers gradually became weeklies rather than dailies. Many Finns from all currents, both first and second generation, took part in the 1930s Depression era trade union movement and the organization of the CIO. In Berkeley, CA, the historic Finnish 10th Street hall, or the 1908-founded Toveri Tupa, was badly trashed by a mob of vigilantes during the 1934 Longshore Strike in the San Francisco Bay Area, serving as a strike kitchen for the strikers and their families. The City of Berkeley was forced to pay thousands of dollars in restitution to the hall for its complicity in the hooliganism.
In 1932, the Finnish Socialist Party locals had still supported Norman Thomas, the SP’s Presidential candidate. By 1936 they were supporters of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. In February, 1937, the Finnish Social Democrats officially left the SP-USA because of the Party’s increased radicalism due to the atmosphere of the Depression and the growth of fascism and Nazism in Europe. By this time these Finns had become more conservative generally and were satisfied with New Deal reforms and working in the co-op movement. In 1940 the old Finnish SP formed an unaffiliated social democratic organization, the Finnish-American League for Democracy, with Raivaaja as its official organ. The FALD folded up in the early 1980s but the newspaper continues as a successful non-partisan bi-lingual weekly in Fitchburg . Industrialisti quit publishing in 1975, and the remaining IWW hall, the Kentta Hall in Lake Worth, Florida, was sold to a non-political Finnish ethnic group in the 1990s.
Suffering considerable government harassment during the McCarthyite Cold War years, the Tyomies supporters
continued to meet as small clubs, since FBI pressures forced the closure of the International Workers Organization
(IWO) fraternal benefit society, to which Finnish as well as other Leftist foreign-born groups had participated, the
Finns after they closed their FWF association. One fact of their history this sector of the Finnish left has justifiably
been proud of: 240 American and Canadian Finns had volunteered for the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil
War, in 1936-39 to fight fascism. A number were killed. The best source for documentation of this history, can be
best found in a book Meidan poikamme Espanjassa (Our Boys in Spain), originally written by K. E. Heikkinen for
Tyomies Society, and recently translated into English by Finnish-American Abraham Lincoln Brigade veteran Matti
Mattson. But another stance taken by the pro-Soviet left that drew condemnation and criticism throughout Finnish
America was its stand on the Finnish Winter War. While the rest of the Finnish community, from conservative to left
(including the Socialists, Wobblies, and Minnesota cooperators), condemned the 1939-1940 Soviet attack on
Finland, Tyomies and Eteenpain supported the Soviet Union.
So in its waning years, this proud Finnish labor movement which had fought so many tough battles in its heyday, was no longer a significant organized factor in the later and current American labor movement. Yet as individuals, many second and third generation Finns have been labor and co-op activists, undoubtedly inspired by the example of their parents and their comrades. A sampling of names come to mind: My friend Reino Erkkila of San Francisco whose father Herman had been a Finn Wobbly miner in Butte and was involved as a dockworker in the 1934 Maritime and General Strike in San Francisco. Reino was also a longshoreman and was at various times president and business agent of the large Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Reino died in 2006 at age 93. Albert Vetere Lannon, Finnish on his mother’s side, was president of Warehouse local 6 of the ILWU and later a labor studies educator in the community and state college systems in the Bay Area and a labor historian. He is now retired in Arizona. His Finnish grandfather had been a Wobbly, his parents Communists. The late Toivo Hannula, with Hall Socialist parentage, was a key organizer of the chair manufacturing industry unions in Gardner Massachusetts. His late brother Reino, the publisher of Finn Heritage quarterly, was a retail co-op manager for many years as was Eugene Mannila of Minnesota at the Berkeley Co-op. Many have heard of Gus Hall, the Red Diaper son of founding CP members in Minnesota. He helped organized the Ohio steelworkers into the CIO during the 1930s and 1940.s. He was later National Chair of the CP-USA and its Presidential candidate. Unfortunately he remained a dogmatic Stalinist to the end and in the late 1980s led a purge of a CP faction which had become critical of the Stalin years in Russia and wanted to develop more democratic perspectives.
Most of my own life has been involvement in the labor movement and libertarian socialist politics. I still function as a Labor Council delegate from my Printing Sector CWA local, formerly the International Typographical Union. I’m also a member of the IWW and Screen Actors Guild. I attribute my involvement to my socialist family background. My parents left me no material estate, but they did give me the greatest gift I can imagine, the values I live by: Dedication to the underdog, the working class, world peace, racial and social equality and the vision of world based on love and cooperation instead of oppression and dog-eat-dog competition fueled by greed. I owe all this to Hanna and Antti Siitonen. Also to my older cousin, the late Jane Arenz (nee Lempi Rauha Siitonen) who was a great role model for me. She was the daughter of my uncle August Siitonen, a baker and a classic Bernsteinian Social Democrat. Lempi/Jane spent most of her life in the radical labor movement, inspired by her Hall Socialist upbringing. She was a union organizer, a political radical, and a militant feminist. She was one of the American Workers Party organizers in the first of the great sitdown strikes that led to the formation of the CIO, at the Auto Lite spark plug plant in Toledo, Ohio in 1934. She spent a number of years in the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, but in her later years was a non-doctrinaire democratic socialist without affiliation.
I’m so proud of my legacy; it has given me a sense of mission which has lent rich meaning to my life. The Finnish
immigrant labor movement is now history. In my mind, more than ever we need a freedom-loving socialist and labor
movement, especially with neo-liberalist corporate greed consuming the world to sate its own avarice through war,
environmental devastation, and human exploitation of the many.
This paper was presented at the Finnish-American Folk Festival at Naselle, Washington on July 30, 2004. It will be posted on the Festival website at. www.finnam.naselle.net. An early version of this paper was presented in 2002 at a forum of the Northern California Labor History Society in Oakland, California.