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Labor Review Centennial, 1907-2007
In the beginning...
Labor Review born in 1907 during a boom decade for Minneapolis

From the Minneapolis Labor Review, May 24, 2007

By Iric Nathanson

In the spring of 1907, business was booming in Minneapolis.

The Pillsbury Washburn Company was about to expand its A Mill at St. Anthony Falls and the L.S. Donaldson Company was gearing up to remodel its Glass Block Department Store on Nicollet Avenue. In all, more than $2 million in building improvements were on the city’s drawing boards when the Labor Review published its first issue April 4, 1907.

A local historian, Horace Hudson, writing in 1908, would look back at the previous ten years in Minneapolis and declare that “substantial progress of the better kind during the past decade has far eclipsed anything that has gone before it.”

Between 1900 and 1910, the city’s population increased by 50 percent from 200,000 to 300,000. Never again during the 20th century would Minneapolis achieve that growth rate.

If they did the dirty, unskilled jobs in the local mills and factories, Minneapolis workers did not benefit from this economic boom during the first decade of the new century. In fact, many would continue to lose ground as the intensely anti-union Citizens Alliance tightened its grip on the city’s economy.

But for the city’s skilled tradesmen, good times in 1907 provided leverage that they could use to coax some modest wage concessions from their employers.

As the Labor Review was putting the finishing touches on its first issue, the city’s carpenters were negotiating with a group of contractors for a new pay scale of 45 cents an hour starting on April 1 — a five cent an hour raise over the current scale. The Minneapolis Tribune reported that the carpenters had decided to strike when they were rebuffed initially by the contractors.  But the Labor Review disputed that claim. “There is no strike of carpenters as has been asserted in the local daily press,” the labor paper reported in its first issue. “On the contrary, everything looks most favorable for the general adoption of the new scale.”

The Labor Review went on to report that the contractors’ organization, known as the Master Builders Association, had not responded formally to the carpenters’ proposal for a new higher pay scale. But many individual contractors agreed to the new scale in the absence of a formal agreement.  “Now about 75 men who have been refused the 45 cent scale are idle, but as work is plenty, they are rapidly being placed with contractors paying the scale. Only eight of the Master Builders are holding out,” the labor paper noted.

Two months later, in June, the carpenters would report that “work is keeping up good, nearly all the men are employed, and prospects were never brighter.”

While the carpenters were achieving wage gains in Minneapolis in 1907, Labor’s allies at the State Capitol were making some limited progress on bills to restrict child labor and to establish free employment bureaus around the state. These measures had won support from Minnesota’s Labor Commissioner, W. H. Williams, who had a generally positive working relationship with the state’s unions. Williams served under Minnesota’s Democratic Governor, John A. Johnson. The Governor had a moderately progressive image but he had his share of critics in the state’s labor movement, who believed that he did not move aggressively enough to promote a true reform agenda.

Fair labor standards laws in Minnesota and throughout the country were a hope, but not a reality back then. Many working people still had to contend with 10 hour days and six day work weeks.

Even for these workers, there were some diversions that made life a little more tolerable in 1907. Sports received prominent coverage in the local papers, as it would 100 years later.

On April 3, the Minneapolis Journal reported that the Minneapolis Millers had defeated the Des Moines Champs on the Iowa team’s home field by a score of 11 to 7 in the last of a series of practice games before the spring baseball season got underway. “The game yesterday was a weird sort of exhibition,” the paper noted, “Hard hitting. Some dumb fielding, a few fancy plays and some dumb plays kept up the interest.”

People ready for a night out on the town on Saturday, April 6, had plenty to choose from in the downtown entertainment district. Yon Yonson was at the Bijou; Modern Vaudeville was at the Orpheum and the Merry Burlesquers were at the Dewey.

For the serious-minded, Emma Goldman was in town that night to deliver an address at Holcomb’s Hall. The nationally-known radical activist was speaking on

“Misconceptions about Anarchy.” The Minneapolis Journal covered the speech and reported that “the Emma Goldman who spoke was not the Emma Goldman who has popularly pictured as waving the red flag of revolt and bloodshed.”

“Radical ideas on free love and armed revolt was conspicuously absent in Miss Goldman’s address, and if any among the 200 persons who fill the hall expected to a rabid appeal to passion they were disappointed,” the Journal noted.

“Economic conditions, governmental and industrial, were denounced… but there was no talk of bombs or infernal machines.”

In later years, the Minneapolis Labor Review would be accused of “waving the red flag of revolt and bloodshed” as it spoke out for workers rights. Like Emma Goldman, the Labor Review would continue to denounce “economic conditions, government and industrial” that suppressed those rights.

Minneapolis writer Iric Nathanson writes about local history. He is the author of a September 2005 profile of Thomas Van Lear which appeared in the Minneapolis Observer. Van Lear, a member of the Labor Review founding Board of Control, was a Socialist elected mayor of Minneapolis in 1916.

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