The Historical Society of Greater Lansing and the Capital Area District Library (CADL) are cosponsoring a premier showing of the long-awaited “Red Metal: The Copper Country Strike of 1913” 6:30 p.m., Monday, December 9 at the downtown branch of CADL, 401 South Capitol Avenue. The event is free and open to the public. You may watch a trailer of the documentary by clicking here.
The film by Emmy Award Winner Jonathan Silvers explores the 100th anniversary of the strike and the Italian Hall disaster where 73 individuals, mostly children, were killed at a union Christmas eve party. “Red Metal” is being shown locally before it appears on PBS stations across the nation beginning on December 17 at 8 p.m.
Following the Lansing showing, Steve Lehto author of "Death's Door" and a historical advisor on the film will answer questions about the film and his book. The book which won a Michigan Notable Book Award in 2007 reexamines the circumstances surrounding the killings and will be for sale at the event.
The documentary, 54 minutes in length, includes a five minute rendition of Woodie Guthrie's “1913 Massacre” ballad sung by folk musician Steve Earle. Premiers are also set for Calumet Theater (an opera house a block from the site of the disaster), Finlandia’s Finnish American Heritage Center, the Marquette Peter White Library, and at Mott Community College in Flint.
Filmmaker Jonathan Silvers of Saybrook Productions who has also produced documentaries on the search for Nazi war criminals and Soviet nuclear testing now explores an epic labor strike that devastated Michigan's Copper Country – and one that continues to haunt the American labor movement to this day.
The film explores the intensifying battle between organized labor and corporate power, as well as related issues of immigration, technology, and unchecked corporate interests.
Of equal significance is the strike's cultural legacy, which influenced national discourse, music, and legislation during the Progressive Era and the New Deal.
“The disaster at the Italian Hall is just as interesting today as it was 100 years ago, because still, no one quite knows what happened. In the present age of instant knowledge accessible anytime, anywhere, it's a mystery that refuses to be solved,” Valerie Marvin, president of the Historical Society said.
“Red Metal” gives us a chance to revisit the story which is part of our collective identity as Michiganders, and to understand it in the context of a political battle that was waging not only across the UP, but across the country, at the time," she said.
Lehto said that although the Copper Country strike is not well-known outside of the state these days, the strike was of national significance.
“Too many people think that the copper miners “lost” the strike because they never achieved recognition for the union and eventually voted to simply end the strike and return to work.
But, the strike attracted significant attention – largely because of the horror of the Italian Hall – and was one of the events taken into account in the following years when Washington began issuing pro-labor and pro-union legislation,” Lehto said.
Lehto said the man who yelled “Fire!” was most likely a strike breaker, intent on disrupting the party.
“Although he may not have intended to kill anyone at the outset, the result was certainly homicide.” More than half of those killed were of Finnish descent to which Lehto traces his Upper Peninsula native heritage.
The author also said the disaster spawned myths and legends.
“People today debate which way the doors to the Hall opened (they opened correctly but many locals dispute that) or whether the man who cried “Fire!” did so because he thought there was a fire (there was no fire).
“The Italian Hall is one of the most important events in Michigan history and in Labor history overall. It ought to be taught in schools and remembered by everyone,” Lehto said.