The Shape of an Era
“Men are cheap —
timber costs money“

by Mike King

from Jump Cut, no. 8, 1975, pp. 14-15
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

It’s dark as a dungeon,
Damp as the dew
Where danger is double,
And the pleasures are few,
Where the rain never falls
And the sun never shines,
It’s dark as a dungeon
Way down in the mine.
 —Merle Travis, “Dark as a Dungeon”

Gallows humor is the particular privilege of the oppressed. One of the cherished pleasures of workingmen is the right to terrify their fellows. I have seen a craneman drop scrap steel from on high onto a friend’s lunchbox -and then laugh aloud as he paid for the joke by buying lunch all around. Miners will turn off their headlamps and crawl on hands and knees through the dark to sneak up on and goose a newcomer to the pit. For weeks the same practical joker will carry a double load while the newcomer learns his job. Danger is kept at a distance and made bearable by grisly laughter. People who work on high steel or in the hole know that they walk in the shadow of death and that their lives are a commodity with a negligible cost in the marketplace. They are constantly reminded of it by the negligent, cost-accounting attitude of the company men for whom they work. “They used to say,” recalls a retired miner with a resigned smile: “Men are cheap, timber costs money.” A version I remember goes like this:

“Dig until you drop—they got another fool waiting in line to pick up the shovel.”

The grim resignation that becomes the hard emotional surface of working people is likewise demonstrated in the ability to speak of the horrible treatment and bad conditions in the workplace with an air of almost detached amusement. In THE SHAPE OF AN ERA a man describes the “broken leg test” for miners hurt below ground: \

“The foreman would stand a man up, and then let him go—if he fell down he'd say, ‘yep, leg’s broke.’ That was company medicine.”

Formal medicine is little better, for the doctor is likely as not a company doctor with a function exactly analogous to that of an army medic: Keep the patient on the front line or failing that, discharge him for reasons of ill health due to “natural causes,” i.e. unrelated to working conditions. That thousands of miners, for example, succumb over the years to one form or another of silicosis (“black lung,” “red lung,” etc.) is, in the eyes of company doctors, company researchers, company politicians, even company union men, “purely coincidental.” Labor is caught, used, used up and then discarded. And the story of that dismal sequence is generally told by the academic and journalistic hirelings of the users—too seldom by the used.

THE SHAPE OF AN ERA is an admirable attempt to redress that imbalance and the distortions it maintains. The movie is a short history and documentary of the rise and fall of the mining industry along the Northern Range of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, told mainly in the words of the miners themselves. The “era” recorded runs from about 1890 to the present—although the bulk of the mines were closed in the mid-60s as the companies moved to South America. The mines involved are iron and copper mines owned and exploited by the big ore companies: Inland Steel, U.S. Steel, Bethlehem, Kennecott, Anaconda, Reserve. There are still a few mines being worked, copper in White Pines, Michigan, and iron in Silver Bay, Minnesota, and elsewhere—but most of the mines lie unused and desolate, still rich in low-grade ores and awaiting the much-heralded return of the industry.

It is curious that after only a decade of inactivity, so little is heard of the mines and the miners. “Mining means coal, and coal means West Virginia and Kentucky.” There is an occasional pollution scandal and the like, but it is as though an entire generation of miners, their families, and their history had been wiped off the earth. To a great extent, that is exactly what has happened.

The closing of the mines has meant economic desolation and the consequent destruction of the community. The young people are driven off the land into the city workforce because, as the ancient Dylan song goes: “There ain't nothing here now to hold them.” Left are deserted buildings, burned-out storefronts, 15-20% unemployment, and an economy entirely dependent upon seasonal tourism and minimum-wage, non-unionized light industry—textbook cases of underdevelopment. The labor that remains is desperate and captive (“Loyal” is the company and Chamber of Commerce term)—many Indians and women  —and can be bought very cheap, with government subsidies. Yet, as this film shows, the Northern Range was for many decades the chief supplier of iron and copper ore to the world, until the Chilean mines began delivering at an even cheaper rate, again, as the song goes, because “the miners work almost for nothing.”

The history of the mines and the miners is a rich history. Its main connective threads are the repeated attempts by the miners to organize themselves against the combined power of company and state. Such attempts inevitably met with the usual responses of threatened capital: scabs, goon squads, “free labor” laws, armed force, and outright murder. The worst example of the latter was the Calumet Mining “disaster” of 1913, when over 200 members of strikers’ families, mostly children, were trampled to death after scabs shouted “fire” outside a crowded Christmas celebration. Roseanna Sever, a woman who as a child lived through the slaughter, recounts the terrible memory until her own tears force her to stop. It is the most moving passage in the film, and it was only the most savage example of a daily record of slaughter and carnage that remains the murderous practice of the mining industry. As a miner said to me once,

“Quick or slow, quick or slow, they kill you one way or another.”

This is the story that is partly told in this excellent oral history of the mining era. One miner after another recounts his experience in the mines, his knowledge of the area, his education in the ways of the mine bosses. Around this core of remembrance a historical context is lightly drawn, unobtrusively. The background is presente in such a way as to give an adequate description of the mining industry’s role in the U.S. economy and history. History of the best sort is constructed of just such a collation of the particular and the general, the singular and the collective, and this has the added advantage of being told from the point of view of working people, so often relegated to appendage status in bourgeois histories.

“Each page a victory,
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?
So many particulars.
So many questions.”

A few of the questions are answered by films like THE SHAPE OF AN ERA, of which I can only complain that they are too few and too brief. This film suffers from brevity, as all such underfunded projects do, but I understand that some of the same people are working on further films of this sort. Al Gedicks, who directed THE SHAPE OF AN ERA, is reportedly working on a larger film to cover the history of Wisconsin, and bravo for him. It is a shame that only foreign filmmakers like Jan Troell have been able to find the money to explore this territory, and then from afar. I urge movement groups, teachers, film clubs, particularly in the Midwest, to rent this film and use it to educate on working people’s history. It is neither dogmatic nor condescending in its presentation, and it is crisply edited and intercut so that the usual weaknesses of the interview format are avoided. There are a few minor faults worth noting: the minimal narration, although well written, is delivered in a sententious drone that is mildly annoying. Too little is directly seen or described of the actual methods of union organizing under the gun. The reliance on retired miners’ recollections leaves the current situation unclear (perhaps a supplementary film would be necessary to fill this gap).

The last point is of course the most important one, and this is less a cinematic problem that a problem of the future of the people of the Northern Range. In fact the film touches on just this crucial matter. What is to be done when the iron and copper bosses return, as they inevitably will, to exploit the mines and the people once again? Already what passes for the local media are softening up the populace for the much promised mining of the taconite ore in the area. However, the ascendance of fascism in Chile, along with the current depression, may have made such a move on the part of the companies no longer so urgent. But return they will, sooner or later, and with them will come all the quick money, cheap thrills, and cheaper death and destruction that characterizes the boom-and-bust mining industry. It remains to be seen whether the companies will find such easy pickings among the working people of the North Country as they have in the past, or whether those people will be able to organize to keep the mineowners in line. The local people feel, for the most part, that the bosses got the best of them the first time around—and, for the most part, they swear that this time it’s going to be different. One can only hope that they're right.


THE SHAPE OF AN ERA, 16mm, b/w, 30-min., is a joint production of Community Action on Latin America (CALA), 731 State St., Madison, Wisconsin 53703, and CD Film Workshop, 28 Fisher Ave., Boston, Mass. 02120.