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Industrialisti: History of a Finnish-language socialist newspaper

DCN Reporter

Most families have at least one tradition that goes back further than anybody can recall. In some cases it's a cookie recipe. In others, it's an occupation like farming. For Sirkka Holm's family, it's socialism.

At 88 years old, Sirkka is remarkably lucid. She tells how her grandfather established the first socialist hall in his village in Finland in the late 1800s, and she remembers clearly her father looking desperately for work in Massachusetts after being blacklisted for striking during the Great Depression.

Not to be overshadowed by her family, Sirkka has devoted much of her life to leftist causes. Along with her husband Taisto, she wrote for the Finnish-language socialist newspaper Tyomies-Eteenpain for over 20 years.

The paper, published out of Superior, Wis. and circulated nationally, provided a way for leftist Finns across the country to keep in touch, says Sirkka, especially during trying times for the movement such as the McCarthy era in the 1950s.

"It was an honorable paper," she says. "It let the people know when anybody was arrested or deported. And back then, they had a lot of excuses to deport you."

Even during the McCarthy era, the paper was a shadow of what it was in the early 1900s when, despite many attempts at censorship by the authorities, it opposed United States involvement in World War I and openly sympathized with the Bolshevik revolution in Russia.

At that time there were more than 26,000 Finns born in Finland in St. Louis County. Many of them had been influenced by the communist revolutionary thought circulating around czarist Russia, of which Finland was then a part.

In the upper Midwest where the majority of Finns settled, the work in the iron mines and logging camps was harsh and the pay was low, conditions conducive to the ideologies that they had developed in Finland.

On top of that, existing labor unions weren't always sympathetic to the plight of immigrant laborers. They viewed them as competitors who drove down the price of labor,said Richard Hudelson, the author of By the Ore Docks, A Working People's History of Duluth.

"These immigrants ... they were excluded. They were downtrodden. They got the worst jobs at the worst pay," said Hudelson.

Because of this, many Finns and other ethnic groups turned to more radical political organizations such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Communist Party for action and acceptance, said Hudelson.

Newspapers sprang up to educate workers on ideology and to spread the word about planned strikes and demonstrations.

For the Finnish community of Duluth and Superior, those papers were Tyomies, which supported the electoral politics of the Communist Party, and the Industrialisti (The Industrialist), which advocated the brand of industrial syndicalism touted by the IWW.

In their heyday, both papers were published daily and were read widely by Finns throughout the country, especially in areas with high concentrations of Finnish immigrants like the Twin Ports, the Iron Range, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Hudelson recalls seeing a preserved Industrialisti newspaper from the 1910s at the Ely-Winton Historical Society in Ely, Minn.

"I was in awe," said Hudelson. "It was really an elaborate, world-class paper. And the fact that they put it out daily is just ... amazing."

In 1950, Tyomies, out of Superior, merged with Eteenpain, out of New York City, to consolidate resources in a time of diminishing readership.

Finns from Finland were getting old, says Sirrka, and many in the new generation weren't all that willing to pick up where their parents had left off.

"A lot of their children saw what they had been through and they didn't want that. It was just a handful of us who kept on believing what our parents did," says Sirkka.

With its editorial staff getting smaller by the year and a shrinking demographic of Finnish speakers, Industrialisti closed its doors in 1975. Tyomies continued, albeit with increasingly infrequent publishing.

The paper was given to Finlandia University in Hancock, Mich. in 2000, and is still published monthly under the name Finnish American Reporter, although it no longer retains much connection with the radical politics of its past.

Sirkka and her husband continue to write history columns for the paper, trying to remind readers of a history that was far from ordinary.

"Some of the old folks still write about politics, but it's a different paper than what it was," says Sirkka.