Life of the Party

Death in the mines. Hunger marches. An FBI spy on every block. Minnesota's daughters of the revolution can tell you about it all. But first, have some coffee cake.

To hear Mackie and Savola talk, joining the Young Communist League was like buying a training bra or shaving--a teenage rite of passage. Members went door to door with petitions and spoke on street-corner soapboxes. "The city would come with fire hoses," Mackie recalls. They'd knock down one, and then another would get on the box."

Young Communists staged plays with revolutionary themes: Mackie and her friends put on "Bowels of the Earth," a musical in which a crew of miners trapped underground was saved by, who else, the people. And they held dances. Savola met her future husband, an organizer in the Timber Workers Union, at one of them; he cut in on her when she was doing the box step with her sister. He was "quite a waltzer," she grins.

But life in the mining towns lost its cheer in 1929, the year Mackie graduated from Virginia High School. In October the stock market crashed, and unemployment skyrocketed: By 1932 some 70 percent of Iron Range workers had lost their jobs. Jobless miners and flat-broke farmers queued up in soup lines and built "Hoovervilles"--communities of tar-paper shacks the police periodically destroyed.

Mackie attended her first big political rally in 1929. It was a "hunger march" that took her, in the back of someone's truck, all the way to the courthouse square in Duluth. "We demonstrated for farm relief, jobs, things like that. And in the square there were cops waiting for us, and firemen with hoses, lined up to show that these dangerous protesters were coming into town."

She waves her hands dismissively. "Dangerous? They were half-starved. All these people and the long line of beat-up-looking cars and trucks--I can see it now--it made quite an impression on me."

It was around this time that a guy Toini had known at Virginia High School, Martin Mackie, tried to organize a union, holding secret meetings with fellow miners in people's houses or barns. The effort was squelched by the steel company, which had infiltrated the group with paid spies.

But his labors ultimately paid off. When the Steel Workers' Organizing Committee--part of the nationwide Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) union--launched an organizing effort on the Range in 1938, they hired Martin as a full-time staffer. A few years later, the CIO won a ground-breaking contract. Macalester College labor historian Peter Rachleff says that when he went to a Range history event this summer, the old miners there spoke glowingly of Martin Mackie, calling him a hero. "The story on the Iron Range was that there were 25 years of ferocious opposition to unionism by the U.S. Steel and other companies," he says. "Martin Mackie was seen as a leader of the grassroots effort to stand up to powerful outside corporations who had used a reign of terror to keep those mines nonunion."

By the time Mackie took to organizing full-time, he and Toini were married and living on the salary she was making as a legal secretary. It was a typical arrangement among Communist couples, explains Rachleff. Organizing did not pay well, if at all, so union leaders often relied on their spouses' paychecks. Helvi Savola remembers Matt--who became one of the Upper Peninsula's best-known timber-industry organizers--as an early househusband who took care of the kids and did the laundry when he wasn't out distributing leaflets. By sheer economic necessity, says Rachleff, these couples created "egalitarian relationships; they were way ahead of their time."

But if men and women were equal in their activism, they were also considered equal targets for retaliation. After Martin Mackie ran for governor on the Communist ticket, Toini was fired from her job in Virginia. The family moved to Duluth, where she worked for prominent labor attorney Hank Paull and made friends with other Communist women, including writers Irene Paull and Meridel LeSueur, and a young farm-country firebrand named Alma Foley.

 

Foley opens the door to her Uptown apartment dressed smartly in a turquoise pantsuit, her white hair tucked into a twist on the back of her head. The walls have some grandmotherly touches--homemade wall hangings near the door, elementary-school artwork in the kitchen--but they also bear witness to Foley's 70 years of activism: black-and-white photos of friends and fellow radicals, a quote from Nelson Mandela's inaugural speech, a yellowed poster with the labor slogan "We Want Bread and Roses Too."

Foley pulls out a chair and sits down, posture ramrod-straight. She glances at her calendar, explaining that to combat a failing memory she's taken to writing down all her appointments. "I just can't remember certain details," she says matter-of-factly. "So let's start at the beginning."

The beginning was Alden, a small Minnesota town near the Iowa border, where Foley's parents farmed and served as postmasters. They were loyal, if not particularly active, Democrats, and their daughter didn't become involved in politics until she left home to study chemistry at the University of Minnesota. In 1928 "some girls who thought they were radicals" fixed her up with a Communist Party organizer who had just moved to Minnesota from out East. The pair hit it off and were married later that year. After living in Minneapolis for a couple of years they moved to Duluth, where Tom Foley recruited party members and Alma worked for the party's legal arm.

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