Life of the Party

Mike Steirnagle

The dark aqua book sits near the nondescript black phone, by the stack of newspaper clippings with the dates carefully inked on the corners. Toini Mackie has set it out during her latest expedition to "the archives," almost a century's worth of files in her closet. She turns off the TV (Bill Bradley is on CNN), walks a few steps to the kitchen counter, and pulls a steaming carafe of coffee off the stove. On the gingham-covered table she sets out cups, napkins, and the cardamom bread from an Iron Range bakery. Then it's time for the book.

Two heads, one gray, one white, bend over the cloth cover with the faded image of a well-muscled worker set against a line of factories belching black smoke. Mackie opens the volume and her friend Helvi Savola's eyes gleam as she glimpses the text: "It's a Finnish calendar," she says, reaching forward to turn a glossy page. The paper is dog-eared and yellowed in places, but the type is still clearly legible, and so are the illustrations.

"One shows the poor people's situation," Mackie says, pointing to an image a bit smaller than a standard business card. "The other shows the rich. See?" The illustration on the right side of the page depicts a well-appointed bedroom. "Look at this rich, big fat lady, with the maid who's taking care of the baby." The image on the left shows a haggard woman in what looks to be a run-down tenement: "Look at the stove with a pipe going all the way across the ceiling," Mackie says, her wrinkled finger tracing the lines.

The drawings continue: Poor kid walking to a factory job while rich kid frolics in a school yard. Poor child playing in an alley near a trash can while rich child rides a cart in the park. "Oh, look--there's a poor man being carried out of the mine on a stretcher," Mackie points out. "Half dead, I suppose." The counterpoint to that one is a man in a building labeled BANK. "Reminds me of Wall Street," Mackie scoffs. "Taking it easy, making money."

She closes the book; the cover bears the number 1919. Mackie was nine years old then, and she loved the calendar. "I would look at these pictures," she remembers. "It got me at an early age."

"It" was a credo Mackie and Savola learned while they were still losing baby teeth, one men shouted from street corners and women discussed over laundry in the mining towns where they grew up. It was taken for granted the way weather is, known the way one knows that women may die in childbirth and men may come home missing a limb. It was a fact of life: The rich are rich because the poor are poor.


Mackie and Savola aren't academic Marxists: You won't hear them discussing hegemony. Nor are they Hollywood Bolsheviks--none of that "Good morning, comrade" business. They are, simply, among the very few in Minnesota who saw the Communist Party grow into one of the state's most powerful movements--and who, three-quarters of a century, a Cold War and a fallen Wall later, remain what they used to call card-carrying members.

"No one gets cards anymore," Savola clarifies. "A lot of things have changed over the years." Mackie will barely let her finish before adding: "But the rich are still lining their pockets at the expense of the poor."

Mackie and Savola were born into households that spoke two languages fluently: Finnish and radical politics. The combination was common in the small immigrant towns of the upper Midwest--Mackie is from Minnesota's Iron Range, Savola from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Finns, Slavs, and Italians found plenty of work in the lumber camps, the iron and copper mines. Bone-numbing work. Miners went underground for twelve hours at a time, laboring amid dust so thick they could barely breathe, with no hope of old-age pensions, disability benefits, unemployment compensation.

Savola's dad got out and bought a farm. When Mackie was nine, her father also left the mines--on a stretcher. A falling rock hit his head during his shift at the Commodore Mine in Virginia, leaving him paralyzed. Her parents were lucky to get $72 a month from the company for themselves and three kids.

They took to spending summers in the town of Cherry, where friends built them a house on some family land: "A shack, I would call it," Mackie recalls, "one room with a little upstairs. They built the house in one day. We had a cow, pig, three chickens, a rooster, and a garden. My mother canned. It was a rough life all right."

Cherry was something of a haven for miners, from the job's political dangers as well as its physical hazards. "Anyone who tried to organize workers was fired," Mackie recalls. "And if a fired miner applied to be a clerk in a grocery store, they wouldn't hire him. That's why so many went to work in the country."  

Among Mackie's neighbors in Cherry was a blacklisted miner named Matt Halberg. His son, two weeks older than she, was named Arvo Gusta Halberg; he'd later change his name to Gus Hall and become a legend in national politics, running for president four times and serving as general secretary of the Communist Party of the U.S.A. from 1959 on. And because the world of upper Midwest Finns was small, Helvi Savola also knew Hall: He and her husband Matt were shirttail relations and worked together in the Young Communist League.

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.

When her memory cooperates, Foley can still rattle off the intricacies of the first big case taken on by Communist attorneys--the 1931 appeal on behalf of nine African-American youths in Alabama who, despite flimsy evidence, had been convicted of raping two white women. Through the Scottsboro case and other early efforts, she says, the party gained a reputation for "smart lawyers."

But Communism was also gaining attention outside the courtroom, especially in Minnesota. On the Iron Range, there was the CIO mine contract. In Austin 2700 employees at the George A. Hormel plant staged the country's first recorded sit-down strike and won the first guaranteed annual wage in the meatpacking industry, a coup that landed them on the front page of nearly every paper in the U.S. In the fields of western and central Minnesota, Communists--teaming up with a new group called the Farmer's Holiday Association--turned foreclosure auctions into "penny sales." Crowds of farmers carrying guns and lengths of rope would muscle out would-be buyers, bid a penny or two for the property, and return it to the owner. And in Minneapolis, the Teamsters made headlines with a 1934 strike that virtually paralyzed the city and is considered one of the most militant strikes in U.S. history.

But the victories in the fields and factories didn't come without a personal cost. Alma Foley's husband had devoted most of his life to the party, starting when he was a shipyard worker in Philadelphia. (At one point, during a bid for mayor of Minneapolis, he called for a debate on the statement "Mayor Leach is an enemy of the working class.") But he had always been more comfortable inside a machine shop than he was on the podium; by the time he ran for the Duluth mayor's seat in 1932, Alma says, "I felt he was breaking down personally."

She explained the situation to party higher-ups and it was agreed that the couple should move back to Minneapolis. Tom would remain active in the labor movement, but Alma would step into what her son calls the role of "the family rabble-rouser."

Alma Foley took to the part with a vengeance. She earned national recognition as a leader of the Committee for the Protection of the Foreign-Born, which fought deportations of immigrants made jobless by the Depression. "The thing would be to get these people off the relief line," she recalls, "so the government would toss them back to the country that they came from. If they could get away with it." Foley's group also supported farmers arrested at penny sales, women accused of immorality, and others the party advocated for--Jews, African-Americans, the poor.

And she helped raise another generation of "red-diaper babies," kids who grew up playing in someone's yard while the adults held party meetings. Foley's son Tom remembers the gatherings as festive affairs: After legal documents were reviewed and strategies discussed, someone would inevitably rise to read poetry or play the piano. The Minneapolis party even had the Paloma Singers, a dozen or so voices led by Justine O'Connor, a classically trained pianist and composer. (Her opera Little Red Hiding Hood, performed for Communists in Minneapolis and Milwaukee, featured Toini Mackie as the Wolf of Wall Street.) Visiting national artists with radical sympathies--Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger--would sit in at meetings or perform at house parties.  

Foley was too young to attend one legendary event in the 1940s, but he has heard the story enough times to have it memorized. Blues singer Leadbelly was at a house party in north Minneapolis along with an English aristocrat known as the Red Dean of Canterbury because of his politics and his long red hair. "These two stars converged at this house," Foley explains, "and Leadbelly started stomping and playing and everybody started to dance. The story is that they danced so hard that they danced the house off of the foundation six or seven inches. The next day, they rented house jacks and put this listing house back onto its foundation."

But even more important than the dancing and singing were the spirited discussions, usually held in the kitchen and running late into the night. Leaning up against the stove or crowded around a table, party members would hash out the issues of the day over drinks. And even as the decibel level rose, Foley says, party discipline held fast.

It was former Minnesota senator and presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, he notes, who once mocked Communists as people who had Marx in one pocket, Robert's Rules of Order in the other. "But that was a strength. They were great parliamentarians, even in an informal kitchen discussion. They would stop someone who had had a chance to speak and give a turn to a more shy person."


The Communists' kitchen debates had always been fueled by the kind of idealism that vents itself in symbolic action: Communists practiced "meatless Thursdays" to protest conditions in the meatpacking industry, boycotted war toys to foster world peace. But they had bigger dreams, too--and in the 1930s those dreams slowly, steadily began making their way into the law of the land.

In Minnesota it began in 1930, when Floyd B. Olson was elected governor of Minnesota on the Farmer-Labor Party ticket, and he immediately instituted a series of radical reforms. He instituted an income tax and price controls in agriculture; required businesses to provide unemployment insurance and old-age pensions; regulated telephone, railroad, and electricity companies.

Soon the national Communist Party paper, the Daily Worker, was lauding Farmer-Labor politics in an editorial that closed: "Let Minnesota take the lead. The rest of the country will follow."

It did. In 1933 Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president and set about implementing what in many ways amounted to a carbon copy of Minnesota's reforms: Utility regulation. Social security. Unemployment compensation. The right for unions to organize without interference.

Both Floyd B. Olson and Franklin Roosevelt distanced themselves from Communism, but many of their initiatives could have been plucked straight from the party platform, says Toini Mackie. And they came just in the nick of time, she adds with satisfaction: "This was during the Great Depression, and people were ready for revolution. I've heard it said that if not for these [New Deal] programs, people would have revolted. With them, it's said, we actually saved capitalism."

What the party couldn't save, it would turn out, was itself. After a decade of spectacular growth--by the early 1940s, notes Mackie, Minnesota had several full-time Communist organizers--the movement began to plateau. When government stopped foreclosures, the farmers no longer needed the Communists' penny sales. By 1945 one-third of U.S. non-farm workers were union members, and as labor advanced, Communist organizers lost their once-heroic status.

Another, darker cloud was gathering over the party. In the 1930s Communist leaders had extolled the U.S.S.R. as a model for American workers: "The line was that the Soviet Union had avoided the Depression," notes Rachleff. Soviet sympathies were tolerated, if not encouraged, through World War II, when the U.S.S.R. was an ally in the fight against Nazism. But that changed as the Cold War ramped up. Soon U.S. Communists were suspected of being nothing more than domestic agents of the Bolshevik enemy. And then into the spotlight walked a jowly, undistinguished senator from Wisconsin named Joseph McCarthy.


Tom Foley says his older sister Mickey "remembers a time when it was okay to be who we were. My mom would bake pies, socialize with neighbors. But I don't remember that. I was born in 1944, and I remember being frozen out by most people we knew."

In 1949 the U.S. Department of Justice began prosecuting Communists under 1940 legislation called the Smith Act, which made it illegal for anyone to "teach and advocate the overthrow and destruction of the U.S. government." The top 11 leaders of the Communist Party, including Iron Range native Gus Hall, were brought to trial, convicted, and sentenced to prison terms. The department then set its sights on the next tier of activists.

Toini Mackie's brow furrows at the mere mention of that time, and she won't talk much about her family's fate. All she'll say is that like hundreds of other local and regional party leaders, her husband Martin realized that he would have to face jail or disappear. He chose the latter and went underground while she supported herself and their daughter.  

"It was so awful," Mackie says. "Martin was gone about five years--for most of the time, I think, in Chicago. We would see each other so seldom. We'd have to rely on a person from each end to set it up, and sometimes one of us would be there and the other wouldn't.

"He would tell me that he worked in some factory, and since he was a good worker, they wanted to make him manager. But then he'd figure that he'd have to move again." Their daughter Karen was still in elementary school, and when Martin returned the girl considered him a stranger. "Other kids too," Mackie frowns. "Their fathers came back and their kids didn't even want to know them."

In 1950 Senator McCarthy ratcheted up the Red Scare with his charge that more than 200 Communists worked in the U.S. State Department. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) held hearings from coast to coast, interrogating people about Communist connections. And the FBI launched an all-out effort to find and arrest "pro-Soviet agitators." Between 1947 and 1952, more than six million people were investigated; not a single case of espionage was uncovered, note authors Douglas Miller and Marion Nowack in their book The Fifties.

But the campaign had plenty of other results. In the 1930s Tom Foley and his union, the United Electrical Workers (UE), had organized Honeywell, one of Minneapolis's largest employers. But the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act required union officials to file affidavits vowing that they had no Communist members or associations. The UE's leaders refused to sign the loyalty pledge, and the union was stripped of its right to be listed on a ballot. When the Teamsters mounted a challenge at Honeywell, the UE didn't stand a chance.

Soon, Communist organizers struggled simply to feed their families. Blacklisting, a practice made infamous when actors and directors suspected of left-wing sympathies were frozen out of Hollywood, found its way to the Midwest. By the late 40s, Helvi and Matt Savola found that Matt had been effectively banned from the timber business. The couple also worried that he, like Martin Mackie, might need to go underground. They moved to Clifford, Wisconsin, a pocket of fellow radical Finns, where they managed a co-op store.

In the Twin Cities, the blacklist hit Tom Foley, who had left Honeywell thinking he would easily get another job but soon realized he was persona non grata in local machine shops. So, says his son, he resorted to lying to prospective employers: "He'd say he'd been farming for 15 years and was now coming back--it didn't quite tally. The 1950s were a time of full employment, so he would get the job. But then the FBI agents would harass his bosses, ask him to inform on Mom."

His father's saving grace, says Foley, was his low-key charm. "People liked my dad. He was sweeter, nicer--they liked him in a way that they didn't like my mom, who was factual, not as social. If it had been my mom, the shop owner might not have been as conflicted about it. But no one was happy to fire my dad."

Politics even began to invade the Foleys' Spring Lake Park neighborhood. Alma Foley remembers a kid with whom she'd gotten into a spat threatening that "all he needed to do was go down to the FBI and tell them about me." Son Tom recalls rotten tomatoes thrown at the house at night and "a pile of dog shit" left on the doorstep, topped with a toothpick-sized red flag.

Then there was the mysterious black sedan that often sat outside the family's house. One day in 1953 the car pulled away from the curb as nine-year-old Tom headed for the school bus. "The car followed the bus," he remembers. "I got off and two of them, white guys in suits and hats, walked behind me. I went to my classroom, and then I was called to the principal's office and told that these guys wanted to talk to me. The principal left and I was alone in the room with them."

"Growing up in those times, I was fairly politically savvy," Foley continues. "So when they asked me, 'What books do your parents read you?' I said, 'They read me Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn.'" Foley is noticeably proud that, even as a third-grader, he knew enough not to give "the feebees," as Communists called the FBI, any useful information. But, he figures now, maybe that wasn't the point.  

"Let me think for a moment how to say this--well, I just will. The infiltrators had spotted my dad as being mentally in trouble, very close to a nervous breakdown. So I think that they thought, 'Goddamn, this guy should have popped a month ago. Maybe we try this kid.'" People who "cracked" were considered useful to the FBI because they could be convinced to inform on their friends. Sure enough, Foley says, when he told his parents what had happened at school, "that came very close to cracking my dad."

Amid all the hysteria, Alma Foley says the family tried to act normally. People knew they were Communists, she says, so there was no point in trying to hide. Instead they tried to protect the few friends who still came to meetings. "We kept our circle small, didn't let too many people know who was there. If anyone started reporting, they wouldn't have too many names to name."

But the secrecy took its toll on an organization that had thrived on public debate. "The McCarthy period did us in," Toini Mackie says, shaking her head. "Party membership never rose again."

Longtime Chicago radio host and author Studs Terkel, who as a young TV actor saw his show dumped by NBC because he had signed what were considered Communist petitions, says McCarthyism "set us back half a century. A lot of innocent people were destroyed." What's more, he says, public debate suffered when it became clear that political opinions could cost people their livelihood: "That time has made people worry about talking about serious things," he speculates. "That's why we now have so much emphasis on the banal."


The newspaper is already sitting on the kitchen table, ready for the trip to Excelsior. It's the People's Weekly World now (not the Daily Worker), and it's no longer delivered door to door by party organizers, but dropped by the bundle on racks at a few select Twin Cities locations. The suburb where Toini Mackie lives now, in an apartment built into her daughter's house, isn't among those locations.

With slightly shaky hands, Savola slides the two copies of the World into a plastic bag; she's a little behind on her regular delivery to Mackie's, having recently totaled her car. The accident shattered her dentures and put a gash into her head. She still doesn't quite look herself as she stands outside her south Minneapolis building, a row of black stitches on a shaved part of her scalp fluttering gently in the autumn breeze. "They said I was pretty tough," she muses.

Savola and Mackie became close in the early 70s, after the Savolas--approaching what some people might consider retirement age--moved to the Twin Cities to become district organizers for the Communist Party of Minnesota and the Dakotas. They'd heard about the position through their old friend Gus Hall, by then head of the national party. When Matt died in 1977, Helvi Savola stayed on--for more than two decades. "I think they're finally letting me retire," she laughs. "I've been trying for years now."

At Mackie's apartment--small, tidy, and sweet with the smell of banana bread--the two women dispense with the requisite health updates in a few minutes. "Talking about new recipes, personal things," Mackie grins, slicing the loaf and brewing a fresh pot of Folgers, "that gets kind of boring for me. Sometimes we start talking about how horrible or good something is and we don't hardly ask 'how are you?'"

The pair's exchanges have gained a distinctive rhythm over the years--rapid-fire chats that blend the headlines of the day with the political principles absorbed long ago. Mackie on Jesse Ventura: "He's kind of a screwball." Savola: "Talks before his brain is in gear. But there are things that come through once in a while." Mackie on the Reform Party: "I have no trust in Ross Perot at the top. What do millionaires know about people's problems?" Savola on the farm crisis: "Look at cereals. The people who provide the packaging get more money than the farmer."

If an issue gets thorny and requires documentation, or if the women's memories can't retrieve a date or fact, Mackie retreats to her archives. She rises from the table with the poised dignity of her 89 years, but as she disappears into the huge closet a few steps away she seems to gather the sheer brawn of a young Teamster. Through the wall there is the sound of boxes shoved fearlessly back and forth, then a gasp or chuckle as she comes across a notable detail. Ultimately she emerges, proudly bearing a clipping, a poem, a newsletter from files spanning the better part of the century. "I have so many things in my archives," she says, a little out of breath, "it overwhelms me."  

Then comes a topic that will crop up again and again. Mackie raises it first: "How are we going to get this newsletter done, Helvi? We can't do this whole newsletter ourselves." The People's Path, the local Communist Party sheet, was started by Matt Savola, back when he and Helvi became district organizers in the early 70s. The two women have kept it going for the past two decades, writing and coordinating articles to fill eight pages every other month. But the task has been getting more difficult as the ranks of potential writers have dwindled with age, death, and--among the younger supporters--crammed schedules. "I have been calling up people," says Mackie. "But everyone is so busy."

And "everyone" isn't a very large group. The Communist Party of Minnesota and the Dakotas has about 500 people on its mailing list; of those, only about 50 are dues-paying members. Savola has read that the national party is getting some people to join through "that Internet"; Mackie has heard that around New Year's, when the national party aired an infomercial featuring Gus Hall, "they had people calling by the hundreds." She throws up her hands. "But it's not happening here."

Maybe, they reason, it's the word. These days, says Mackie--who for decades doorknocked on behalf of the party--you can't hit people with it right away. "You've got to ask about their beliefs for world peace, affordable housing. Do you approve of those? Okay, you're a Communist. Instead of saying, 'I'm recruiting for the Communist Party,' because then they'll immediately say, 'No, thank you.' Communism is just a scare word nowadays."

And, chimes in Savola, it starts with the kids--just like the radical credo did many years ago. She remembers a day when her daughter came home from school upset because the kids had called her a Communist. She taught her a comeback from the timber-union days: "Those who would call you a Communist don't know the difference between Communism and rheumatism."

Mackie turns, a devilish look in her eye: "But Helvi, did that help? They probably didn't even know what rheumatism was."

She pours some more coffee and leans back in her chair. "Now Helvi," she inquires, "did you hear Bill Bradley today? How can people have a problem with the idea of national health care?"

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