Logan Explores Labor Sport Union
Gabe Logan (History) received a fellowship from the NMU Center for U.P. Studies to research a paper on the Labor Sport Union, an intriguing blend of left-wing politics and athletics that prospered throughout the iron ore region of Lake Superior from 1928-1935. Teams from several U.P. cities were among those competing in a variety of sports, from baseball and basketball to gymnastics and track and field. The LSU originated in Detroit and proliferated in other major population centers of America’s industrial heartland. Its goal was to strengthen American Communist Party activism by offering immigrant populations a working-class recreation alternative to elite “bourgeoisie” clubs, company-sponsored teams and the religious-backed YMCA/YWCA and Catholic Youth organizations.
The LSU received little attention outside of the urban labor movement, with one notable exception. It proved to be a significant force in the Lake Superior region of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, garnering a level of support disproportionate to the rural population.
“A significant reason for that was the political radicalism of some of the Finnish immigrant workers,” said Northern Michigan University history professor Gabe Logan. He is researching the subject for an upcoming paper and a September presentation at NMU. “The Red Finns had already established community halls that also served as working-class incubators. Their active participation in communist and socialist politics, combined with few existing athletic organizations in the area, created a receptive audience for LSU opportunities. There was a counter movement at that time by the Finnish Anti-Socialist League, or White Finns, but Red Finns enthusiastically embraced the LSU.”
Teams were located in cities spanning the Upper Peninsula from Sault Ste. Marie to Ironwood, including Marquette. A May Day parade featuring LSU competitors is pictured right. Participants ranged from pre-teens to 20-something adults of both genders.
A former soccer player, Logan was exploring U.S. soccer history when he stumbled upon information about Chicago hosting a national “Counter Olympics” in 1932. The event was organized by American communists to protest perceived racism and nationalism at that year's official Olympics in Los Angeles. The Counter Olympics celebrated the party’s racial and gender composition, invited Soviet competitors who had been excluded from the L.A. Games, and demonstrated against the imprisonment of Labor activist Tom Mooney. An article in the Daily Worker indicated that 400 athletes and 5,000 spectators attended.
Logan also noticed a related newspaper headline stating that 42 U.P. iron ore workers traveled to Chicago to compete in the event. He discovered that a man from Rock reportedly hitchhiked and jumped railroad cars en route, was busted for vagrancy in Milwaukee, got bailed out by socialists and flipped another rail car for the last leg to Chicago.
“Information is scarce and few artifacts survive, but the sports section of the Young Worker, a youth paper of the American Communist Party, frequently highlighted the area’s contributions to the LSU. In 1934, Richard Heikkinen—the LSU’s U.P. representative—was elected national secretary. He increased LSU coverage in the Lake Superior region and used the area’s coaching clinics as a national model. These clinics taught first aid and conditioning, which wasn’t unique, but also how to promote labor athletics in the workplace and initiate direct action in communities. An example occurred after a clinic in Hurley. Coaches and athletes went to Ironwood and stopped a housing foreclosure.”
Logan said the decline of LSU in this region coincides with the exodus of 5,000 Red Finns recruited to bring American technology and thought to Karelia, a USSR region bordering Finland. Coincidentally, he said the Finns also took American baseball with them, giving public demonstrations of the sport. Karelia became known as a “Finnish workers’ paradise” and thrived until Stalin took power.
“Stalin’s leadership of the communist movement, along with the Karelia backlash and the Soviet Union’s winter war with Finland, challenged the beliefs of those who were Communists in the Upper Peninsula. That led to the eventual collapse of the LSU here. I think the LSU was viewed in the Great Lakes region more as an opportunity to play sports than join the party. The LSU on a national level had begun to merge with socialist sport unions to form what became known as Workers Sports of America. Lake Superior region workers were underwhelmed with this and elected to merge with the co-op movement, which encompassed sports, food and economics. This was another anomaly unique to the Great Lakes region that still needs to be studied.”
Logan encourages area residents with any memorabilia or family lore related to the LSU’s presence in the region to contact him at email@example.com. He presented his paper to the North American Society of Sport History in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and will share it with local audiences at the NMU Sonderegger Symposium in September. It is titled “Playing for the People: Labor Sport Union Athletic Clubs in the Lake Superior Region, 1928-1935.”
Historical photos courtesy of the Tyomies Society collection at the University of Minnesota’s Immigration History Research Center.