The Noah Project

Rebuilding a sustainable world.

Consumer Cooperative Movement on Iron Range

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Cindy Kujala, a staff writer for the Community Information Network, writes about the consumer cooperative movement on the Iron Range in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s:

The consumer cooperative movement on the Range was initially developed almost entirely by Finnish immigrant groups and although second and third generation Americans of other ethnic groups eventually contributed to the movement, it has eventually been almost totally dominated by Finnish Americans.
During the period 1890 through the 1950s, the Range was dominated by three economic activities: mining, logging and agriculture. All three activities saw conditions of economic insecurity due to responses of these activities to general economic conditions as well as seasonal fluctuations and exhaustions of iron ore and forest resources. In addition, conflict between workers and large corporations affect entire communities.
As a producer, the immigrant farmer on the Range market farm produced mainly dairy products and wood products. Local lumber companies or jobbers usually contracted for the forest products and extended credit to buy supplies from the company store.
This practice often resulted in the immigrant farmer being exploited twice: once when he had to sell his products at whatever price the company would give him, and then again when he had to buy at the company store at high prices. As a miner or logger, the early immigrant was also usually given credit at the company store. These stores often had monopolies and the immigrant miners, loggers or farmers had to trade there. High prices were the rule.
As a result of their limited incomes and the above consumer conditions, the immigrant became very conscious of consumer purchasing. The high prices charged by local merchants is one of the most frequently repeated reasons given for starting local cooperatives.
The Finns who came here during the early 1900s were primarily of peasant background. They brought with them a working man’s culture and philosophy developed by the struggle in Finland to attain economic and political freedom, as well as national unity.
In order to enlist the peasants into nationalistic movements, reading and discussion groups had been formed in Finland around 1850. These institutions of workers’ societies were transplanted to America and in many communities served as forums for debate of social, economic and political issues and were often the location for the establishment of consumer cooperatives.
In Aurora, Floodwood, Orr and other communities the cooperatives were planned in meetings at the Workers’ Halls. The Finns – probably more than any other immigrant group on the Range – had more serious, selfeducated workingmen widely read in labor literature, and also effective speakers who maintained close relationships with their workers’ associations.
The Labor party was established in Finland in 1899 as a result of the trade union movement, fostered by workers’ associations. Four years later it became the Social Democratic Party.
Many of the Finns who came to America were Social Democrats and they brought with them three responses to the insecurity of life here: socialism in politics, trade unionism in production, and consumers’ cooperation in distribution. These institutions supported each other in America.
The Finnish socialist clubs played a major role in fostering consumer cooperatives on the Range. However, the dissension among the socialists proved detrimental to the cooperative movement. The Finnish Socialist movement did, however, provide leadership for the cooperative movement, in addition to the ideology of working class welfare and humanitarianism that provided incentive for the development of cooperatives.
Strikes sponsored by trade unionism occasionally resulted in the establishment of cooperative societies when merchants refused to supply strikers with credit. Such was the case of the Virginia Cooperative Society which was originally called the Virginia Work People’s Trading Company and was organized in 1909 by a group of Finnish workers who had been deprived of credit during the miners’ strike of 1907.
Trade unionism gradually lost prestige among Finnish workers, however, and the consumer cooperative movement itself was looked on by workers and farmers as a way of improving their lives.
Because the socialist Finns very actively supported the organization of early cooperatives, many early church leaders looked unfavorably upon the cooperative movement. The basis of the antagonism was in the anti-religious ideology of socialism, rather than the philosophy of consumer cooperation itself. In fact, many early cooperative societies had a large percentage of church members. The cooperatives gained even more church members after 1930 when the communists were rejected at the annual meeting of the Central Cooperative Exchange and, in effect, removed from the cooperative movement.
It is ironic that the “Communist” label continued to be applied to the cooperative movement on the Range long after the communists’ ideology was rejected by the movement.
The Range Cooperative Federation was a regional organization developed in 1933 by the local cooperative societies. The Federation at one time operated a trucking department, creamery, sausage factory, automobile dealership, insurance, farm machinery dealership, gasoline and oil distributorship, forest and farm products marketing, and mortuary service. Today the Range Cooperative Federation continues operations with distribution of gasoline, oil, bottle gas, and with mortuaries in Virginia and Hibbing.
At its peak in the 1940s and 50s, there were cooperative stores in nearly every Range town and rural community. The movement supported two weekly newspapers, the English language Cooperative Builder and the Finnish language Tyovaen Osuustoimintalehti, which ceased publication in 1963. The Co-ops also sponsored youth organizations, summer camps, and cultural and recreational activities.
Today few cooperative stores remain. They have fallen victim to changing times and a lack of commitment to the cooperative philosophy by second and third generation immigrants. The co-op store was seen as just another supermarket, instead of a part of an alternative economic system.
It is interesting to note, however, that new “buying clubs” and “co-ops” are being developed as a protest over consumer prices and excessive advertising and merchandising of “junk” foods to the exclusion of “natural” and “health” foods. These buying clubs and food co-ops are being developed primarily by low income groups, as were the early cooperative societies on the Range

Author: Daniela

I will forever be grateful that I was introduced to the utility and beauty of hand crafted products early in life - from the symbolic motifs sewn into the coarse linen fabric of Croatian traditional wear to the colorful Kilim carpets that decorated the parquet floors in my grandmother's living room. I treasure the memories of my grandfather teaching me how to protect myself against the "evil eye," the smell of the flower stalls in the open air market where my grandmother bought produce early every morning for the day’s meals and the summers spent at my great grandmother's where the village wags would come to gossip over thick, black Turkish coffee in her cool stone kitchen. Someone noted that "For all of us that want to move forward, there are a very few that want to keep the old methods of production, traditions and crafts alive." I am a fellow traveler with those who value the old traditions and folk wisdom. I believe the knowledge they possess can contribute significantly to our efforts to build a more sustainable world - one that values the individual over the corporation, conservation over growth and happiness over wealth.

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