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Silver was discovered in Leadville, Colorado in the 1870s, initiating the Colorado Silver Boom. The Leadville miners' strike in 1896-97 occurred during, and as a result of, rapid industrialization and consolidation of the mining industry. Mine owners had become more powerful, and they resolved not only to defeat the strike, but also to crush the union. The local union lost the strike and was nearly dissolved, marking a turning point for the local union's parent organization, the Western Federation of Miners (WFM).
The defeat forced miners to re-assess their tactics and their union philosophy. Although the federation was birthed as the result of a violent struggle and had engaged in a militant action in the Cripple Creek District in which miners asserted union rights and defended themselves with gunfire and dynamite, the organization's disposition and its Preamble envisioned a future of arbitration and conciliation with employers. After the Leadville strike, WFM leaders and their followers adopted radical politics and were open to more militant policies, breaking with the conservative, craft union based American Federation of Labor in the East.
The union local in the Leadville mining district was the Cloud City Miners' Union (CCMU), Local 33 of the Western Federation of Miners. The Leadville strike was the first real test for the Western Federation of Miners, and the first strike into which the WFM poured significant resources. Coming just two years after the Federation's victory at Cripple Creek, the Leadville strike represented a significant hope that the mineworkers could solidify their power and continue their dramatic growth.
Miners and other workers were often pulled into industrial enterprises such as underground metal mining from non-industrial traditions. Placer mining was gradually replaced by lode mining from 1860 to 1910, forcing miners to go deeper underground and resulting in an increasing level of industrialization. Tensions resulted from changing demands for job skills and work discipline.
By 1900, there were more than 4,000 miners in Leadville. Colorado's annual mining industry death rate in the 1890s was almost six deaths per thousand workers. As a death rate quoted for miners, the statistics were believed understated because they included surface workers as well as underground workers.
Prior to the 1890s, many hard rock mines were owned by the miners who had discovered them. Owners who had been miners were often more sympathetic to the concerns of miners. But the higher cost of industrialization changed that. The typical mine owners of the 1890s started out as bankers, managers, and businessmen who had never entered a mine, and whose primary concern was profitability. Lode mining took capital, and investors from the east and west coasts, and even from Europe, were actively courted. When the Colorado Legislature passed a law in 1887 prohibiting foreign ownership of real estate in Colorado, mine ownership was excepted.
Miners had long believed that they were treated poorly. For example, in 1894 a Leadville mine owner instructed the superintendent of the mine to delay a payday for the miners so that a dividend could be paid to stockholders. The WFM had advocated the eight hour day since its founding convention in 1893. Some miners had the shorter hours, and public employees and building trades workers in Denver had won the eight hour day as early as 1890. Yet in 1896, hoisting engineers in Leadville were required to work twelve hour shifts. Mines were more dangerous as they were dug deeper; it was increasingly recognized that poor working conditions as well as longer hours could be correlated with poor health. In 1889 two Leadville workmen were sent to Denver to testify in favor of a mine inspection bill. Although it passed, it made no difference that year because the legislature failed to fund it.
In 1896, representatives of the CCMU asked for a wage increase of fifty cents per day for all mine workers not already making three dollars per day. The union felt justified, for fifty cents a day had been cut from the miners' wages during the depression of 1893.
Some believe it was a bad time to demand a wage hike, because the economy hadn't yet fully recovered from the downturn. One mine owner claimed "we have not made a dollar in two years." But others observe that by 1895, Leadville mines posted their largest combined output since 1889, and that Leadville was then Colorado's most productive mine camp, producing almost 9.5 million ounces of silver. The mine owners "were doing a lot better than they wanted anyone to know." Mine owners Eben Smith and John F. Campion were writing letters discussing mine expansions and upgrading operations, such that "both men seemed, in their writing at least, to remain remarkably unconcerned about their overall financial prospects." Campion was attempting to purchase Italian marble, and other luxuries for his home during the strike.
Negotiations over an increase in pay for the lower-paid mineworkers broke down, and 1,200 miners voted unanimously to strike all mines that were still paying at the lower rate. The next day 968 miners walked out, and mine owners locked out another 1,332 mine workers.
Union miners began to intercept replacement workers headed for the mines, attempting to discourage them from taking the struck jobs, leading to an increasingly tense situation. A British journalist described the standoff:
No surrender; no compromise; no pity. The owners mean to starve the miners to death; the miners mean to blow the owners to atoms.
Many miners in the West had put their faith in the Western Federation of Miners as the organization most likely to stand up to rich and powerful industrialists. But the employers had the upper hand, and only a "remarkably resilient and cohesive" union could withstand and defeat such a formidible array of enemies.
The mine owners secretly formed an agreement among themselves, later sealed with a written pact, that none of them would recognize the union or negotiate with it, and that all participants would lock out all mine workers – an arrangement later revealed in a report by the Colorado State Legislature. The mine owners systematically imported strike breakers in unprecedented numbers from Wisconsin and Missouri. They hired detectives. They implemented not just a lockout, but also a blacklist. They sought to co-opt union activities, and when their spies discovered divisions among the strikers, they exploited them. The owners exerted local political clout, and therefore benefited from the cooperation of local officials, law enforcement, business, and other community leaders. While the local sheriff was sympathetic to the miners, the Leadville city police took the side of the mine owners. They recruited new officers from Denver, and "apparently kept up a near-constant campaign of harassment and violence against union members throughout the strike." Possibly as many as six union men were randomly killed during the strike, either by the Denver deputies, or under mysterious circumstances.
Leadville mine owner John Campion hired labor spies from both the Thiel Detective Agency and the Pinkerton Agency to spy on the union. Campion hired additional spies to report on activities of replacement workers imported from Missouri. The elaborate spy network insured that mine owners had a complete and accurate description of union plans and activities, as well as the opinions and attitudes of union members.
During the strike in Coeur d'Alene just four years earlier, mine owners "claimed that they accepted miners' unions and were willing to work with them". In Leadville, mine owners essentially denied that unions had any right to exist. The owners refused to use the word "union". Their communications were addressed to miners, rather than to their organization. When a Leadville mine owner demonstrated sympathy for union miners, either offering to pay the union-demanded wage, or merely being suspected of doing so, other mine owners used court action and threats in an effort to present a united front against the union.
In 1896 the Western Federation of Miners was already thought by contemporaries to be radical and militant, but was in fact dedicated to essentially conservative goals: decent wages paid in legal tender rather than scrip, health care for miners, restrictions on cheap immigrant labor, the disarming of detectives, and friendly relationships with employers. They envisioned an eventual end to confrontation and strikes. The WFM was unprepared for the determination and power that mine owners would bring to bear during struggles for union rights.
The Cloud City Miners' Union faced a difficult challenge. Their foes were wealthy and powerful, with the financial ability to lock out the miners, and to close down operations while patiently awaiting the arrival of soldiers. Miners were faced with a loss of credit from local businesses.
The local CCMU was riddled with internal conflict. National and ethnic divisions and differences in union philosophy were exacerbated by inadequate resources. There was distrust of the union leadership, as well as suspicion and jealousy over outside federation staff who were paid a salary slightly higher than the strike allowance received by miners. CCMU leadership was predominantly Irish, and they were characterized as partial to their fellow Irish miners at the expense of Cornish miners and others. Local leaders sometimes resorted to coercion to maintain loyalty among some ethnic groups of miners.
Into this divided community, the mine owners unleashed spies who were assigned to monitor and undermine the union. Spies supplied information that was processed into thousands of pages of daily reports on the internal workings of the CCMU; its divisions, its plans, its weaknesses. For the most part, union members and leadership were unaware that their ranks were riddled with company agents. Spies were entrusted with union security responsibilities, even with the responsibility of detecting possible spies. The spies faithfully recorded information about ethnic rivalries and philosophical disputes among die-hard and disillusioned unionists, militants and pacifists, optimists and pessimists, and the spy agencies passed that information on to the mine operators. With comprehensive daily reports on secret union meetings and the union's tactical plans, mine owners were able to outwit, outmaneuver, and outlast the strikers.
In a general meeting of the CCMU on September 16, 1896, union leaders "[cautioned] all of the members to be careful and keep sober and keep out of mischief." The next day the union issued a resolution that stated, "any violation of the law or disturbance of the peace by any member of this union endangers the success of our cause and is, therefore, treason to the cause..."
Just four days later, on September 21, 1896, the Coronado Mine, which had been operating with armed replacement workers, was the scene of shootings and dynamite explosions, resulting in the burning of surface buildings. Strikers then proceeded to the Robert Emmet Mine, and another confrontation.
At least four union miners (in addition to the random killings) and one fireman were killed that day during what were commonly described as riots. Colorado Governor McIntire would later argue that the violence showed evidence of premeditation. With the violence having caused an estimated $50,000 in damages, Governor McIntire sent the Colorado National Guard to Leadville. WFM leader Ed Boyce was one of twenty-seven union men jailed during the Leadville strike. Union leaders were charged, but charges were dismissed for lack of evidence. Although the altercations at the mines apparently were not authorized by union leadership, the fallout still hurt the union. With soldiers protecting strike breakers, the strike ultimately failed.
When it was initially formed in 1893, the WFM shared the AFL's conservatism. But its experiences going up against Mine Owners' Associations and their allies convinced the WFM that acting in a non-threatening manner wasn't going to accomplish anything worthwhile. Many union members had begun to reconsider their conservative assumptions about confrontation and violence. By the late 1890s, the WFM believed that it would have to go toe to toe with mine owners and other employers. The WFM even considered creating rifle clubs for carefully chosen members.
The miners in the WFM realized that the old form of organization could not compete with "plutocracy". They concluded that the interests of employers were "always antagonizing" toward the interests of the union federation. The AFL ("organized labor of the east") could not help with the unique problems of the western miners. The solution was organizing western laborers and western unions into a new umbrella-like federation. These conclusions represented "an absolute rejection" of the AFL, of its conservative philosophy and its complacent demeanor.
The WFM had joined the American Federation of Labor (AFL) hoping for substantial financial support which had been promised by the larger federation. The WFM also hoped that the AFL would call out some of its members to support strikes by WFM locals, if necessary. During the Leadville strike, WFM President Boyce went east to ask for help in person from Samuel Gompers of the AFL, but was rebuffed. The AFL failed to provide financial support, and it refused to call out any of its unions in Leadville in support of the CCMU.
During the WFM's first major strike in Cripple Creek just two years earlier, Colorado Governor Waite, a Populist, called out the Colorado National Guard to protect strikers. This action, and the results of that strike, encouraged working class support for Populists. However, the fear of union militancy, and particularly a negative reaction to the WFM's successful Cripple Creek strike, helped to sweep Populists from power. Subsequently the hostility of both Democratic and Republican officials during the Leadville strike caused some workers to distrust both major parties.
In 1899, members of the CCMU formed a chapter of the Socialist Labor Party. A western federation of labor called the Western Labor Union, formed by the WFM and other western unions in Salt Lake City in 1898, endorsed socialist candidates, and called for the abolition of the wage system. While the rank and file of the WFM did not specifically endorse socialism, they did pass resolutions which gave them a reputation for radical and revolutionary sentiments.
WFM leaders and federation members realized that they needed to build a more powerful organization. To do so, they jettisoned the "conservative and divisive self-interest" that had characterized the AFL and the western miners' organizations themselves up to that point.
The Leadville strike had winnowed out miners who were antagonistic toward, or not fully supportive of the union's goals. The members who were left agreed that they were engaged in a class-based struggle that called for a more militant and confrontational disposition. Employers themselves had dictated the old rules for the struggle, but after Leadville the union no longer believed those rules applied. Many of the WFM members were moving beyond reformist sentiments, to a realization that if they were to obtain the just solution that they sought, the system needed to be overturned. In a document called the November 1897 proclamation, the union miners and their allies vowed to launch a new federation which would reflect their growing class consciousness.
The Leadville strike set the scene not only for the WFM's consideration of militant tactics and its embrace of radicalism, but also for the birth of the Western Labor Union (which became the American Labor Union), the WFM's participation in the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World, and for events which culminated in the Colorado Labor Wars.
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