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This Day in Labor History: February 7, 1894

[ 46 ] February 7, 2013 |

On February 7, 1894, gold miners near Cripple Creek, Colorado walked off the job, leading to one of the biggest victories for organized labor in the Gilded Age after the state of Colorado intervened on the side of the workers. This strike made the Western Federation of Miners the major labor organization among western miners, as well as a reputation for violence that made it unacceptable to conservative labor leaders in the American Federation of Labor.

By the 1890s, the area around Cripple Creek was the center of the Colorado gold fields. Cripple Creek itself was the second largest city in the state. The Panic of 1893 theoretically could have helped these workers; it was silver prices that collapsed and the government needed all the gold it could get. But this led silver miners to flood into the mines and convinced the mine owners to lower wages. Announcing a 10 hour day (previously 8) with no pay raise led the miners to walk out.



C.O.D. mine, near Cripple Creek, 1894

The strike was widespread and effective. By the end of February, virtually every gold mine in Colorado was shut down. A few gave in and restarted their mines after retreating back to the 8-hour day. However, the big mines were intransigent and brought in scab labor. At first, the WFM tried to organize these men into the union. But work was scarce in 1894 and even a low-paying job with long hours was too good to pass up. So on March 16, a group of armed miners captured and beat six sheriff’s deputies heading up to a mine at Victor, where they were to assist in the protection of scabs.

This act of violence led to El Paso County Sheriff M.F. Bowers to request state militia intervention from the governor, the Populist Davis Waite. Waite was not the preferred governor for Colorado capitalists. When he realized that Bowers was lying to him about the extent of violence and really wanted a state strikebreaking force, he withdrew the militia. Bowers then arrested the strike leaders, but a jury found them not guilty of trumped up charges. Meanwhile, the strikers began to attack the scabs, throwing bricks and getting into fistfights with them. The mine owners then attempted to negotiate with the miners, offering a return to the 8 hour day but at reduced pay.

When the miners rejected this offer out of hand, and with the refusal of Governor Waite to use the militia as the personal army of the mine owners, the owners decided to raise a private army of their own. They paid for an army of 100 men, mostly ex-policemen, to become sheriff’s deputies and protect the hundreds of scabs they intended to bring to the mines.

When the miners heard about this, they organized to defend themselves. On May 24, they took over the Strong Mine, near Victor. When 125 deputies marched to take it, the miners blew it up. The deputies fled and the miners wanted blood. They filled a railroad car with dynamite and send it down the railroad track, hoping to cause an explosion in the deputies’ camp, but it derailed. Many wanted to systematically blow up the mines. This didn’t happen, but tensions rose even further when the mine owners paid for an additional 1200 deputies for their private army.



Criminal Record of the Western Federation of Miners, compiled by the Colorado Mine Owners Association.

Fearing a complete massacre, Governor Waite stepped in. In an extremely rare move for the Gilded Age, Waite issued an order declaring the owners’ private army illegal and ordered the capitalists to disband it, sending in the state militia as a peacekeeping force. He then went to the miners and got their approval to be their bargaining agent with the mine owners.

To say the least, the mine owners were apoplectic. This was the age of the Great Railroad Strike, of Homestead, of Pullman. Capitalists expected the state to do their bidding. When Waite called a meeting of the union and owners in Colorado Springs, a mob whipped up by the companies formed outside and threatened to lynch Waite and the unionists. Through a decoy, they snuck out the back door and escaped. Despite this, Waite forced the mine owners to agree to restore the eight hour day at the previous wages of $3 a day (about $73 today, so basically the equivalent of about $9 an hour for extremely dangerous work).

Even though they had reached an agreement, mine owners wanted revenge. Bowers could not control the 1200 deputies. After a confrontation with the state militia at Victor, the deputies went to Cripple Creek, where they arrested hundreds of miners on trumped up charges. They even formed a gauntlet and forced townspeople to run through it while being beaten. The state militia then rounded up the deputies, essentially arresting the police. The mine owners refused to disband the private army but the governor said he’d keep the militia in town for another month which meant that the owners would have to pay the private army to do nothing. Finally, they gave up. It was arguably organized labor’s biggest win in the entire Gilded Age.

The militia detaining the illegal sheriff deputies.

Governor Waite was seen by the respectable people of Colorado as a promoter of anarchy and was defeated in his reelection campaign in the fall of 1894, effectively ending the Populist movement in Colorado.

The Western Federation of Miners went on to play a key role in the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905, although it remained independent of that organization. It later became the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (or Mine, Mill for short), one of the communist led unions that the CIO eventually kicked out of the organization in the 1940s. It is probably most famous today for having produced the film Salt of the Earth, detailing a mining strike in southern New Mexico in the early 1950s. It finally merged with the United Steelworkers of America in 1967.

Cripple Creek itself became a gambling town in a state attempt to revitalize its old mining towns. Although less ravaged and gross than Black Hawk, which has become a gambling mecca for Denver that has completely obliterated the historical character of the town, the gambling has made Cripple Creek pretty unpleasant without providing many of the promised jobs.

This is the 50th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Comments (46)

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  1. Vance Maverick says:

    This is the 50th post in this series.

    A drunkard’s dream if I ever did see one. Thanks for all of these (even if this one did seem to change from something about the Dawes Act).

  2. Loud Liberal says:

    “Every union should have a rifle club. I strongly advise you to provide every member with the latest improved rifle . . . .” [Emphasis added].

    This article makes a compelling case for the preservation of assault weapons rights, or, the right to possess whatever the “latest improved” weapon might be. In my opinion, if the citizenry is barred from possessing any particular weapon, then the police (public and private), and any military or paramilitary force (public or private), authorized to operate domestically, should be barred from possessing them as well.

    • Vance Maverick says:

      Except that arming themselves wasn’t enough. What worked, to the extent that it did, was the state stepping in to prevent the fight.

      • bradP says:

        Two points:

        1. The threat of union violence had a lot to do with getting the state involved and providing leverage for favorable state intervention.

        2. States stepping in did not “work” far more often than it did.

        • Loud Liberal says:

          The threat of union violence had a lot to do with getting the state involved and providing leverage for favorable state intervention.

          That is a very good point.

        • DrDick says:

          Please note that the owners made routine use of private force, which is also the history of US labor relations. The absence of government improves nothing and removes the possibility, as in this case, of the government counterbalancing the disproportionate power of capital. The threat of violence against capital is important here, but had no effect on the government and any effort to confront the government forces would end in slaughter of the workers. Also note that the workers did not have sophisticated or military style armaments.

          • bradP says:

            Smaller mining companies immediately capitulated.

            The big boys who hired a personal army were railroad executives whos fortune came – in no small part – from the ridiculous US railroad policies and subsidies of the day.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Uh, no.

      That’s crazy. If you think American workers with assault rifles can defend themselves against the force of the US Army or whatever, you are totally insane.

    • Murc says:

      In my opinion, if the citizenry is barred from possessing any particular weapon, then the police (public and private), and any military or paramilitary force (public or private), authorized to operate domestically, should be barred from possessing them as well.

      I will note that in the UK, the cops actually do not WANT to regularly carry guns.

      • Joe says:

        Well, the police here do not seem to have a similar desire. Still, not sure if the person thinks we all should have the right to tanks and such too.

    • Joe says:

      “improved rifle” … not “improved Gatling gun.”

      So, “any particular weapon” doesn’t seem to fit. I’m inclined to agree that heavily armed swat teams have led to abuses. So, police should generally be armed with the weapons the average person could have, more or less.

      But, if the army is called (which should usually be necessary to address strikers these days), at some point, they are still going to have more weaponry.

    • Nathanael says:

      It’s worth noting that other mining strikes were extremely effective — not due to access to rifles, but due to access to *dynamite*. (Which, due to the nature of mining, the owners could not deny them access to.) I wish I could remember which one it was in West Virginia where the owner’s house was blown up and the access roads were turned into a minefield. The owners tried to call in the government and the government said “hell no”.

      If you’re a union fighting a private military gang hired by the owners, bombs are far, far more useful than guns.

  3. Joe says:

    And also … Linda Greenhouse has a good column on how corporations and unions are treated differently.

  4. MikeJake says:

    I’d just like to note how fundamentally ridiculous it is that one shiny metal industry was flooded with new workers because of a collapse in price in a different shiny metal industry.

  5. Dilan Esper says:

    And here I thought Cripple Creek was just a Band song.

  6. David Nieporent says:

    So on March 16, a group of armed miners captured and beat six sheriff’s deputies heading up to a mine at Victor, where they were to assist in the protection of scabs.


    Meanwhile, the strikers began to attack the scabs, throwing bricks and getting into fistfights with them.


    When 125 deputies marched to take it, the miners blew it up. The deputies fled and the miners wanted blood. They filled a railroad car with dynamite and send it down the railroad track, hoping to cause an explosion in the deputies’ camp, but it derailed.

    So, in other words, we have a bunch of thugs and terrorists who didn’t want to do their jobs and didn’t want other people to do them either, abetted by a corrupt politician. It’s easy to see why Loomis likes them.

    • DrDick says:

      The view from inside your colon is quite remarkably dark and twisted, David. I suggest you pull your head out and look at the actual facts. The owners unilaterally decided to demand that the workers work for less than they had been (note they are completely unwilling to accept any reduction to their profits) and the workers rejected that. The only thugs and terrorists here are in the employ of the owners as “sheriffs”.

      • David Nieporent says:

        The owners unilaterally decided to demand that the workers work for less than they had been

        No, they didn’t “demand” that; the thirteenth amendment would have prevented that. Rather, they offered a certain amount of pay for a certain amount of work. As was their right.

        (note they are completely unwilling to accept any reduction to their profits) and the workers rejected that.

        As was their right. The problem is that when the employer said, “Fine. Then we’ll hire these people who are willing to accept that arrangement,” the union thugs decided to commit assault and attempted murder to prevent those other people from working.

        The only thugs and terrorists here are in the employ of the owners as “sheriffs”.

        Knee, meet jerk. Did you read the post? I excerpted all the relevant parts for you. All the violence was by the union members. The sherrifs were trying to protect the rights of the new employees against union terrorism.

        • DrDick says:

          You seem to have missed this one:

          After a confrontation with the state militia at Victor, the deputies went to Cripple Creek, where they arrested hundreds of miners on trumped up charges. They even formed a gauntlet and forced townspeople to run through it while being beaten.

    • Hogan says:

      Yeah, the corrupt politicians are always the ones who support the unions.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      I love the connection between Waite not using the state militia as an explicit union-crushing army and corruption. Of course, we know David would be totally fine with the U.S. Army arresting members of the Chicago Teachers Union.

      • David Nieporent says:

        Apparently you don’t understand what any of the words “explicit,” “union-crushing” or “army” mean. He’s not corrupt because he didn’t use the militia to “crush” the union. He’s corrupt because, faced with people trying to make an honest living, not only did he refuse to protect them from union thuggery, but he actually used the military to prevent the police from protecting them.

        • DrDick says:

          The unions were responding to corporate thuggery, jackass. Funny how capital has rights in world, but labor does not.

          • David Nieporent says:

            No, they weren’t; they were responding to the corporation hiring people to replace them because they didn’t want to work for the wages being offered.

            • Nathanael says:

              And who gave the corporation the right to control the mine?

              That’s right, nobody! They just took it! (“Land patenting”).

        • Erik Loomis says:

          Again, it’s clear David would be totally cool with the U.S. Army arresting and perhaps murdering strikers of the Chicago Teachers Union or any other strikers. Because freedom.

          • David M. Nieporent says:

            First, I don’t think the U.S.Army should be arresting anyone. That’s law enforcement’s job.

            Second, I’d be totally cool with striking former teachers being arrested… if they were throwing bricks at their replacements and assaulting the cops trying to protect those replacements from flying bricks and ramming cars filled with explosives into the schools employing their replacements.

            If these former teachers who were engaged in these acts of violence and terrorism resisted arrest violently, I’d have no problem with reasonable force being used to arrest them any more than I would for any other violent criminal.

    • bradP says:

      So, in other words, we have a bunch of thugs and terrorists who didn’t want to do their jobs and didn’t want other people to do them either, abetted by a corrupt politician. It’s easy to see why Loomis likes them.

      Who are thugs and terrorists in this matter depends on who had just claim to the produce of that mine.

      • DrDick says:

        Who are thugs and terrorists in this matter depends on who had just claim to the produce labor of thatthe miners.

        FTFY

        • bradP says:

          Digging rocks out of the ground isn’t valuable, gold is.

        • David Nieporent says:

          Uh, no. When the miners said that they didn’t want to sell their labor to the employers for the market price, the employers did not try to steal their labor. That would have indeed been thuggery. But instead, the employers found other labor.

    • Aidian says:

      Or we had a bunch of people who rejected the notion that capital is deserving of its exalted place in our society, and were willing to put their bodies on the line to advance those beliefs. Good on them.

  7. Alvin Payne says:

    Wow, what an interesting day to work. Great blog and keep on posting. Did anyone require any dallas personal injury attorneys or just any attorney injuries. That’s what it’s specialized in. Great job and great photo.

  8. [...] February 7, 1894: Cripple Creek gold miners strike [...]

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