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This Day in Labor History: August 1, 1917

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On August 1, 1917, Frank Little, a veteran IWW organizer, was dragged out of his hotel in Butte, Montana by company thugs and lynched. His murder, one of the most famous killings of a labor organizer in American history, demonstrated the lengths to which mining companies were willing to go to keep their company towns under control.

Frank Little was born in 1879, a mixed race son of a white father and Cherokee mother. We know little about his early life, hardly an uncommon situation for a poor person. Little joined the IWW in 1906. He traveled the nation organizing workers in many of the IWW’s key actions. He was deeply involved in the IWW free speech campaigns in Missoula, Spokane, and Fresno. He organized the lumberjacks of the Pacific Northwest, the miners of Minnesota, fruit pickers in California’s San Joaquin Valley, and the oil field workers of Oklahoma. Little rose fast in the IWW. In 1916, he was named to the IWW Executive Board, having gained the trust of IWW leader Big Bill Haywood.

Frank Little

Butte was controlled by the Anaconda Mining Company. One of the most powerful corporations in American history, Anaconda basically controlled Montana by 1917. It produced 10% of the world’s copper. It also hated unions. In the late 19th century, Butte was arguably the nation’s strongest union town, known as the “Gibraltar of Unionism” for its closed shop. But in 1903, Anaconda completely crushed the union and ran Butte with an iron hand from then on. After 1912, no one could work in the Butte mines without the rustling card, effectively a permit granted to individual workers by Anaconda. It used this card to drive out anyone suspected of union organizing.

While Butte miners were strong AFL members during their heyday, the post-1903 situation was precisely the kind of thing the Industrial Workers of the World looked for: desperate yet proud workers who could be roused toward radical action. And by 1917, Butte workers were ready to strike. In June, a fire in the Speculator Mine, actually not owned by Anaconda, killed 164 miners, the worst hard-rock mining disaster in American history. Workers walked out in a spontaneous strike. They formed the Metal Mine Workers Union, demanding the end of the rustling card, collective bargaining rights, observance of state mining laws, free speech rights, discharge of the state mine inspector, and a wage increase. This soon expanded into new demands for safety instruction for miners and construction of manholes in the mines. By June 29, 15,000 men were off the job. The companies responded by blaming the IWW (which was not involved as an organization at this point, although there were maybe 500 Wobbly members in town at the time) and indicted the workers for radicalism and pro-German sympathies during World War I.

On July 18, Frank Little arrived. He was on crutches, after having hurt himself in an accident organizing miners in Bisbee, just before the famed the Bisbee Deportation, where mining companies rounded up over 1100 other workers up and dropped them in the middle of the New Mexico desert. Not yet recovered, he boarded a train for Butte, his final destination. Little’s arrival and especially his outspoken opposition to World War I threw the mining companies into a frothy fury. They reprinted his anti-war speeches and accused him of promoting revolutionary and pro-German beliefs in the middle of an industry necessary for wartime production. Labor spies reported Little calling for revolution during union meetings. The truth of this is impossible to ascertain given that the spies had incentive to report things like this, but given Little’s fervor, it’s possible. In any case, the companies were inclined to believe the most incendiary reports about Little.

On August 1, six masked men came to his hotel room. They tied him up, took him to the edge of town, beat him, and hanged him from a railroad trestle. On his chest they pinned a note that read “3-7-77,” a code used by the local vigilante committee to take credit for the murder. A few days after Little’s lynching, Montana declared martial law against war opponents, rounded up radicals of all stripes, and engaged in a massive state-sponsored violation of civil liberties.

3000 people marched at Little’s funeral. The funeral was filmed and showed around the country. Other strike leaders tried to rally labor around Little’s lynching. But in the end, Anaconda won the struggle. On August 10, U.S. troops arrived to “protect” the mine from radical agitation, but in fact they were used as a strikebreaking force. The strike itself was never all that strong. The unions outside the mines that had walked off were offered better contracts and quickly accepted them, leaving the miners isolated even before Little’s murder. The strike collapsed, although the IWW remained active in Butte until 1920. Two weeks after his murder, governors of northwestern states met in Portland to discuss a coordinated response to IWW agitation, which was strong in timber, agriculture, and mining and would lead to massive violations of civil liberties and murders of unionists over the next three years, including at Everett and Centralia.

No one was prosecuted for Little’s murder. Even today, we aren’t sure who precisely did it, although there’s no question it was interests close to Anaconda. He was buried in Butte.

You can see the physical impact of Anaconda’s operations in Butte:

Anaconda opened the famous pit in 1955. It closed in 1982, immediately began filling with water, and today is one of the nation’s most toxic and dangerous Superfund sites.

This is the 69th post in this series. Other posts are archived here.

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  • socraticsilence

    I heartily recommend anyone who can visit Butte, its a unique city, with a fascinating history both in terms of Labor (and progressive politics) and the American West in general.

  • Mike

    Interesting stuff. After looking for more info on the “Rustling card” system I found that the first speech by a woman member of Congress was on this subject by Jeanette Rankin, who represented Montana at this time. See the NY Times’s coverage of the speech here.

    And she was firmly opposed to the anti-labor activism, calling out Anaconda president John D. Ryan by name (“You are probably all familiar with Mr. Ryan’s name in connection with his recent affiliation with the activities of the American Red Cross. If Mr. Ryan says the rustling card system must be abolished it will be. I have tried in vain to draw this fact to his attention, however.”) and recommending that the government nationalize the mines so the war effort is not impeded by intransigent management.

    In 1918 Montana was divided into 2 congressional districts and her home area was in the more Democratic one, so she wasn’t re-elected.

    • socraticsilence

      She lost her seat more due to her pacifism in regards to WW1, than due to gerrymandering.

    • Murc

      Also the only member of Congress to vote against entry into both World Wars, and the only one period to vote against entry into World War II.

  • socraticsilence

    Forgot to add- things like the Socialism Hall, and the birthplace of the UMWA still stand in Butte.

    • GlennS

      You must mean the Western Federation of Miners (WFM). Named changed to International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (“Mine-Mill”) in 1916. Merged into the Steel Workers in 1967

  • Jean-Michel

    There’s a brilliant semi-experimental documentary called An Injury to One centered on Little and the history of Butte. It also takes an interesting detour into Dashiell Hammett, who used Butte as the model for “Poisonville” in Red Harvest and even claimed (more than a little dubiously) that he was offered $5,000 to kill Little.

    • Yes, I highly recommend An Injury to One as well.

  • As always, not much to add beyond my thanks for posting these. Great reads, always.

  • DrDick

    It is interesting how little of this most Montanans know.Those who are somewhat aware generally tend to cast the IWW as the villains. The legacy of the Copper Barons, including literally buying a Senate seat, led to the more progressive aspects of Montana election laws. We are still paying the costs of cleaning up their environmental legacy. FWIW, Anaconda was the one responsible for the pollution of the upper Clark Fork I mentioned in the post on legacy pollution. Here is another view of the Berkeley Pit, from space.

    • I was last in Butte in 2002. When we went to the Pit, there was a button you could push for a narrative. An older woman was talking about how today when ducks land on the pit, they don’t instantly die. It was very heartwarming.

      • Bill Murray

        Last time I was in Butte (about 2 months ago), the Pit was closed, so I couldn’t even take my student out there

  • Paul Klos

    I not sure I see the point of the Coda you added…

    “You can see the physical impact of Anaconda’s operations in Butte:”
    “Anaconda opened the famous pit in 1955. It closed in 1982, immediately began filling with water, and today is one of the nation’s most toxic and dangerous Superfund sites. ”

    I like your labor history series a lot, but I don’t see how that connects to the nature of mining and its side effects? Are you suggesting a strong organized union labor force would have been more green, would have actually advocated for eliminating their own jobs to save Butte in the very long term one that most could likely even guess at.

    To the extent Unions are successful at increasing the stake holder status of labor in a corporation it seems to me they are more likely to internalize the goals of the corporation. Take a UAW worker at Ford does he or she really want see Ford get charged for WW2 pollution at Willow Run knowing that will reduce a profit sharing check?

    • How does an enormous pit in the middle of Butte connect to the nature of mining? Huh. First of all, since you use the term “nature” there’s the massive degradation of nature it caused….

      • Paul Klos

        Well let me try again – how does the environmental impact of the very fact of a mine relate to Labor or Unions. Are you arguing that Organized labor would have opposed the development of the pit mining operation?

        Yes Mining is ugly but again how do want that copper to be procured and at what price? Almost everything about modern life is not natural – having 99% of Iowa under agriculture is no less natural, the internet is not natural and neither are blogs.

        So I still don’t see the point of your ending argument to a good article that seems to veer off into some kind of green – mining evil environmental thing. No mine I guess means a pristine Montana but than are are no ex-union members to oppress. It means a lot less other industry so I suppose no worries on the labor front sine the people who would have worked their would be back on the farm. Is that you point? Or is it Unionized labor is more green and would never have worked in an open pit mine? Would have demanded a per-investment plan to deal with post closure issues? Did anyone in 1955 even appreciate what those might be?

        • Hogan

          Workers are much more likely than owners to live near the mine, and would be more affected by having the local landscape poisoned.

          • Paul Klos

            Maybe, Maybe not…

            My Parents never lived close to the Rouge plant where my father did his 30 years and their retirement plan was to leave Michigan anyway. In a sense a solid Union gave them the same flexibility as the boss men.

            So again I ask really if say in 1970 Anaconda was charged to come up and pre-fund some kind of end of life plan for its mine, do really thing a strong union would be all green or would its members be looking to raises and pension funding and insurance and side with management?

            • Hogan

              Oh, I thought you were asking what the connection might be, not whether that connection exists in every possible case.

          • DrDick

            The descendants of the mine workers still live there and it is not just the pit, but many of the streams in the area which are toxic, as well as the soil. The descendants of the mine owners, have the option to move elsewhere.

    • Kurzleg

      The point, it seems to me, is to show how the mining industry in Montana ran roughshod over both man and nature.

    • rea

      Well, the pit would have been fine (other than ugly, although oddly some people find that sort of thing attractive) if they hadn’t let it fill with water, which leaches and concentrates naturally-occurring toxic chemicals from the surrounding earth. The problem with these things is that you can’t close them–they have to be managed forever.

      • Paul Klos

        I agree and it a difficult balance to strike – getting the resource, avoiding killing an industry, and not just ending up importing product A from someplace else where the the cost in human misery or environmental degradation is ignored altogether.

        In this case however I still don’t see the the link. Suppose Anaconda was stunning enlightened and worked with the unions I still think you have a big open pit mine that needed management forever, just you would have altered the balance of who got the profits from the mine from the 50s to 80s more equitably.

        • rea

          I quite agree that abuse of workers and abuse of the evironment are often two seperate problems.

          • Bill Murray

            like peanut butter and chocolate

      • Mike Clinch

        The Berkeley pit ws a collosal mistake by Anaconda. By the time it opened in the 1950’s, the deep shaft mines were up to a mile deep, and mining was still labor-intensive. Pumping of water had lowered the ground-water table by almost that much, and the sulfide ore veins still in the ground oxidized to sulfates. Anaconda opened the pit in the hopes that there were enough narrow veins to sweeten the rock high enough to be profitable. It never was. At one point, Anaconda realized that the waste dumps around the town were richer than the pit ore. The waste dumps disappeared in a week.

        Eventually, as mines in Zaire and Chile could produce copper cheaper than in Butte, the new owners of Anaconda (Arco) gave up, and pulled the plug. When they quit pumping the water out of the deep shafts, the ground-water rebounded, flooding the pit. The sulfates dissolved to form sulfuric acid, and the acids leached out of the rock and into the pit water.

        There’s a fortune in metals in the contaminated water, if anyone could figure out how to extract them. Below a mike depth, the metals veins get wider and richer. But what killed Butte was the decsion to go to open pit mining, cutting down on labor costs, and the competition with overseas, cheap labor mines.

  • Paul Klos

    Add a bit more: DrDick

    But of course you or Montana etc have not actually used any copper right so its all just costs.

    I agree most corporations need to be held far more accountable to for the external costs of production on the environment or we just need to man up and pay for at the national level and accept a lot things make a mess. In any case it seems perhaps a bit hypocritical to complain about copper mining on the latest iteration of the connected virtual wold – one created back in the day by copper wire.

    • DrDick

      While we certainly have used a tiny fraction of the copper produced, virtually none of the profits remained and we are the ones left with the consequences. The Copper Kings and their corporate heirs are an unmitigated evil on every conceivable front.

      • Bill Murray

        I don’t know. I ate a bed and breakfast located in one of the copper kings mansions and it was pretty good food. Not worth the human toll, but still pretty good eats

  • Dave Wing

    I live in Butte and frequently wear during the summer a T-shirt with the IWW insignia on the front and a picture of Frank Little on the back which reads “Fellow Worker Frank Little Murdered by the Copper Trust” above his picture. Beneath his picture it reads “August 1, 1917 We Never Forget Butte, Montana”
    I sometimes get stopped when wearing it and asked for the story behind it which I am happy to provide.
    Frank Little is buried in Butte and his tombstone reads “Slain By Capitalist Interests For Organizing And Inspiring His Fellow Men”. His grave is well-tended and is often visited.
    I would to Eric’s recitation that, after being taken from the rooming house in which he was living,he was drug behind a car through the streets of Butte to the trestle where he was hung,a distance of approximately 2 miles. So there is that additional brutal aspect to the murder.

  • heckblazer

    IIRC Dashiel Hammett claimed to have been offered money to kill Little. True or not, Personville in Red Harvest sure seems to have been based on Butte.

    • DrDick

      It is a hybrid of Butte and several other mining towns (including the capital, Helena).

      • DrDick

        I would add that it is based on his experience as a Pinkerton here at the time.

        • heckblazer

          Well, yeah, that’s why the claim is at least plausible :).

          • Jean-Michel

            Hammett was probably working for Pinkerton in Baltimore at the time of the Little murder. His daughter said he moved to one of Pinkerton’s west coast divisions (Spokane, Washington) around mid-1920, which would’ve put him in Butte shortly after the Anaconda Road Massacre that figures in Red Harvest. Butte was certainly the major inspiration for the novel, but much of the background he knew only at second-hand, and the story of him turning down $5,000 for Little’s murder was probably invented–either by Hammett or Lillian Hellman, who first related it nearly 20 years after Hammett’s death.

  • BobS

    Thanks again for your “This Day in Labor History”. I already know who I’m gifting the book that I hope is the eventual result. You’re essentially there- just 296 more chapters to make 365.
    One small nit to pick- you write that a meeting of northwestern governors 5 days after Little’s murder in 1917 resulted in the murders at Everett in 1916.

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  • dp

    These posts are very informative, and uniformly depressing.

  • Nathanael

    I’m thinking about this. The suppression of labor during the 1910s was, on the whole, a supremely dangerous move by the owners. Woodrow Wilson put in just enough progressive moves to placate some of the people (taxation, etc.), but then turned around and aggressively attacked unions. Labor *seemed* to have been suppressed during the 20s (partly due to the economic boom).

    But then we get to 1929. The result of suppressing the labor movement, followed by the Great Depression, was a powderkeg situation. Only someone with the political sense of FDR could defuse it.

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