On December 4, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered federal troops to the gold mining town of Goldfield, Nevada to bust a strike of workers affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World and Western Federation of Miners. This event shows both the potential of the IWW to win actions and the extent to which the government would participate in crushing what it saw as a radical threat to American institutions.
The Industrial Workers of the World formed in 1905 to organize all the nation’s and even the world’s workers into One Big Union that would bring an end to the oppression of workers. But in its first years, it effectively did nothing at all, riven by internal dissent. It wasn’t until around 1912 that it began engaging in large-scale actions, in no small part because Big Bill Haywood had ousted a lot of the rivals to his leadership like Daniel De Leon and their divisive ideas. But the idea of the IWW appealed to at least some workers pretty much immediately, especially in the American West. The first major IWW action took place in Goldfield, Nevada. The town itself wasn’t founded until 1902, when gold was discovered in the area south of Tonopah. In 1903 and 1904, the Western Federation of Miners had engaged in bitter strikes in Colorado. In its early days, the IWW and WFM were joined. Many of those Colorado workers migrated to Goldfield where they took over the labor movement there. By 1906, even as the IWW and WFM were drifting apart nationally, the two unions officially joined in Goldfield, creating WFM-IWW Local 220. On December 20, 1906, they went on strike and within three weeks raised wages, shortened hours, and won several fringe benefits. This was probably the first strike victory for the IWW.
By March 1907, the IWW had 3000 dues-paying members in Goldfield and it demanded that all the town’s businesses agree to the 8-hour day. Fearing the growing power of the union, they acceded to the demand. The union then went after the town’s United Brotherhood of Carpenters local, demanding that the UBC members join the IWW or be denied employment. This convinced American Federation of Labor head Samuel Gompers to send organizers into Goldfield to attack the IWW-WFM miners. At the same time, the tensions between the two unions nationally were beginning to drive a wedge into their coalition. Moreover, the Panic of 1907 began moving conditions back in owners’ favor and they counterattacked with the support from the AFL. By March 1907, with AFL support, every business in Goldfield closed, reopening 3 days later with all IWW members fired. On April 22, the miners and employers came to a new agreement that would stop the labor war and guarantee the current wages while the workers agreed that labor disputes in the town would not bleed over into the mines. This was supposed to last 2 years, but in November, with the town businesses continuing to crush the IWW, the owners broke the April agreement, announcing they would stop paying cash to the workers.
The IWW went on strike. That’s where Theodore Roosevelt intervened. Like much about Roosevelt, his own long-lasting and effective self-publicity machine has allowed his actions for fairness in parts of his presidency to overshadow his equally unfair acts in the same arena. His policies regarding race are one example. Another is his position toward labor. Roosevelt to his credit played a major role in the 1902 anthracite coal strike, forcing J.P. Morgan and the coal companies to come to terms with the workers in what was the first time in U.S. history that the federal government intervened in a labor dispute to moderate rather than to bust it. That’s a big deal but it primarily reflected his concern that a prolonged strike would limit coal supplies in eastern cities. His actions in Goldfield showed his contempt for radicalism and for workers’ interests in nonessential industries where crushing the union would produce no backlash. The mine owners worked it out ahead of time with Nevada governor John Sparks that they would call to him asking for for troops that he would then forward to Roosevelt, without the knowledge of even the town’s other business owners. The message talked of the violence in the town, threat to law and order, etc. This was all lies.
Roosevelt complied, sending 300 troops under General Frederick Funston on December 4. They arrived December 6 to a peaceful community. Funston quickly discovered these lies. But when he reported it to Roosevelt, the president didn’t care. He believed the IWW was a real threat to the nation and wanted the union destroyed. He left the troops in Goldfield while the mine owners fired both IWW and WFM miners, ensuring union-free workplaces. The federal troops remained in Goldfield until March 1908, after the Nevada legislature had created a special police force to replace them.
Thus, the IWW would walk out of Goldfield completely defeated, once again showing how government action or inaction usually determines the outcome of a strike in American history. There’s lots talk in the labor movement today and in the past that unions should not play the political game and instead spent all their resources organizing. But it’s very hard to get away from the facts that workers have pretty much only won strikes in American history when the state either sided with the unions or played a moderating force. Unions need the state to win. That was true in the Gilded Age and of course it was true in the New Deal and after. When the government has decided it didn’t want a strike, it has been able to eliminate it. That might be Cleveland sending troops in to crush Pullman, Roosevelt in Goldfield, or Reagan firing the air traffic controllers.
This is the 163rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.