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This Day in Labor History: June 22, 1896

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On June 22, 1896, mine owners in Leadville, Colorado agreed to lock out their unionized miners, presenting a united front against unionism. This action would spur one of the largest battles between unions and employers in the 1890s, one that typically would be ended by the Colorado militia’s use as a private army of the employers.

Silver was discovered in Leadville in the 1870s, eventually making it one of the nation’s leading mining towns. In its first years, Leadville mines were generally unconsolidated, owned by the people who staked the claim. This did not change until the early 1890s, when capitalists began investing in the silver mines. Taking control of the city, the culture of mining in Leadville changed almost overnight. The Panic of 1893, the worst economic depression in the nation’s history to that time, shook the silver industry. Prices plummeted. Mine owners slashed wages from $3 a day to $2.50. By 1896, about one-third of the miners were still only earning that reduced rate. Those were poverty wages for a very dangerous job.

Miners organized with the Western Federation of Miners. The WFM, formed out of the bitter 1892 Coeur d’Alene strike, sought the industrial organization of hard rock miners. Local 33, also known as Cloud City Miners Union, formed in Leadville. From its formation in 1893, the WFM had demanded the 8-hour day. Yet in Leadville, many miners were working 12-hour days. The CCMU, as its first demand, wanted the restoration of the $3 day for all miners at a time when the mine owners were building luxury homes for themselves, even if the economy had not fully recovered by 1896. They presented this demand to the mine owners on May 26, 1896. All the owners rejected the demand. On June 19, the WFM tried again. Again, the owners rejected it. That night, the union decided that all workers making $2.50 should strike. Several mines shut down the next day when their workforce walked off the job.

The mine owners responded by seeking to crush the WFM in Leadville entirely. On June 22, it responded to the strike by locking out all miners. The owners quickly imported strikebreakers to run their mines. They also hired Pinkertons and Thiel agents to infiltrate the union and spy on the strikers. Both sides refused to compromise with the other. The union was unaware of how closely the mine owners were working together and believed if they could just get one to cave, the others would follow. One minority owner of a mine did cave and reopened with a higher wage. When his partners took him to court, the court ruled it had to pay the $3 wage. So when the state deputy labor commissioner offered to arbitrate the case, the union refused, thinking victory was right around the corner. The WFM’s aggressive action disturbed the American Federation of Labor. The AFL did not call other unions out in support, which often happened in strikes of this time, even if the supportive unions might settle themselves for small raises. The Leadville WFM local was largely on its own, although other WFM locals did contribute financial help.

On August 13, the owners tried to cut a deal, saying they would raise the wage to $3 when the price of silver rose to 75 cents an ounce. It was not at that time 75 cents. But given that the majority of the striking miners were making the $3 wage already, there was some effort to end the strike. However, the WFM leadership wanted to hold out for victory. Before you think such demands were unrealistic or that the union should have compromised, understand that in 1894, the WFM had won probably the single greatest union victory of the decade in the Cripple Creek strike. Believing the union’s credibility was at stake and hoping to organize throughout the West, another victory at Leadville would have really solidified the union’s position and power.

Some of the mines began to build fortifications around them, preparing to reopen and crush the strike with force if necessary. This led the WFM to take the offensive. On September 21, fifty armed miners attacked the Coronado and Emmett mines. They set the Coronado mine on fire by dropping dynamite into it, causing $50,000 worth of damage. A gun battle ensued with the twenty armed strikebreakers at the mines. Four union members were killed. In response, Colorado governor Albert McIntire, who had previously refused mine owners’ requests to use the state militia as a private police force, promptly changed his mind. The mines reopened under military guard. Eugene Debs came to Leadville to try and negotiate a solution, but could not. Low-level violence continued through the winter. Strikebreakers surrounded one striker outside his house and murdered him while a policeman shot another. Given that the Leadville police chief hated the strikers, it’s surprising there were not more deaths. The WFM caved on March 9, 1897 after half the workers had already given up and returned to work. Those workers not on the blacklist went back under the old wage system.

The Leadville experience left the WFM deeply bitter. The union disaffiliated with the AFL after the federation refused to support it. The Leadville strike’s failure contributed significantly to that union’s radical phase that included its central role in forming the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905, with WFM leader Big Bill Haywood eventually leading the new union. And while the WFM largely withdrew from the IWW after 1908 as more moderate leadership took over in the miners’ union, it retained it’s radical edge. The WFM eventually turned into the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers in 1916. More popularly known as Mine, Mill, it retained its radical edge and was one of the unions evicted from the CIO for its communist leadership in the late 1940s. It also led the famous Salt of the Earth strike in southern New Mexico.

Today, Leadville is one of the most fascinating and kind of scary places in the nation, with the mining legacy all over the landscape and the culture.

This is the 181st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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