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This Day in Labor History: July 3, 1903

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On July 3, 1903, members of Mill and Smetlermen’s Union No. 93 met at Elyria Town Hall in Denver, Colorado and decided to go on an immediate strike. This strike, while unsuccessful, was a critical moment in laying the groundwork for the creation of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905.

Smelter workers had it pretty tough, even for the Gilded Age. Not only did they have the typical long hours and low wages of the period, but they worked in an extremely toxic place. Basically, these guys were breathing in lead dust all the time. It was almost impossible to work through a full month without getting sick. Lead poisoning is most known among children, but among adult workers with this level of exposure could lead to kidney disease and cirrhosis of the liver, even if you don’t drink. And it’s not as if lead was even the only poison they faced.

In the late 1890s, unionization was on the upswing in the smelters and other industries around the country. Also, in 1899, Colorado passed an 8-hour day bill for miners and smelter workers. When ASARCO, the gigantic western smelting conglomerate, challenged the constitutionality of the new law, workers, organizing with the Western Federation of Miners, moved toward a strike. When the Colorado Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional, another example of how courts operated at this time and what conservatives today are hearkening back to, the strike collapsed.

In the four years between 1899 and 1903, the industrial union movement grew a lot in the West, especially Colorado. The Western Federation of Miners located its headquarters in Denver. The Western Labor Union, an allied attempt at industrial unionism, began organizing effectively as well, establishing new locals all over the place. Sam Gompers became concerned about this new rival and sought to eliminate it. When the AFL tried to enforce the trades from not allowing WLU supporters into the federation, the entire Denver trades returned their charters and joined the WLU, which soon changed its name to the American Labor Union to reflect its growing ambition. The Denver labor movement was thus extremely divided internally over these issues. Meanwhile, industrialists formed the Denver Citizens Alliance to serve as a right-wing organization dedicated to the crushing of all labor, but especially that formed on an industrial basis.

There was a short strike in May 1903 that the now ALU called a life and death strike. It started when a grocery store that was a member of the Citizens Alliance fired some ALU activists. It almost became a general strike and the company caved pretty quickly. But the Citizens Alliance than began blacklisting strike leaders, while the craft unions were not supportive of the ALU. There were 15,000 union members in Denver, but only 4,200 agreed to participate in the strike. So there were some weaknesses in the industrial labor movement.

In November 1902, the Colorado labor movement did come together to convince voters to overwhelmingly pass a constitutional amendment that allowed the state legislature to pass another 8-hour day law. But then the Republicans who controlled the state house by this time simply refused to consider it. Furious, the workers felt betrayed. It was the state legislature adjourning its session that led the Denver smelter workers to strike. This strike was done against the advice of Big Bill Haywood and Charles Moyer, the WFM leaders who were no shrinking violets, but who believed that now was not the time for a strike. Didn’t matter to the workers. They put out the fires in the city’s smelters and walked off the job.

The strike never had a chance of winning. ASARCO was a huge and powerful corporation. The company received the most sweeping injunction in Colorado history, banning all labor unions in Colorado from doing anything at all to interfere in the operations of the company’s smelters in the state. Effectively, anything a union could do was something that the courts would rule illegal. Denver’s mayor and chief of police hired ninety-two special deputy officers to escort strikebreakers into the smelters. By September, one of the smelters reopened. ASARCO decided the other was outdated anyway and just closed it. The strike was never officially called off, but it was over by the fall.

What makes this strike so significant is that it laid the groundwork for the Western Federation of Miners to play the critical role in establishing the Industrial Workers of World in 1905. What this and the crushing of other strkes such as in Cripple Creek demonstrated to Colorado workers is that the political process was irreversibly broken and that the only way workers could win anything was to organize through direct action at the point of production. This syndicalist ideology would be at the heart of the IWW, more than really anything else in that rather ideologically inconsistently organization. Rejecting politics was a piece of this ideology, but they also had real reason to believe that syndicalist action could work. Before the ALU organized beer drivers, the cold weather led to a reduction in beer consumption and workers were frequently laid off to spend winters in poverty. But in 1902, they had forced a deal with the beer truck companies to lay off workers on a one-week rotation so that no one suffered too much. This was a model of worker power that made sense to these workers’ lives.

In the strike’s aftermath, future IWW leaders such as William Trautmann, who edited the Brewery Workers’ union newspaper in Chicago, began expressing these ideas more concretely. This also led to a greater tolerance of immigrant workers and the WFM and ALU began encouraging the inclusion of Asian immigrant workers into their ranks, noting that only by standing together as workers at the point of production could anyone win anything at all. This move was not made without controversy of course and many WFM locals remained strictly white supremacist, but this newly articulated internationalist position became a central tenet of the IWW, really the first large-scale union organization to seriously take on racism in American history.

I borrowed from David Brundage, The Making of Western Labor Radicalism: Denver’s Organized Workers, 1878-1905, to write this post.

This is the 320th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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