On June 8, 1917, the Speculator Mine in Granite Mountain, near Butte, Montana, caught on fire. 168 miners died in the largest death toll in American history for a hard-rock mining disaster. This horrible event spurred a strike and union campaign in Butte that owners responded to through anti-union hysteria and organized violence, showing the sharp limits of organizing, especially in the American West, during World War I.
In the late 19th century, Butte became one of the most important mining districts in the United States, thanks to its rich copper deposits. In 1883, there were 2000 miners in Butte. By 1916, there were 14,500 miners. The mines lacked basic safety standards, as was common throughout the nation. Without mine safety laws, there was no reason for companies to ensure there workers didn’t die or to teach mine safety for them. On June 8, 1917, a crew strung an electrical cable to the rock 2400 feet below the surface. But part of it fell down. A crew descended to fix it. But as it fell, the protective sheathing around it frayed. An assistant foreman reached down to pick it up. When he did, he brushed his carbine lamp against the cable. It caught fire and exploded. It quickly spread through the mine, killing 168 workers. As sad as this was, it was also somewhat ironic, as it spread so quickly because the mine was well ventilated and because the affected cable was part of a fire suppression system the mine was implementing.
There were 410 miners working in Granite Mountain that night. 168 died. One went in to save 25 lives before he finally succumbed to the fire and poisonous gas. Montana law stated that all the cement bulkheads in the mine must have an iron door that could be opened in case of emergency for miners to escape. But Butte mine owners routinely ignored the laws, a major problem with workplace safety legislation in these years. Some miners were found with their fingers ground down to the bone as they desperately tried to claw through the cement.
Butte had a long union history by 1917. During the late nineteenth century, Butte was known as “The Gibraltar of Unionism” as the largely Irish miners organized and won stable contracts during a deeply anti-union period. But in 1903, the Anaconda Mining Company gained control of the Butte mines and began undermining union power. This could not happen overnight because the unions were fairly powerful, but by 1912, the Butte Miners Union was significantly weakened after Anaconda successfully introduced the rustling card, which gave employers power over who worked in their mines that they used to get rid of union activists. 500 union members were fired. Moreover, miners were being paid at 1878 rates even though the price of copper was over twice as high by 1914. In that year, the Industrial Workers of the World arrived in Butte and also sought to undermine the BMU. The union fell into civil war, leading to the dynamiting of the BMU mining hall. This led Anaconda to withdraw all recognition from the union. After nearly 30 years of recognition from mine owners, the Butte Miners Union was destroyed. In this case, IWW participation was utterly disastrous. Some accused the Wobblies of collaborating with the mine owners. While this is certainly not true, there’s no question that the owners took advantage of the dissension the Wobblies caused.
The mine fire also reignited the unionist sentiment in Butte. Union newspapers started publishing again and calls for higher wages and safer working conditions rallied workers. On June 11, miners at the Elm Orlu mine, owned by the notoriously corrupt William Clark, went on strike. Although many wanted to blame the strike on the IWW or German secret agents, the Montana Commissioner of Labor and Industry publicly stated the cause was the fire at the Speculator. On June 13, the miners formed the Metal Mine Workers Union to try and once again organize Butte. It wanted recognition as the workers’ bargaining agent, abolition of the rustling card, the mine owners to actually observe the state mining laws, the firing of the state mining inspector, a wage increase, and the right to free speech and assembly, which was being denied in Butte and many other western towns during World War I. Accusing the workers of being a bunch of Wobblies and determined to keep the open shop, the mine owners refused to speak to the unionists. A few days later, the city’s electricians went on strike to demand recognition of the miners and the others followed. Butte seemed to be on the verge of again becoming a union town.
Because it was World War I, the post-Speculator fire strike received national attention. The Wilson administration sent an arbitrator while American Federation of Labor representatives arrived to work toward a settlement so that the miners would get back to work to support the war effort. Unfortunately, the AFL prioritized this over the workers’ demands and wanted the workers to go back on the job before receiving recognition, which they refused to do. Meanwhile, the miner owners and their newspapers were calling for open violence against the strikes, laying the groundwork for the brutal crushing of organized labor many employers hoped they could achieve thanks to the war.
Unfortunately for the miners, labor solidarity was not strong in Butte. The other unions quickly accepted everything they asked from their own employers except recognition of the miners’ union. The miners were isolated. The owners offered the workers, but not the union, a small wage gain, weekly pay, and a slight change to the rustling system. Some miners took this deal by the end of July but most stayed out of work.
Coming to the mine soon after the disaster was the IWW organizer Frank Little. Arriving on July 18, Little wanted to turn Butte into a Wobbly stronghold. He gave public speeches in Butte telling the miners to resist the draft and that workers of the world should not kill each other for the benefit of capitalists. On August 1, a mob probably consisting of members of the Butte business elite rounded Little up and lynched him. Interestingly, Little had plenty of warning to leave town and his fellow unionists were urging him to do so, but he refused. Given that Little was already physically broken by this time and also was a true radical, even compared to other Wobblies, it’s entirely plausible that becoming a martyr was something he was prepared to accept.
On August 10, federal troops were sent to Butte to patrol the streets from Wobblies and other agitators. Montana then had a special legislative session where it basically ended free speech in the state. The mine workers finally called off the strike in December, after 90 percent of the miners had already returned to work. The strike caused by the Speculator fire would achieve nothing.
The extreme behavior of employers in Butte during World War I was part of the larger national reaction against unions during this period that this series has examined in Everett, Centralia, Blair Mountain, the arrest of Eugene Debs for violating the Espionage Act, the crushing of the Boston police strike, and no doubt additional events in the future.
Many of the details of the union organizing campaign in Butte come from Arnon Gutfeld’s 1969 article in Arizona and the West, “The Speculator Disaster in 1917: Labor Resurgence in Butte, Montana.”
This is the 180th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.