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This Day in Labor History: November 23, 1903


On November 23, 1903, Colorado governor James Peabody sent the state militia to Cripple Creek to crush the Western Federation of Miners led strike in that mining town. This all too typical action by the state during the Gilded Age had major repercussions. It succeeded in ending the strike, but it also led the WFM to lead the movement for a nationwide and even worldwide movement of industrial workers that would challenge a capitalism the miners no longer believed would ever work for them. That led the WFM to be the most important force in the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World two years later.

The WFM was founded in 1893, after the violent crushing of a miners’ strike in the mines outside of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Rejecting the craft unionism of the American Federation of Labor, the WFM and its leaders, including Big Bill Haywood, turned toward a broad industrial unionism, maximizing power by uniting miners in demands for dignity. They had an early success in 1894, when they successfully organized the mines in Cripple Creek, Colorado. But that only succeeded because Colorado had elected a Populist governor who, unlike so many other elected Populist officials, did not sell out at the first opportunity and instead used the state militia to control the private mine owner police force.

1903 saw a huge uprising in the Colorado mining fields. From Denver to Durango, there were strikes of miners and mine processing workers. In the aftermath of the 1894 victory, the WFM built power among the miners, organizing a majority of them in many areas of the state. In Cripple Creek and surrounding towns such as Victor, the WFM had won a union scale and the 8-hour day. They enforced their power through boycotting local businesses who broke union demands. But in some districts, the WFM failed to establish themselves as the dominant force they were in Cripple Creek. Attempting to expand power to Leadville had ended in disaster, while in Idaho, another attempt to organize the Coeur d’Alene mines failed in 1899 due to more employer violence. Frustrated by these failures and questioning why capitalism should exist after it failed them over and over again, the miners moved sharply to the left, embracing anti-capitalist ideas from Big Bill Haywood, Charles Moyer, and other leaders. In 1899, it called for industrial unionism for the first time, breaking with the older conservative forms of craft unionism dominant in the American labor movement.

Meanwhile, Colorado mine owners wanted to take back control of Cripple Creek. The National Association of Manufacturers was organizing a coordinated business movement to stop unionization. In 1903, NAM head David Parry gave a speech at the group’s annual convention talking about how unions were going to subject capitalists to slavery and tyranny. This speech wasn’t hysterical or overwrought or anything. At the convention was Colorado capitalist James Craig, who headed the Citizens Alliance of Denver, a local business group with the dedicated goal of keeping Colorado union-free. Craig took this message back and Colorado capitalists began planning to destroy the WFM. Strikes popped up around Colorado that year and that included Cripple Creek, which went on strike in March to shut down ore shipments to struck mills in Colorado City. A second strike in August started the real action, as the WFM leadership decided to shut down all mines in support of the mill workers across the state. This was a bridge too far for the capitalists. Through the late summer and into the fall, tensions rose. Even Pinkerton spies noted that the miners were not really that radical and there was no good reason to send in the militia. But that was not what Peabody and the mine owners wanted to hear. By September 10, WFM leaders began to be arrested.

On November 21, two men, including the superintendent of the Vindicator Mine, were killed in an explosion. It was unclear if this was an accident or not, but it gave the bosses the excuse they needed for violence. Peabody mobilized the militia on November 23 and on December 4, he declared martial law in the Cripple Creek district. An open attack on habeas corpus followed, with widespread violations of civil rights, the suspension of freedom of the press, arrests without evidence for the deaths of the men in the explosion, the order of all citizens to give up their firearms, and the abolishing of the right of public assembly. Even walking down the street in Cripple Creek was declared illegal if one was not directly going somewhere. Many of the mines reopened with scabs. On January 26, 1904, 16 scab miners died when the terrible safety conditions led to a cable breaking and cart falling. The WFM used this as a way to remind everyone of how dangerous the owners made the mines. Overall, the union still was holding on, as only about 10 percent of the striking miners had returned to work.

But there was no end at this point except total defeat, or possibly total victory. In any case, on June 6, 1904, an explosion at the Independence mine killed 13 miners. When the sheriff started investigating the real cause, the mine owners sought to eliminate him from the mines and nearly lynched him. This was the chance the owners would take to get rid of the WFM once and for all. In Victor, a gunfight took place. Even today, you can see the bullet holes in the old WFM hall in what is left of that high, desolate mining town. Finally, the union members surrendered. The mine owners evicted all the unionists from the community, then set up kangaroo courts to try them. At least 230 miners refused to denounce the union and were deported across state lines. The mine owners had destroyed the WFM in Cripple Creek.

In the aftermath, WFM leaders believed that organizing even all the miners was not enough to tame capitalism. They would have to organize all of the workers. That led them to support a new union idea, in what became the Industrial Workers of the World. Founded at a Chicago convention in 1905, the IWW attracted all sorts of leftist leaders, but it was the WFM who provided the early organizing spirit and numbers. However, when relatively more conservative leadership took over the WFM soon after, the union withdrew from the IWW and that industrial federation took on a more anarcho-syndicalist spirit once it figured out what it was doing, leading to a whole history of its own. The WFM however remained a major force in organizing western miners. Later changing its name to Mine, Mill, it was eventually redbaited out of the CIO and then produced the classic 1954 labor film Salt of the Earth, to tell the stories of the Mexican-American miners it represented in New Mexico. Its remnants finally merged with the United Steelworkers of America in 1967.

This post borrowed bits of material from Elizabeth Jameson, All That Glitters: Class, Conflict, and Community in Cripple Creek.

This is the 249th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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