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This Day in Labor History: August 1, 1864

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On August 1, 1864, Nevada miners engaged in the first strike in western hardrock metal mining. This action would be successful, albeit for just a short time. It also laid the groundwork for a half-century of organizing and violent resistance to it by the companies that would dominate the American West.

The Comstock Lode was discovered in 1859. This was the first major silver discovery in the United States. With the California mines increasingly played out, there was a lot of exploration to find new lodes of ore. Miners flooded to the new towns of Virginia City and Gold Hill, largely experienced men from California attracted by ages of up to $4 a day or even more sometimes. Not surprisingly, the mine owners soon tried to reduce these wages. This led to the first unionization of miners.

On May 30, 1863, between 300 and 400 miners met in Virginia City to form the Miners’ Protective Association. This was a union with three basic goals. First, they wanted to make sure they were getting paid enough to live. Second, was to band together collectively to take care of the sick, injured, and families of the deceased. This kind of demand was very common in a society where death was always right around the corner. Third was “the exposure and defeat of speculative plans affecting their interests injuriously.” What this meant was a lot of miners had put their money into stocks and lost their shirts on the speculation and lies and fraud that were so common in these years. But this union only lasted briefly, as times were good and most workers weren’t that interested in it.

In the spring of 1864, with most of the miners involved in the first union effort still there, the silver bubble collapsed. Many mines closed. Owners sought to lower wages. Since so many of the miners were stockholders themselves, they got double hit. Many mines lost 80 percent of their value. In March, the Uncle Sam Mine in Gold Hill announced a wage cut from $4 to $3.50 a day. A Cornish miner named John Trembath was hired as foreman to make it stick. The miners tied him up to the cable in the shaft, pinned a note to him that read “Dump this pile of waste dirt from Cornwall” and hoisted him to the surface. Trembath got fired for his inability to control the workers. But they weren’t really in the mood to be controlled. That many of the mine owners were in San Francisco did not help matters. When they combined to lower the wage to $3.50 through the Comstock, the miners were furious. Moreover, the cut was to begin on August 1. They were told as they left work on July 30.

That night, the miners met to revive their defunct union, which the mine owners did not think would happen. They started in Gold Hill and then marched to Virginia City to rally the miners there. After a successful day of activism, they struck on August 1. At the Imperial Mine, the mine superintendent caved immediately and granted all workers a continuation of the $4 day. Others mines caved to this unprecedented worker activism as well. By the end of the day, every mine had capitulated to the workers.

In the aftermath, the workers sought to press their advantage. The next day they officially forced a new union called The Miners League of Storey County. The president was William Woodburn. He was only 26, but had worked in the mines for 10 years already, mostly in California. He would later serve three terms in Congress from Nevada. The union’s constitution stated it had one purpose: the maintenance of the $4 day. This was not a political organization, nor one with radical ideology. It was unionism as its most basic–banding together in singular common cause. In fact, it explicitly eschewed politics, having a clause in its constitution warning miners against letting those who would turn this into a political organization from doing so.

Over the next few weeks, the miners in Storey County inspired miners and ore processors in the rest of Nevada to organize in favor of wage maintenance as well. But very quietly, the owners started to break the Miners League. They hired men who would agree to not be members of the union. When someone had to be let go, it turned out it was an active union man. By September 5, the Miners League realized what was happening. Many of the unionists were native-born American and the Cornish were taking their place. They tried to create a closed shop and announced that only members of the union could work after September 27. This was too radical for many union members. It also did not work. Many members left the League. The mine owners now had the power again. The union rescinded the demand on September 22. The next day, the owners organized their forces into the Citizens Protective Association to rid their mines of unions. They had support from the governor, the mayor of Virginia City, and the sheriff. Simply put, they absolutely crushed the union in the subsequent weeks. By the spring of 1865, wages in the mines were down to $3.50 a day.

This was the first of many attempts to organize the western metal mines. Few parts of the economy would see more anti-labor violence in the next half-century than the western mining towns. Some of it did come from workers, but the vast majority of it came from the companies. The only thing that really stopped it was the overall decline of the western mines in the 1920s and 1930s, though what was left did largely join up with the United Mine Workers of America in the 1930s and 1940s.

I borrowed from Richard E. Lingenfelter, The Hardrock Miners: A History of the Mining Labor Movement in the American West, 1863-1893, to write this post.

This is the 401st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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