Violence in the American West—Unions and Coal Miner Rights

From a lecture series presented by Patrick Allitt, Ph.D.

Some of the worst violence in the American West of the 1800’s involved class conflict at metal ore mines and coal mines. Mine owners tended to be tough, hard-bitten entrepreneurs with a broad streak of ruthlessness. Working conditions were chronically unsafe in their mines; death from fire, from collapsed tunnels, and from gas inhalation were common.

image of hand holding coal for Violence in the American West

To make matters worse the mine owners rarely paid their work force in money; instead they paid the men in scrip, a kind of private currency that the workers were forced to redeem at company-owned stores, where prices were high and quality low. In remote mountain districts the workers also usually lived in company housing, which made them exceptionally vulnerable to the will of the mine owners.

Learn more: Trade Unions and the Labour Party

The Formation of Unions

They reacted by creating unions. The hard rock workers, who mined metals, formed the Western Federation of Miners, and the coal miners formed the United Mine Workers. The unions campaigned for safer conditions, a “check-weighman” to ensure that the ore and coal they brought to the surface was being weighed honestly, an eight-hour workday, and collective bargaining rights for the unions themselves.

The owners fought tooth and nail against the unions, fearing loss of control and loss of profitability. If the state authorities and the local community supported the men, they could sometimes win their strikes. That’s what happened in Cripple Creek, Colorado, in 1894, when Governor Davis Waite sent in the militia to safeguard the miners, and when most of the townspeople agreed with the strikers’ cause.

Waite belonged to the radical Populist Party and had won election the previous year, just as the great depression of the 1890s began. He visited the scene of the strike and persuaded the owners not to extend the workday from eight to ten hours —with no pay increase— as they had intended.

Learn more: Trade Unions and the Labour Party

States Side With Unions

Later governors, Republicans and Democrats, more often sided with the mine owners, from inclination and from fear that strikes would damage their state’s reputation for business. Governor James Peabody, for example, issued court injunctions and sent in the state militia to help the mine owners, when the Cripple Creek miners struck again in 1903.

Later governors, Republicans and Democrats, more often sided with the mine owners, from inclination and from fear that strikes would damage their state’s reputation for business.

This time the union was defeated, many of its leaders were expelled from the community, and the company hired strikebreakers instead. Neither did the mine owners hesitate to infiltrate the unions with spies, and to kidnap, beat up, or intimidate particularly dedicated union leaders.

State support for mine owners proved decisive in Idaho, too. A trainload of miners dynamited the factory of the Bunker Hill Mining Company in 1899 because the company refused to recognize the union. The structure, valued at half a million dollars, was completely demolished in the blast. The union had used dynamite in an earlier strike of 1892 to destroy an ore-processing plant at the town of Gem, and remembered the spectacular effects of this tactic.

This time around, however, the company retaliated by persuading the Governor, Frank Steunenberg, to call on the president for Federal troops, who arrested nearly a thousand miners. They were herded into enclosures known as “bullpens” and left there for months with no due process—some were stranded for more than a year. When a local newspaper editor criticized the situation, his paper was closed, he was accused of sedition, and was forced to join the suffering men in their vermin-infested makeshift prison. This collective violation of the miners’ civil rights broke the union.

One of the miners, Harry Orchard, later assassinated Governor Steunenberg, feeling a particular sense of grievance because Steunenberg had originally been a Populist, elected largely with miners’ votes. Orchard also suspected that the governor had been bribed by the mine owners to change sides.

Hello reader! You could be getting much more from this article by watching its accompanying video lecture on The Great Courses Plus! Click here for your free trial—the best professors in the world are waiting for you.

A sensational trial ensued, in which Orchard alleged that he had been hired by Big Bill Haywood, and two other leaders of the Western Federation of Miners. Haywood was an anarcho-syndicalist, who did believe in class warfare and was willing to use violence to smash capitalism. He was one of the founders of the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World, America’s most revolutionary trade union.

In the short term, however, Haywood was vindicated, thanks to the courtroom performance of his attorney, Clarence Darrow. The jury found him not guilty, whereas Orchard went to prison for the rest of his life, escaping the death penalty only because of another governor’s grant of clemency.

Downfall of the Strikebreakers

The most violent episode in the western mining patches came in 1914, during a long winter strike in Ludlow, Colorado, at mines owned by the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. This was an area, just north of the New Mexico line, in which the unions had previously been defeated by a combination of employer intimidation, use of injunctions and the militia, and by the employment of strikebreakers.

Learn more: Unions, Strikes, and the Haymarket Affair

The strikebreakers themselves, a decade after their first arrival on the scene, were now as burdened as the men they had displaced, and finally rebelled against oppressive working conditions in September 1913. Many of them were recent immigrants from Italy, Greece, and the Slavic lands. Forced to leave the company houses in which they were living, they created a tent colony, and stayed in it through the winter, despite bitter temperatures in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The company responded by hiring armed men and calling out the state militia, and a tense standoff ensued, as the strikers tried to prevent a new generation of strikebreakers from taking their jobs.

On April 20th, 1914, the militia fired a machine gun into the tent colony and set fire to it.

On April 20th, 1914, the militia fired a machine gun into the tent colony and set fire to it. At least thirty people were killed, including two women, and eleven children asphyxiated by smoke in a cellar under one of the tents. Enraged workers retaliated, attacking company property and militiamen throughout the region, killing dozens more and suffering more casualties in return.

Finally, President Woodrow Wilson intervened by sending a regiment of the United States Cavalry to the area to restore peace. The congressional hearings that followed depicted John D. Rockefeller, owner of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, in a very unfavorable light. He had already been singled out as an unscrupulous robber-baron by the muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell. Eager to repair his reputation and to win renown for philanthropy rather than brutality, Rockefeller belatedly ordered the company to improve wages and conditions at Ludlow, instituting an eight-hour day and outlawing child labor.

From this distance, it is difficult to imagine how volatile industrial workplaces could be in the early twentieth-century. The workers were enraged at bad conditions, low pay, unscrupulous treatment by their bosses, and chronic insecurity and danger at the workplace. The owners, meanwhile, were usually in tough competition with each other and shared a common threat from the unions, knowing that some of the union men would not hesitate to take direct action.

LEARN MORE: The 1892 Homestead Strike

They resisted by hiring labor spies, infiltrators, agents provocateurs, and by using Pinkerton detectives to intimidate or assault the leaders. When Harrison Gray Otis, editor of the Los Angeles Times, refused to let his own workforce unionize, and when he published strong anti-union editorials, two radical labor activists, the McNamara brothers, responded by dynamiting the offices of the newspaper in 1910, killing twenty-one people and injuring a hundred more.

They tried to kill Otis himself, but the bomb they planted at his home failed to explode. Again, the case attracted influential men on both sides, including Clarence Darrow, Lincoln Steffens, a famous Socialist writer of the era, and Eugene Debs, leader of the American Socialist Party. Debs was, more or less, obliged to concede that the McNamara brothers were guilty, but wrote that the oppressive conditions of American capitalism had forced them to take desperate measures.

Keep reading:
Vigilante Justice In The American Wild West
Historians Weigh In On The Confederate Statue Debate
The Conestoga Wagon: The Road Westward

From the course The American West: History, Myth, and Legacy presented by Professor Patrick N. Allitt, Ph.D