- Sweet Beginnings:
Butte's First Union
- In 1878, underground miners
at the Alice and Lexington silver mines declined to accept a
pay cut from $3.50 to $3 a day for risking their lives underground.
They gathered 400 strong behind a brass band and paraded through
the silver camp in a show of solidarity.
That evening, they gathered at the Orphean Hall to hash out the
principles for the new union. They took their constitution nearly
word for word from the preamble and bylaws of the unions on the
Comstock Lode in Nevada that many had belonged to before arriving
in Butte. The Butte Workingmen's Union formed at that 1878 meeting
launched an era of union organizing that earned Butte the reputation
as the "Gibraltar of Unionism."
By 1900, 34 different unions advocated for nearly 18,000 workers
in a variety of trades. Unions represented the construction trades,
brewers, teamsters, blacksmiths, blacksmiths, and hackmen. Musicians
had a Protective Union as did Theatrical Stage Employees and
Theatrical Ushers. Other unions represented typographers, waitresses,
and bartenders. Even newsboys had their own union and their own
By 1887, only one non-union mine, the Bluebird, remained. On
Miner's Union Day, June 13th, a group of union members walked
there to "gently intimate to the men in charge that the
shutting down of the mine would be in accordance with the eternal
fitness of things."
Over the objections of the mine superintendent, the workers of
the Bluebird were then marched to the union hall and initiated
as union members. After what was to become known as the Bluebird
Incident, Butte effectively became a closed shop.
Unlike Gibraltar, however, Butte's unions were far less durable.
By 1914, Butte's union solidarity was fractured by mine owners
who employed a rustling card system to identify "troublemakers."
A compliant government was quick to call out troops to impose
martial law. Private detectives hired by mine owners soon arrived
to infiltrate and sabotage unions.
The unions also became vulnerable as they fought amongst themselves
in power struggles to decide who would represent miners in negotiations.
Factions of conservatives, Socialists, and Industrial Workers
of the World struggled for legitimacy with union members. Disputes
along ethnic lines that pitted Cornish miners against Irish against
Finns further weakened the solidarity of the unions and left
them easy to manipulate.
- Why They
- Concern to protect their ability
to work was the main reason that miners formed unions. An underground
miner had only his health as capital and he bargained for its
value with the owners of the West's early metal mines. Underground
mining, especially in Butte, was a dangerous gamble that risked
life and limb in exchange for a healthy paycheck. From 1906 to
1925, 685 miners died and hundreds more were disabled, injured,
or maimed in accidents in Butte. Of the deadliest mining disasters
in the U.S. at the turn of the century, several happened in Butte's
Reading the 1949 U.S. Department of Interior report titled "Major
Disasters at Metal and Non-Metal Mines and Quarries in the United
States," the list sounds like a casualty report from the
battlefront of a distant war. On April 21, 1893, 9 miners were
killed in a fire in the Silver Bow #2 mine. On May 12, 1905,
7 miners were killed by an explosion in the Cora Mine. On September
3, 1911, 6 miners were killed in a cage accident in the Butte
Superior mine. On April 13, 1913, 5 miners were killed in another
cage accident, this one in the Leonard mine. On October 19, 1915,
16 miners were killed when dynamite exploded at the surface of
the Granite Mountain mine. On February 14, 1916, 21 miners were
killed in a fire in the Pennsylvania mine. Smaller, less dramatic
accidents claimed about one miner a week and mortuary records
are filled with accidental deaths, 65 in 1916 alone.
In 1883, 2,000 miners worked in Butte's underground mines. By
1916, there were 14,500 miners working in Butte mines on rotating
shifts around the clock. Instead of skilled miners, however,
the demand for increased production, "to get the rock in
the box," was met with unskilled immigrants often assigned
to the most dangerous tasks.
Men died or were crippled when they fell down shafts, fell or
were jerked from hoist cages, and when they worked under unstable
rock that collapsed without warning. These slabs of unstable
rock were known as "Duggans" after the most popular
local funeral parlor. New workers were handed a tool to pry loose
the slabs with the order to go "Bar down them Duggans."
Along with the arrival of electricity came better ventilation
and lighting. Along with these conveniences, too, came the threat
of electrocution. Five miners were electrocuted in 1915 alone.
Dynamite explosions took others. Miners used to blasting rock
with black powder were maimed or killed until workers adapted
to the different properties of nitroglycerin or the dynamite
that replaced it.
Many more miners were doomed to a slower death caused by respiratory
diseases such as tuberculosis, or "miner's con," a
consumption that was caused by inhaling quartz dust, the most
lethal threat to those who survived the other impediments to
health and well being in the mines. In 1914 a study of 1,000
miners found about 400 had a chronic respiratory illness.
For soldiers from Butte headed for war in 1917, many may have
had a safer workplace ahead of them in France. Their odds for
survival may have actually improved by going to war.
On the other hand, if the mines and smelters brought death, they
also gave life and a decent standard of living to thousands who
gambled with their lives and health. The role of the union was
to increase the odds of maintaining that health and the decent
standard of living despite a trend of falling wages and more
dangerous working conditions. While unions bargained for fair
compensation, they did much more for their members.
They set up funds that insured the care of the sick and the injured,
paying to hire doctors or to build hospitals. They paid for funerals
for members killed in the mines and comforted their widows and
children. They established libraries. They provided sometimes
the only building large enough for public entertainment in the
early camps, the Union Hall, which usually served as the camp's
From these humble seeds grew strong and enduring communities
throughout the western mining frontier. Decades before the social
safety nets of social security, unemployment insurance, or workmen's
compensation, if a miner was injured, he did not work, and, if
he did not work, he received no pay. Some owners required their
workers to buy food and clothing in company-owned stores or to
stay in company-owned boarding houses.
With every downturn in the economy, dip in profits, or need for
new equipment, the first cost-saving measures usually considered
were wage cuts. Some mine owners paid their miners in inflated
stock that could quickly prove worthless.
Some simply refused to pay their miners knowing that they could
call out troops if their workers objected too strenuously. When
this happened in 1879 in Philipsburg, Montana, the enraged miners
seized the property and worked it until they had extracted enough
ore to pay the wages owed to them.
In 1893, Butte played a major role in forming the Western Federation
of Miners. Delegates from miner's unions throughout the West
met in Butte to organize a regional union of miners. The Butte
Miner's Union was designated as Local Number One.
Shutdown: A New World Order
From the beginning, unions worked closely with mine owners who
sparred among themselves for power and prestige and for the allegiance
of the miners.
In 1899, Standard Oil bought the interests of previous owners
and entered the fray with the Amalgamated Copper Company. "The
Company," as it was to be known, became omnipotent on the
Hill when they crushed their last independent competitor, F.
Augustus Heinze in 1903 with a brutal tactic known as The Great
The Company found itself frustrated in the local courts by judges
who were biased for Heinze. Judge William D. Clancy, for example,
was a big bushy bearded, tobacco-chewing magistrate who would
nod off on the bench only to wake up and proclaim "The court
finds for Mr. Heinze." At that time there was no change
of venue law that would allow a new judge if a party to a lawsuit
felt that the judge was biased against them.
The Amalgamated Copper Company shut down all of its operations
in the state putting 20,000 Montanans out of work and then demanded
that the state call a special session of the legislature to pass
a change of venue law. When the state capitulated, this forced
Heinze to sell out and spelled the end of an era of cooperation
between mine owners and their workers for their mutual benefit.
In a speech delivered
on October 26th on the steps of the County Courthouse before
10,000 angry suddenly unemployed miners, Heinze delivered a prophetic
eulogy for that era at the same time that he probably delivered
his own neck from a noose. He said, "If they crush me today
they will crush you tomorrow. They will cut your wages and raise
the tariff in the company stores on every bite you eat and every
rag you wear. They will force you to dwell in Standard Oil houses
while you live and they will bury you in Standard Oil coffins
when you die."
In March 1912, The Company fired 500 miners who they labeled
as Socialists. Then, that December, they imposed a blacklist
system to screen workers by requiring miners to fill out cards
and answer questions about their union and political affiliations.
Those deemed agitators were simply not called for work.
Pinkerton and Thiel agency detectives were hired to infiltrate,
identify troublemakers, and even provoke violence themselves
if possible to weaken the unions from within.
- Fire in the
Hole, Trouble on the Hill:
Destroying the Butte Miner's Union
Frustration and mistrust had reached a peak in June 1914. Miners
were being paid $3.50 a day, the same wage as in 1878, despite
the fact that the price of copper had gone from 8 cents a pound
in 1878 to 17 to 20 cents a pound by 1914.
On the annual celebration of Miner's Union Day, June 13th, an
angry crowd ransacked the Miner's Union Hall after their own
parade erupted into a riot. When the acting mayor, Alderman Frank
Curran appeared in the union hall to plead for calm, he was told
to "Go to hell," and then pushed out of the second
story window. All semblance of order followed him out the window.
The mob removed the union's safe from the building and took it
to a field in the valley below. One miner doused the safe with
a liquid from a bottle that he swore was filled with nitroglycerin.
When it turned out to be whiskey instead, dynamite was used to
blow open the safe.
Charles Moyer, president of the Western Federation of Miners
came to Butte to attempt to mediate the conflict at the next
regular meeting of the union on June 23rd. At that meeting, he
might have wished he had stayed home.
During the contentious meeting,
shots were fired, killing one man. Moyer and other union officers
vacated the hall and once again dynamite was the tool of choice.
The hall was destroyed as the Uptown rocked with the repercussions
from blasts throughout the night.
Later that summer, The Company took advantage of the dissension
to announce that they would no longer recognize the legitimacy
of the Western Federation of Miners. The era of the closed shop
Mountain Mine Disaster
- On a barren slope of overburden
overlooking Butte a platform has been built with a sweeping vista
of the Continental Divide. Standing on the platform, the eye
takes in a panorama that reveals the progression of mining on
the Hill: steel headframes and hoists from underground mining
and farther off the terraced remains of what was once one of
the largest truck-operated open pit copper mines in the world,
the Berkeley Pit. The platform is a memorial to what can't be
seen, however, a memorial to what happened beneath the surface.
- On the night of June 8th,
1917, a group of men descended in the Granite Mountain mine to
inspect an electrical cable that had fallen loose while being
strung by a crew from an earlier shift. When the assistant foreman
accidentally touched his carbide lamp to the frayed paraffin
paper that wrapped the cable, it caught fire. The fire and deadly
smoke quickly fanned through the stopes and shafts of the well
ventilated mine to connecting mines including the Speculator
mine. Despite heroic measures to rescue those trapped below ground,
168 miners died.
One of Butte's most durable businesses, Miller's Boots and Shoes,
was started as a result of the Granite Mountain Disaster. Two
brothers, Elmer and Clarence Miller walked out of the mines unscathed.
Clarence vowed never to work underground again and started the
footwear business that is still operated by his family.
Three days after the disaster, a general strike erupted across
the Hill with better working conditions and safety the key demands.
- Frank Little
- In 1917, caught up by the strike brought on as a result
of the Granite Mountain Fire and the spreading frenzy of world
war, a palpable atmosphere of anarchy swept over Butte. Frank
Little, an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World,
arrived on July 18th.
Little was a veteran organizer who had already helped to galvanize
fruit pickers and lumber workers in the Northwest. Now the I.W.W.
had set its sights on bringing the copper miners in Butte into
the "One Big Union." The radical ideas of the I.W.W.,
including the belief that workers should take control of the
means of production, made mine owners very nervous.
The United States had entered the war in Europe in April and
the U.S. Army was drafting young men for the fight. That summer
a growing anti-draft sentiment was gaining ground in Butte. The
draft was unpopular in Butte for a variety of reasons. Irish
immigrants loathed the idea of dying to defend the British. German,
Serb, Croat, and Italian immigrants were reluctant to return
to Europe to possibly kill relatives.
Little gave public speeches telling the miners that the war was
a conflict that should be left to the capitalists who started
it to finish. Workers, he argued, had more in common with each
other, regardless of their nationality.
These were not
tolerant times in Montana and Little had picked the wrong time
and place to incite dissent and to encourage what the Company-backed
newspapers called acts of sedition.
In the middle of the night on August 1st, six men, identifying
themselves as officers, abducted Little from his boarding house
room. They beat him, dragged him behind a car, and finally hung
him from a train trestle on city's edge. No one was ever convicted
of his murder.
Wednesday" on the Anaconda Road
- With frustration and factionalism
growing, the I.W.W. made inroads until they too were outmaneuvered
by the Company in a strike in 1920. That strike was abruptly
ended when gunfire erupted at a picket at the Neversweat mine
on the Anaconda Road on April 21st. Company security guards opened
fire, wounding 15. Two died from their wounds.
Even though all but one of those shot were strikers, the Company
blamed the I.W.W. for the violence and federal troops arrived
the next day to impose martial law and end the strike. On May
12th, The Company banned all members of the I.W.W. from working
in their mines.
Butte's unions were revived in the 1930s by the growing support
of organized labor by the Roosevelt Administration and the policies
of the New Deal that struggled to bring America out of the Great
Depression. Butte unions were soon strong enough to reestablish
the closed shop in a strike that lasted throughout the summer
of 1934. The Wagner Act enacted in 1935 legitimized the actions
of the unions and their positions were further strengthened by
the passage of Taft-Hartley in 1947, which expanded upon the
Longer and more bitter strikes lay ahead in the 1960s and 1970s
to hold onto the gains achieved for workers over the decades.
Union bargaining continued until 1983, a year after the Berkeley
Pit was shut down. Remaining employees were laid off and the
huge pumps that kept water from flooding the underground mines
were turned off, flooding the mines and the Berkelely Pit.
- Read More
- Butte-Anaconda Almanac, Jeanette Prodgers, Butte Historical
The Battle for Butte: Mining and Politics on the Western Frontier,
1864-1906,Michael P. Malone, Montana Historical Society Press,
The Butte Irish: Class and Ethnicity in an American Mining Town,
1875-1925, David M. Emmons, University of Illinois Press,
The Gibraltar: Socialism and Labor in Butte, Montana, 1895-1920,
Jerry W. Calvert, Montana Historical Society Press, Helena, Montana,
Hard-Rock Miners: The Intermountain West, 1860 -1920,Ronald
C. Brown, Texas A&M University Press, College Station, Texas,
The Hard Rock Miners: A History of the Mining Labor Movement
in the American West, 1863-1893, Richard E. Lingenfelter,
UC Press, Berkeley, CA, 1974.
The Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sitdowns,Sidney
Lens, Doubleday & Co., Inc., New York, 1973.