Even before its inception, the future members of the Western Federation of Miners were a group prone to getting what they wanted through the use of violence if all else failed. After a prolonged stay in jail for taking over a mine with force that was being worked by scabs, in 1892 the miners went to Butte where they joined with other mining organizations to found "a grand federation of underground workers throughout the Western states" which was called the Western Federation of Miners (WFM). (BT p. 103-104)
The violent nature of the organization in part stemmed from frustration. William Hard, a Chicago reporter, wrote of the members of the WFM, most of whom had left their homes in the east to become frontiersmen, that "these adventurous characters, going out into a new country...where it would seem that at last all men would stand on equal footing, have suddenly discovered that amid these primitive surroundings the modern industrial system is... found at its worst." (BT p. 104)
The WFM won its first strike at Cripple Creek, Colorado in 1894, and in doing so, established its reputation as a violent, lawless organization. The mine owner had posted a notice that the miners would work extended shifts of ten hours a day, instead of eight or nine, with no increase in pay, so the union miners struck. When the WFM was unable to persuade the nonunion workers to join with them through peaceful means, several beatings and dynamiting of mine property ensued, which made it virtually impossible for the mine owners to secure any nonunion labor. The mine owners held out for seven weeks, but finally agreed to meet with union leaders at the Colorado College Campus in Colorado Springs where they agreed to return the workers pay scale to what it had been, with the promise of no discrimination against the workers who had struck.
The WFM's second strike, however, two years later at Leadville, was not such a success. The miners left their jobs, including the pumps, which caused the mines to flood. The mine owners, who were already in trouble from the falling price of silver, focused their attention on importing scabs to keep the mines running. With the help of the militia, the mine owners were successful in their endeavors to reopen the mines with nonunion labor. Despite the losses in Leadville, Cripple Creek would continue to be a strong hold for the WFM for several years (ACH p. 231-233, see also CWMU p.17-21).
For about a year, beginning in 1896, the WFM was affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). However, relations between the more conservative leader of the AFL, Samuel Gompers, and the more radical WFM leader Boyce quickly deteriorated. In May of 1897 the WFM withdrew from the AFL at the Salt Lake convention (although the WFM would rejoin the organization in 1911). More memorable about the convention, however, was Boyce's presidential address. He said, "I deem it important to direct your attention to Article II of the Constitutional Amendments of the United States-'the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.' This you should comply with immediately. Every union should have a rifle club. I strongly advise you to provide every member with the latest improved rifle, which can be obtained from the factory at a nominal price. I entreat you to take action on this important question, so that in two years we can hear the inspiring music of the marital tread of 25,000 armed men in the ranks of labor." Although this speech would be used against the WFM for years to come, none of the federation's locals was known to have founded a rifle club. (BT p. 213).
By 1899, the leadership of the WFM was blatantly socialist. Although the leadership was never able to persuade the organization to officially adopt the socialist platform, the group was still perceived as an outright socialist organization. Bill Haywood, the sectretary-treasurer of the organization, and other leaders in Denver, suggested to Cripple Creek members that they had a right to steal gold because the nation's wealth belonged to those who produced it. This attitude caused mine owners to police the mines which of course caused more tension and hostility. (MM p. 312).
The WFM's public image as a violent organization was fostered by a 1901 strike in the mines of Telluride. When the mines were taken over by capitalist Author A. Collins, the standard $3 per eight hour day pay rate was reduced and work hours were extended, with an increased risk in injury to the workers. These changes resulted in a strike. Although the union agreed to have the issues arbitrated by the State Board of Arbitration, Collins refused, and hired strike breakers at the same pay rate he had just refused to give to the union. Had those terms been granted to the union, the strike would have ended. Instead, dissatisfied, armed union miners surrounded the mines where armed nonunion laborers were working, after two weeks of trying to persuade the nonunion workers to quit. Negotiations deteriorated into a morning long battle resulting in three deaths and six serious injuries. The strikebreakers surrendered when promised fair treatment; however, many were still dealt with harshly, being forced to leave the region on foot over the mountains. Almost a year later, Collins was assassinated while at home with friends, and the crime was attributed to the WFM, although there was never a trial due to insufficient evidence. Despite the dangerous, violent image, and the fear by mine owners that the WFM was out to wipe capitalism off the face of the earth, the demands of the WFM began reasonably: safe working conditions, pay that reflected the dangers of working in a mine, prevention of child labor, removal of company guards from the mines, and payment in lawful money rather than company script. (CWMU p.20-22)
In 1903, ten years after its inception, the WFM had established itself as the most militant labor organization in America. Although the organization had 180 locals located in nearly every state in the west, with membership of 27,000, the WFM's strong hold was still the Rocky Mountain Region, particularly Colorado. (CWMU p.15) Despite a successful, although violent, first decade, the tide changed for the WFM in 1903 when James Peabody became Governor of Colorado. For Peabody, maintaining law and order was synonymous with destroying labor unions, particularly militant ones like the WFM. Peabody was a successful business man before becoming Governor, and he believed that the government should be run as a corporation. He was concerned that the history of industrial warfare in Colorado had diverted potential capital investment to other parts of the country. He intended to once again make Colorado safe for investors. Because of his desire to have capital flowing into Colorado, and because he saw the unions as a threat, he was prepared from the start of his administration to deal harshly with the WFM or any other union.
As striking mines were reopened with scab workers, the WFM retaliated with sporadic acts of terrorism. In response to these acts, Peabody sent Adjutant General Sherman Bell and the state militia in to quiet the area. Bell rode into Cripple shouting, "I'm here to do up this damned anarchistic Western Federation." (MM p. 251) It was in Cripple under the direction of Bell that the WFM would suffer blows from which it would never recover. First Haywood spent $500,000 trying to end the strike there, only to have the majority decide it was a mistake. Then Harry Orchard, an ex-cheese maker from Canada, blew up a train station platform in Independence, killing thirteen scabs and wounding several other. This atrocious crime was attributed to the WFM, which resulted in 225 union members being deported from the area because they refused to renounce the union. It was the train platform bombing that finally destroyed the WFM in Cripple, and destroyed the union career of Haywood. He later formed the Industrial Workers of the World, of which the remnants of the WFM were a part. After rejoining the AFL in 1911, in 1916 the WFM ceased to exist and became the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers. --Katherine Sutcliffe (2L)
Lukas, J. Anthony, Big Trouble. Simon & Schuster (1997). (BT)
Sprague, Marshall, Money Mountain: The Story of Cripple Creek Gold. Little, Brown & Company (1953). (MM)
Suggs, George G. Jr., Colorado's War on Militant Unionism: James H. Peabody and the Western Federation of Miners. Wayne State University Press (1972). (CWMU)
Ubbelohde, Carl, and Maxine Benson, etc., A Colorado History. Pruett Publishing Company (1982). (ACH)