Class War in the Old West

Peter Clayworth, who is writing a biography of New Zealand trade unionist Pat Hickey, tracks some of Hickey’s background through the history of the Victor Miners’ Union Hall Colorado and the Western Federation of Miners, USA.

The Miners’ Union Hall in the small town of Victor, Colorado, is a site of great historic significance to the international labour movement. In the early 1900s the hall was the centre of dramatic events as the local headquarters of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), the USA’s most militant union. The building is still scarred by bullet holes, witness to the violent class struggle known as the Colorado Labor Wars. Employers and state authorities joined forces to crush the WFM, afraid of the Federation’s growing power and its radical ideas. The WFM rejected craftbased trade unionism in favour of industrial unions, dedicating itself to a class war aimed at the overthrow of capitalism through mass industrial action; a doctrine described as revolutionary syndicalism.

The ideas of the WFM had a profound influence beyond the USA, in particular in early 20th century New Zealand. Pat Hickey, a member of the WFM, brought the message of class war to New Zealand’s West Coast mines in 1907; leading to the 1908 Blackball strike and the beginnings of broader union federations. The Federation of Miners, the forerunner of the New Zealand Federation of Labour or ‘Red Feds’, was based on the WFM model and adopted the militant preamble of the WFM’s constitution. The WFM was instrumental in starting the Industrial Workers of the World movement, the IWW or Wobblies. The most militant labour agitators in pre-war New Zealand were based on the American IWW model. It can be seen that through these connections the violent labour struggles of the early 20th century American West helped spark New Zealand’s own industrial upheavals in the ‘Red Fed’ era.

The history of the WFM in Victor, Colorado, reflects the broader story of the miners’ struggles in the American West. The WFM was founded in response to the violent repression of the 1893 miners’ strike at Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The Federation’s core supporters were the hard rock miners of the western states: South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. The WFM later spread into western Canada. By the early 1900s, the Federation had grown in power following a series of successful strikes. They were organising carpenters, construction workers and smelter workers, as well as coal and hard rock miners.

Teller County, Colorado, was a centre of union power. The area included the hard rock mining towns of Cripple Creek and Victor. The local government was dominated by the union, a number of WFM co-operative shops were located in the area, while the Victor Daily Record was a strongly pro-union newspaper. The WFM was able to insist on an eight hour day and union wage scales throughout Teller County. The WFM had been set up with an emphasis on improving the working conditions of its members. This was often achieved through negotiation, and in union towns such as Victor there was for a time a considerable degree of cooperation between the union, the law enforcement authorities, and the more moderate employers. During this period of relative industrial peace, in 1901-1902, the Victor Miners’ Hall was built on 4th Street. The hall provided a site for union meetings and social activities, as well as symbolising the unionists’ pride in the power of their Federation.

Victor Miners’ Hall, c.1903. From rebelgraphics.org

As employer strength continued to crush strikes in many western mines, the WFM became more strident in its ideology and rhetoric. With the election of Charles Moyer as president and William ‘Big Bill’ Haywood as secretary/treasurer, the Federation gained two leaders who were dedicated militants. The WFM rejected the conservative American Federation of Labor as a bastion of craft unions, more interested in feathering the nests of skilled tradesmen than advancing the cause of workers as a class. By 1903 the WFM was calling for ‘a complete revolution of social and economic conditions’ and the abolition of the wage system. During this period the WFM gained a reputation for readiness to use violence to achieve its aims. The Federation always argued that this was largely a smear by the capitalist press and that most violence was initiated by the employers. Colorado’s employers were frightened by the radical language and the growing power of the Federation. The employers established their own ‘Citizens’ Alliances’ to combat the unions. They also gained a strong ally with the election of anti-union Republican, James Peabody, as Governor of Colorado. Friction between the WFM and employers increased as the Federation focused on the campaign for an eight hour day, a measure supported by a referendum of Colorado citizens, but blocked by the state judiciary and government.

The ‘Colorado Labor Wars’ were sparked by employer reaction to the WFM organising Colorado City smelter workers in the mills where Cripple Creek and Victor ore was smelted. Union men were identified by spies from the Pinkerton Detective Agency and dismissed from the mills. Mill workers struck in protest and, true to the principles of industrial unionism, the WFM miners of Cripple Creek and Victor went out in support. Governor Peabody and the employers’ associations saw this as an opportunity to break the power of the WFM. Under the pretext that the Cripple Creek area was out of control, Peabody sent the National Guard into Victor and the surrounding Teller County. Union officials, WFM members, sympathetic public officials and the staff of the Victor Daily Record were systematically arrested. While the rest of its staff were imprisoned, an emergency edition of the Daily Record was printed and distributed single-handed by Emma Langdon, an apprentice linotype operator who had escaped arrest. The National Guard ignored court orders to release the prisoners. The authorities claimed the union was responsible for a series of violent incidents, including sabotage of railway lines and explosions in mines. The Federation consistently claimed that sabotage in Colorado was the work of employers’ agents, in attempts to discredit the unionists. On December 4, 1903, Teller County was officially placed under martial law, the Bill of Rights was suspended, and union leaders were imprisoned or deported from Colorado. The right to bear arms was removed, merchants were arrested for displaying pro-union posters, the Daily Record was placed under military censorship, and the Victor Miners’ Hall was briefly occupied by National Guardsmen.

The situation worsened in June 1904, following an explosion in the Depot at the Independence Mine and Mill. Thirteen strike breakers were killed and a further six wounded. The Citizens’ Alliances immediately blamed the WFM, while the Federation claimed the blast was another attempt by the employers to discredit them. As no independent investigation of the crime was ever carried out, it remains unclear who was responsible.

The Cripple Creek Mine Owners’ Association and the Citizens’ Alliance immediately took advantage of the situation, meeting at the Victor Military Club to plan the removal of all pro-union elements in Teller County. Sheriff Henry Robertson, who was regarded as soft on the WFM, was forced to resign under threat of being lynched. The employers then called a citizens’ meeting across the street from the Victor Miners’ Union Hall. As an angry crowd was fired up by anti-union rhetoric, unidentified gunmen drew revolvers and fired shots at random, wounding at least five people. It is not clear why the shooting started or who was responsible for it. Fifty members of the WFM left the scene for the safety of the Victor Miners’ Hall. Company L of the National Guard, the local Victor unit commanded by one of the mine managers, then surrounded the Union Hall and opened fire. After four miners were wounded the unionists surrendered. The Hall was wrecked by Guardsmen and the Citizens’ Alliance, and the union’s records were destroyed. Following these events other WFM halls in Teller County were wrecked, WFM cooperative stores were looted and the Victor Daily Record was taken over by state authorities and transformed into an anti-union paper. Those workers who refused to renounce the WFM were driven out of Colorado.

The events of the Colorado Labor War convinced the WFM that they were in a war to the death with the employers and their government allies. The Federation was a major party at meetings in Chicago in 1905, from which the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) was formed. The IWW had the aim of carrying on the class war through the organisation of all workers into one big union, with the power to tackle the employers’ alliances. The final goal was the destruction of capitalism, leading to ‘the cooperative commonwealth’. Large union organisations would form the basis of the new society to come.

While the WFM was helping organise the IWW, New Zealander Pat Hickey was involved in Local 67 of the WFM at the Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah. Hickey no doubt heard a great deal about the Colorado Labor Wars and may have even visited Victor during his American travels. Fully converted to the WFM’s vision of class war and revolutionary syndicalism, Hickey returned to New Zealand in 1906, determined to bring militant labour activism to the ‘workers’ paradise’.

The Victor Miners’ Union Hall is now the focus of a campaign to restore it as an international centre for labour and particularly miners’ history and education. The Hall is derelict but activists are working under the banner of the Victor Heritage Society to raise funds and buy the Hall from its current owner, who is willing to sell, and restore the building to its former glory.

Peter Clayworth. From LHP Newsletter 45, February 2009.

[Note: In the fall of 2012 a new owner began committing major resources to stabilising and restoring the building. In 2014, one week after completion, the hall was substantially damaged by fire. Money was quickly raised to undergo structural assessments, but the current status of the hall is unknown].

Top image: The Colorado National Guard. Victor had its own National Guard regiment stationed at the armory, one block from the WFM hall. From rebelgraphics.org