Monday, February 21, 2011

The Ground We Walk On: A History of The Jackson Miners Union (Post 3)

By David Roddy

Note: Please read Post 1 and Post 2 before continuing.

Rumors of a Jackson Miners Union
On the 26th of August of 1901, the superintendents from the Kennedy, Argonaut, South Eureka and Zeila gold mines in Jackson convened to address a new social movement rippling across mine communities in the western United States. “It has been reported that the Miners of Amador County have created and organized, or are about to create and organize, a society known as and called a MINERS’ UNION, for the purpose of increasing the current wages and reducing the hours of labor at the Mines in this Mining District.” Miners worked ten hours a day for less than a dollar a day, but the superintendents insisted, “The current wages are fair and the hours of labor reasonable.”

The conclusion of the meeting dramatically demonstrates the bosses contempt for union activity:

“Now, therefore, it is agreed by the undersigned, that no employment, trade, custom or business will be given to any member of said Miners’ Union, or to anyone who, directly or indirectly, aids the same; It is therefore agreed that all employees of the undersigned shall at once be given notice of this effect, and that those who may be members of said union be requested to withdraw therefrom or be discharged from service” (emphasis in original).

The bosses were not interested in simply busting the union. They attempted to erase any hope of miner’s union within the community by penalizing with unemployment not only union members, but also those who sympathized with them or “indirectly aided” them before the presence of a union was officially announced.

The growing militancy of the W.F.M. may explain some of the antagonistic attitude of the district superintendents. Melvyn Dubofsky, Distinguished Professor of History at Binghamton University, writes, “During the ten years from 1894 to 1904, Western miners waged armed war with their capitalist adversaries. Miners’ unions sometimes purchased and stocked rifles and ammunitions, drilled in a military fashion, and prepared if all else to achieve their objectives with rifle, torch, and dynamite stick. This resort to violence did not lack substantial reason, as mine operators proved equally martial, and usually less compromising, than their labor foes.” At the 1897 W.F.M. convention is Salt Lake City, president Ed Boyce entreated unions to arm themselves, citing the second amendment and stating: “Every (local) union should have a rifle club. I strongly advise you to provide every member with the latest improved rifle.”

Boyce also recommended to delegates that unions purchase the mines to run them democratically, effectively redistributing the wealth and power held by the mine owners to the miners directly. The WFM officially adopted the political goals of socialism in their 1900 convention, forming a Declaration of Principles that included public ownership of the means of production and the abolition of the wage system, which the miners viewed as a form of slavery forcing workers into dependency. Boyce, speaking to miners in Montana, clarified this idea: “There can be no harmony employer and employee—the former wants long hours and short wages, the latter wants short hours and high wages. Our present wage system is slavery in its worst form. The corporations and trusts have monopolized the necessities of society and the means of life, that the laborer can have access to them only on the terms offered by the trust…Let the rallying cry be ‘Labor, the producer of all wealth, is entitled to all he creates, the overthrow of the profit-making system, the extinction of monopolies, equality for all and land for all the people.’” The WFM aligned itself with the Socialist Party of America, Boyce being an associate with SPA advocate Eugene Debs. It was in this charged environment that Amador miners began to organize.

Fiery speaker Eugene Debs, whose friendship with Boyce
influenced the WFM's adoption of socialism.
Four days after the superintendents’ agreement, the Amador Dispatch newspaper reported the presence of a union organizer from Grass Valley—presumably from W.F.M. local no. 90—meeting with Jackson miners. The article defended the current wages and hours, emphasizing the danger posed to mining capital by labor unions: “Why kill the hen that lays the golden eggs?” The next week the Dispatch further bolstered its position by reprinting a speech given by Democratic Party leader and anti-union campaigner John P. Irish. The papers stated that the speech should cause “people loving freedom to think.” 

John P. Irish
“Trade unionism is Anti-American when it assumes powers that are denied to government and proposes that no man shall be permitted to labor unless he has its license and permission.” Irish lays out his argument against collective bargaining, emphasizing that union organizers were “foreigners or Americans only in the second generation” and that they, not the general reduction of skill required for industrial labor, were the cause of the decline of learned trades. “We say take your hand off the American boy. He shall learn trades whether you like it or not, and earn his bread in their practice whether you license him or not.” Irish ominously ended by warning unions that “You are attempting to assassinate the Republic, and it will crush you to powder.”
Two days after the Dispatch ran his speech, Irish’s rhetoric about the assassination of the Republic would come to seem eerily prophetic and newspapers were given all the fodder needed to demonize the growing American left.


Jackson Mine Superintendents. "Concerning a Miners Union". Jackson. 1901. Print
Suggs, Jr. George S. Colorado's War on Militant Unionism: James H. Peabody and the Western Federation of Miners. Tulsa: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972.

"Truths Well Told." Amador Dispatch [Jackson, Ca] 04 Sept. 1901.

Images from
Dubofsky, Melvyn. We Shall Be All; a History of the Industrial Workers of the World. Chicago: Quadrangle, 1969. 38-40.

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