Monday, March 7, 2011

The Ground We Walk On: A History of The Jackson Miners Union (Post 5)

By David Roddy

Note: Part five of a series. Please see posts 1,2,3 & 4.

Jackson Miners Union, W.F.M. No. 115

On September 5th, 1902, one day away from the first anniversary of the McKinley assassination, the Amador Ledger ran an article descriptively titled “Reported Miners' Union.” The Ledger had adopted the platform of the Republican, which, under McKinley’s presidency, fostered a sympathetic attitude towards big business. Unsurprisingly, the Ledger antagonized the Union even prior to its official inception. The paper stated that:
“Reports have been current in Jackson and throughout the county that an effort is being made to organize a miners' labor union in this county, with headquarters in Jackson. Meetings have been bold in the basement known as the Olympus cafe for three successive nights, for the purpose of launching a now secret society.”
While this appears to be the first record of labor organizing in Jackson since the September of the previous year, the paper reports that “Persistent efforts have been made during the past three months to start an organization of some kind, confined largely, if not exclusively, to the laboring men.” It is unclear if this organizing effort was a continuation of the reported organizing of the previous year or if it was one of multiple attempts.

Moyer to the left and Haywood in the middle.
By 1902 the Western Federation of Miners had expanded to a point where it could financially sustain such organizing drives. Founding president Ed Boyce had stepped down, and the position was taken by Charles Moyer, along with Socialist William “Big Bill” Haywood as Secretary-Treasurer. Together they organized mineworkers throughout Colorado, and disputes between employers and the State government against the WFM made national headlines. Haywood boasted that the union had seventeen thousand members after the first year of planning by him and Moyer.

The WFM fought bitterly in Colorado for improved working conditions, the eight-hour workday, and employer recognition, as well as the loftier ambitions of Industrial Unionism overthrowing the capitalist system. As for the rumored Jackson Union, the Ledger article touched briefly on the possible motivation of the rumored union:
“Whether the object of this move is to interfere in any way with the pleasant relations existing between employers and employee we do not know. It is no secret, that mine owners here are unalterably opposed to any dictation at the hands of employees. Rather than submit to anything of that kind the mines would be closed down.”

The “pleasant relations” included up to 10 hours of work a day for as little as $2.50, or a wage of roughly 25 cents an hour while laboring in a potentially deadly environment. This was not unique to Amador County; similar conditions prevailed in industry across America, breeding a spirit of radicalism that culminated in the assassination of McKinley. This in turn catalyzed a typical twofold reaction from the political elite: authorities suppressed the activities of dissidents through laws targeting anarchists and syndicalists—including those within the WFM—while simultaneously addressing the grievances of the workers to mitigate further, potentially revolutionary, unrest.

President Theodore Roosevelt, in a 1901 State of the Union address, exemplifies this strategy by proclaiming that “they [anarchists] and those like them should be kept out of this country; and if found here they should be promptly deported to the country whence they came; and far-reaching. Provision should be made for the punishment of those who stay” while also acknowledging “very great good has been and will be accomplished by associations or unions of wage-workers, when managed with forethought, and when they combine insistence upon their own rights with law-abiding respect for the rights of others,” at the time a rare admittance from a government official.

1902 cartoon of coal miner literally striking boss.
100,000 anthracite coal miners organized by the United Mine Workers of America in eastern Pennsylvania struck in the spring of 1902, providing Roosevelt an occasion to display his readiness to act as a neutral arbitrator in industrial disputes. His administration offered to mediate between the mine owners and the strikers, resulting in an hour reduction of work a day and the placement of elected union representatives on a bargaining board.

It is impossible to determine whether this new attitude toward unions on the part of the Federal Government influenced the organizing success of the Jackson Miner’s Union. Most likely industrial relations had simply reached a tipping point, and the President’s attitude towards striking coal miners in Pennsylvania and the formation of the Jackson Miners Union were just two examples of a nationwide trend to the left. What is known in that on the 12th of September of that year, the Ledger announced that:
“It appears, notwithstanding the conflicting statements which have been in circulation, that the organization of a miners' union was effected in Jackson last week. The strength of the movement is not known. A gentleman was here from the outside to start the organization, and admitted that it was intended as a movement to organize those engaged in mining into a labor union, although it was denied that the object was to interfere with the rates of wages prevailing here.”
The Jackson Miner’s Union, No. 115 of the Western Federation of Miners, had made its presence known.


Carlson, Peter M. Roughneck the Life and times of Big Bill Haywood. New York: W.W. Norton, 1983. Print.

Sexton, Patricia Cayo. The War on Labor and the Left: Understanding America's Unique Conservatism. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1991. Print.
"Reported Miners' Union." Amador Ledger [Jackson, Ca] 05 Sept. 1902.

Amador Ledger [Jackson, Ca] 12 Sept. 1902.

Images from Wikipedia


  1. Legit! It's awesome to read about influential local history, very interesting! (:

  2. This looks very good, I like your analysis and pictures. I think you have done a good job of breaking these up in a way that shows the progression of events clearly. I will look forward to the next piece.

  3. Very nice write up, shows the progression and local history very well. Nicely done!

  4. Well done! I didn't know about this.