Monday, March 14, 2011

The Ground We Walk On: A History of the Jackson Miner's Union (Post 6)

By David Roddy

Posts 1, 2, 3, 4 & 5
Growing Pains
A tempest of controversy followed the formation of the Jackson Miners Union No. 115 in the autumn of 1902. Both the Republican Ledger and Democratic Dispatch met the presence of the Western Federation of Miners—an always socialist and occasionally revolutionary labor union—with hostility and bewilderment. Local business men also felt threatened by the Miners Union, which attempted to alleviate their anxiety in an October 10th letter published in the Amador Dispatch by stating that “The members of this organization are the men who work the mines in this vicinity and their earning make it possible for many of their critics to remain in business.”

Workers at Amador's Zeila gold mine, 1910.
The media, mine superintendents, and businessmen were not the only forces antagonizing the Union. The WFM advocated “industrial unionism,” which organized workers by an entire industry instead of by a single craft or trade. Industrial unions had a strong ideological framework that declared that people could only be truly free when they took control of their work place and broke away from a dependency on wages. This inclusive model made the lowest paid workers essential for a successful organizing drive, as they were the bulk of laborers.

During the early 20th century in America, this class consisted overwhelmingly of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. The Mother Lode mines were not exempt from this trend and thousands of poor immigrants from Italy, Austria, and Serbia accepted work at brutally low wages across the Sierra. The presence of a radical unionist from Colorado organizing this population in Amador irked some of the Anglo-American miners.

On October 3, 1902, a letter was published by the Amador Dispatch signed only with “A Miner” expresses this attitude.
Why should we want a man to come all the way from Colorado to tell us what we want in Amador county? Do I want a man imported here to teach me the way to mine, or to tell me what to do with my money? Not much. We, as a people, are satisfied with our lot on this earth, and do not want one from any other state to teach us anything in regard to our own welfare.

Again, who are these men who say they don’t ask for much, or rather, they are only going to ask for a little—$3 a day and 8-hour shifts? I don’t remember of ever working only eight hours on a shift in my life-time, so it would be a great change for me. Those I do know pay very little, if any taxes to the county. Have them a house and home of their own? Not that I know of. The most of them have only a rented room and a trunk.
Here the “Miner” references a population that lives in boarding houses and hotels, both of which primarily housed immigrant laborers. The “Miner” continues:

Again I say I am in favor of the poor man. I am poor myself, but what would I do without the rich man? Can those great educated-men from Colorado that came here to educate us tell me?
The conclusion of the letter transforms the implied prejudices of the author into a sinister call to cleanse the community of its impoverished inhabitants:

Let all Amador county join hands; business men of all kinds…in fact those people who have the interest of the county at heart…let some live citizen take hold of this matter and call the people together. Then where will the peddler on our streets, the man who sells 5-cent beer, the man who collects bad debts for a newspaper, who call themselves miners, go? We will not miss them. They can go from whence they came.
A week later, the Dispatch ran a modest rebuttal by the Jackson Miner’s Union that stated:
The Miners’ Union of Jackson…was organized as a branch of the Western Federation of Miners, to advance the interests of its members physically, morally, and mentally; to care for its members, when sick and in distress, and to assist in finding employment for a brother who needs work.
The debate continued into November, and on the fourteenth of that month the Dispatch published an editorial by WFM organizer and Jackson Miner’s Union No. 115 President Frank O’Connell that addressed those who held similar convictions to the author of the above letter.
Have you ever had interest enough to look up the accounts of the millions of your brothers and sisters who are filling the brothels, and the little children who are wearing out their undeveloped bodies in factories, piling up profits for capitalists?
Just cast your eye back and see if you cannot discover the cause of your ailment—poverty.
O'Connell implored that the miners support his efforts:
Join hands with the thousands of intelligent men and women throughout the world who are battling for the abolishment of the wage system and for the emancipation of the wage worker the grasp of corporate oppression—for the co-operative brotherhood of man.

Remember that this attempt—to destroy this organization and array people against it is in vain, as we have no animosity toward any human being on earth, but earnestly desire the elevation of living.

You are the wealth producers of Amador county...You are in majority, and you have the power to say whether the present system of legalized robbery shall be exchanged for a new and better system that will give equal rights to all and insure the producer the same protection that is given the capitalist.
Anarchist Emma Goldman
O’Connell echoes the view of many 19th and 20th century socialists that wage labor was a form of bondage, what they deemed to be “wage slavery.” These activists argued that the option between working for a wage and starving to death coerced individuals into selling themselves as workers, which in turn makes them dependent on an employer and a workplace they have no control over. The various feuding factions on the left agreed on this point, with communist Frederick Engels arguing in his 1847 “Principles of Communism” that “The slave is sold once and for all; the proletarian must sell himself daily and hourly” and anarchist Emma Goldman stating in an 1897 speech that “The only difference is that you are hired slaves instead of block slaves. You have to dread the idea of being unemployed and of being compelled to support your masters."

Not just bound to essays and speeches of leftist intellectuals, the dynamic between starvation and submission to a workplace was readily apparent to both employers and employees. Striking textile workers in 1836 in Lowell, Massachusetts sang “For I am so fond of Liberty that I cannot be a slave,” and Capitalist Jay Gould bragged during an 1886 Railroad strike that “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.”

On November 21st, The Amador Ledger, the Republican contemporary of the Democratic Dispatch, called O’Connell’s championing of socialist ideas “intemperate advice.”
The toilers of Amador county are as a rule intelligent men, and ought to be able to judge, each one for his self, as to what course he should pursue, without advice from any one, and especially without the assistance of agitators from the outside. We do deem it a duty we owe to the community to protest against the incendiary utterances of the article in question, which have no other object in view but to make the workingmen dissatisfied with their lot, and the conditions under which they have lived happily and contentedly for so many years.

The proposition is simply to kindle the fires of dissatisfaction; to array the wage-earners against the wage-payers. This seems to be the primary object in view: and with the display of such a spirit we believe the bulk of law-abiding, peace-loving citizens will conclude that it is best to leave such apostles of mischief severely alone.

The Ledger contends that while the mineworkers were happy with their wages and hours, they should be reminded that O’Connell, the “agitator from the outside,” served to convince them that they were miserable. The two-hundred members already enrolled in the Miner’s Union must therefore not be actually dissatisfied with their lot, but have fallen prey to the lofty dreams of the WFM, an exception to the rule that the County’s toilers were intelligent. The article ends with a warning of O’Connell’s true intentions:

So this agitator aims not to raise the price of labor, but to wipe out the wage system entirely. He would pull down the whole fabric of wage earning.
That means the abolition of all distinction between employers and employees.
The end in view, therefore, is not reformation, but revolution. The era of the workman being worthy of and receiving the just value of his hire is to be replaced by the era of socialism and all things in common.
To explain why workmen are only worthy of $2.50 for a ten to twelve hour day of work, the Ledger published an article alongside the rebuttal to O’Connell titled “Labor and Wealth.”
We are told that the workingmen are the creators- of all the wealth of Amador county, and the inference is that having created it, they should also be the possessors, if not of the whole, at least of the major share, thereof.

The price of labor, like the price of every other commodity, is governed by the law of supply and demand. That kind of labor, which is scarcest is the highest priced; the grade of labor that is commonest or the most plentiful is always the lowest priced.

Genius —and by that term we mean an abnormal expertness in any department of human activity—always commands, and as a matter of right should command, a higher, compensation than mediocrity. This law— bearing as it does the royal sign manual of nature's approval—has always held supremacy in human affairs.
It is in accordance with that fundamental law of self-protection which leads every man to secure the highest possible price for his capital labor. Let agitators try as they may by organization and the force of numbers to break down this rule, they can never succeed. Under exceptional conditions the law may be disturbed temporarily, but in the end nature will assert its supremacy by a return to normal conditions.

The wealth inequality that forced hundreds of Jackson mineworkers into poverty is the result of the “laws” of nature, and any effort to correct this imbalance is not only dangerous but also ultimately futile. The article fails to address what “genius” the Jackson mine superintendents and the stockholders in San Francisco had in contrast with the miners that justified their share of the wealth. Nor does the “force of numbers” used to break the rules of supply and demand apply to the Mine Owners Association, which used its collective power to plan extraction and production as well as maintain low wages.

The seemingly hypocritical view that worker's associations were dangerous while ignoring the existence of business associations was first oberved by Adam Smith, the founder of classical economics, in his seminal 1776 work “The Wealth of Nations” that:

Adam Smith
 Whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform, combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate...Masters, too, sometimes enter into particular combinations to sink the wages of labour even below this rate. These are always conducted with the utmost silence and secrecy till the moment of execution; and when the workmen yield, as they sometimes do without resistance, though severely felt by them, they are never heard of by other people.

Smith contrasts this with the reaction to combinations of workmen, what by the next century would be called unions:
The masters upon this occasion…never cease to call aloud for the assistance of the civil magistrate, and the rigorous execution of those laws which have been enacted with so much severity against the combination of servants, labourers, and journeymen.

The Amador Ledger sided with Smith’s “masters,” and used his ideas concerning exchange to justify the dismissal of the Miner’s Union. The "scientific" predictions of the Union's failure provided further justification the already existing view that the Jackson Miner's Union existed only to rouse the immigrant masses to challenge the status quo. The Ledger would continue this antagonistic approach to the Union in the years to come, spearheading the campaign against the Amador County labor movement as it rose to prominence.


Engels, Friedrich. Principles of Communism. New York: Monthly Review, 1952. Print.

Goldman, Emma. Emma Goldman: a Documentary History of the American Years. Berkeley: University of California, 2003. Print.

Grimes, William. "Looking Back in Anger at the Gilded Age’s Excesses." New York Times. 18 Apr. 2007. Web. 14 Mar. 2011. .

"Intemperate Advice." Editorial. Amador Ledger [Jackson, CA] 21 Nov. 1902. Print.

"Labor and Wealth." Amador Ledger [Jackson, CA] 21 Nov. 1902. Print.

Lavender, Catherine. "Texts About Lowell Mill Girls." 'Liberty Rhetoric' and Nineteenth-Century American Women. 1998. Web.
"A Miners Opinion." Editorial. Amador Dispatch [Jackson, CA] 03 Oct. 1902.

"The Miners' Union." Editorial. Amador Dispatch [Jackson, CA] 10 Oct. 1902.

O'Connell, Frank. "An Appeal to Workingmen." Editorial. Amador Dispatch [Jackson, CA] 14 Nov. 1902.

Smith, Adam. "Book 1, Of the Wages of Labour." An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 1952.

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