Monday, March 28, 2011

The Ground We Walk On: A History of The Jackson Miners Union (Post 7)

By David Roddy

Synopsis of past posts:

Post 1: “49ers” remove most of the placer gold in the southern mines of California during the last decades of the 1800s, deeper mines to remove gold from quartz beds attract capitalist investment which in turn exploits cheap immigrant labor.

Post 2: Parallel developments across the Western United States lead to miners unionizing to demand wage increases and safer workplaces. In 1893, the Western Federation of Miners unites these unions and grows after a successful strike in Cripple Creek Colorado in 1894.

Post 3: In 1901, Jackson mine owners preemptively threaten to fire any unionized workers as well as anybody that showed sympathies to a rumored union. The WFM becomes militant after a series of violent strikes, advocates socialism and the possibility of armed insurrection against the capitalist class. Local newspapers side with mine owners.

Post 4: On September 6 of 1901, self-proclaimed anarchist Leon Czolgosz assassinates President William McKinley. This triggers a national panic against immigrants, anarchists and leftists. The cacophony around the national red-scare silences any rumors of a Jackson miners union.

Post 5: The Jackson Miners’ Union, No. 115 of the Western Federation of Miners, announces its presence in the fall of 1902, much to the horror of local newspapers. Newly inaugurated President Theodore Roosevelt deals peaceably with striking coal miners in Pennsylvania, giving labor unions a credibility in national media.

Post 6: Jackson Miners Union president Frank O’Connell writes a letter to Amador Dispatch calling for a socialist economy. Both Republican and Democratic newspapers attack the Jackson Miners Union.

Tensions Build On the 28th of November in 1902, the Amador Dispatch quoted an editorial from the San Luis Obispo Breeze titled “Organized Labor the Safeguard of Society.”

A broad view of the labor movement, which recognizes the fact that there is an abundance for all, is the only tenable ground. Keep up the organization, and benefits will come as fast as outside conditions will warrant. The safety of all depends upon the intelligent organization of labor.
"TR teaches the childish coal barons a lesson"
From Wikipedia.
Toleration for labor unions became increasingly fashionable as the United States entered the “Progressive Era.” The treatment of striking anthracite coal miners as equals to their employers by the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt strengthened public sympathy towards the cause of organized labor. The admittedly conservative president of the American Federation of Labor Samuel Gompers went so far as to state in his 1925 autobiography:

Several times I have been asked what in my opinion was the most important single incident in the labor movement in the United States and I have invariably replied: the strike of the anthracite miners in Pennsylvania ... from then on the miners became not merely human machines to produce coal but men and citizens.
The Jackson Miners Union, perhaps energized by the rising public support for labor, asserted itself early in December of 1902. Campaigning miners braved the wind and rain of an early cold-wave to embark on a placarding campaign aimed at discouraging other miners throughout the Sierra Nevada foothills to work in the Amador mines. The placards explained the reasoning of the Union:
Miners throughout the west are requested to remain away from Amador county until further notice. We are organizing a union here with splendid success, and an increase of competent men just at this time would make our work more difficult. Wages have been cut in many instances to $2.25, and the rule is $2.50 and $2.75, hence there is little to induce miners to come this way. We will do our duty and succeed if the county is not overrun with miners pending thorough organization. Remain away now and we will make it worthwhile to come among us later.

“Miners Magazine,” the official newspaper of the Western Federation of Miners, also published the notices, effectively notifying miners throughout the Western United States not to work in Amador's mines. This move outraged  the Amador Ledger. The Republican newspaper had previously opposed the formation of the Jackson Union, explaining that unions violated the economic “laws of nature.” They continued with this narrative with their criticism towards the notices.
The object is to shut out miners from the outside, and thereby produce a dearth of miners to operate the mines here. It is argued that if this result can be secured, employers will have no choice but to hire all workmen here, regardless of whether they are acceptable or not. It aims to stop the natural and healthful flow of population as far as Amador county is concerned.
Tuolumne County’s “Mother Lode Banner” commented on the Ledger’s antagonism towards the union, stating “the Amador Ledger is very much exercised for fear a labor war may be precipitated through the formation of Jackson Miner's Union No.115, W. F.M.” The Banner’s disregard for the Ledger’s anxiety prompted the Ledger to reply with an anecdote the editors felt demonstrated the threat of unionization to local industry.
A prominent mine owner of Tuolumne county contemplated the starting up of a mine in Amador county at an early date. It is looked upon as a very promising property. On learning that professional agitators were at work, denouncing capitalists and mineowners as legal robbers, and seeking to create a break between employes and employers, he is reported to have postponed the reopening of the mine until circumstances afford a reasonable guarantee that he will be able to invest his money in his own way, without interference or dictation in any respect from outside sources. We know not whether the report is true, but we venture to say that the same spirit of independence animates capitalists everywhere.
Despite the ongoing efforts of the Ledger to discredit the need for a miners organization, the Union grew rapidly into the winter of 1902. Frank O’Connell, the organizer and first president of the Union resigned on the twelfth of December that year to return to the Western Federation of Miners’ headquarters in Denver. Jackson resident and miner W. R. Selkirk was elected to replace O’Connell, effectively silencing the objection made by the Ledger and Dispatch that the union was controlled by “outside agitators.”
 Privately, the Union prepared for a much more aggressive strategy for the coming year.

References:"A Voice from Outside" Amador Ledger [Jackson, CA] 26 Dec. 1902.

Gompers, Samuel. Seventy Years of Life and Labor: an Autobiography. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1925.
"O'Connell Resigns" Amador Ledger [Jackson, CA] 19 Dec. 1902.

"Organized Labor the Safeguard of Society" Amador Dispatch [Jackson, CA] 28 Nov. 1902.

"Their Peculiar Tactics" Amador Ledger [Jackson, CA] 12 Dec. 1902.

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