Monday, April 18, 2011

The Ground We Walk On: A History of The Jackson Miners Union (Post 9)

By David Roddy

Note: Here is a list of all previous posts in descending order.

Fifty Good Miners

"The Tournament of Today--A Set-To Between Labor and Monopoly." Date unknown.
Five miners are waiting in an old Western room; their expressions grave despite the blossoming hillsides and fluttering birds outside the dusty windows. On the table before them lay three sheets of paper, one for each superintendent of three local mines. Each reads:

“We, the members of Jackson Miners' Union No. 115, through our
representatives, submit to your consideration the following demands:

1st. Non-discrimination against members of the Western Federation.
2nd. Reinstatement of all miners discharged for affiliating with same.
3rd. Establishment of an eight hour day for all underground work at the present scale of wages.”

1890 Scene from Keystone Mine in Amador City.

 It is the third of April, 1903, and after several months of organizing, the Jackson Miners Union makes its first bold steps in ameliorating the hazardous and degrading work conditions that define their employment. The previous evening, 60 miners met at the hall on Court Street, just a hill south of the Kennedy mine, to discuss their strategy. Having achieved nothing at formal talks with the bosses the previous month, the miners voted 3:1 to strike if the superintendents did not respond within ten days.

The previous October, Pennsylvania miners settled the anthracite coal strike in with a 10% pay increase and a nine-hour workday, and while this was short of the 20% increase and eight-hour day demanded, the agreement was in itself considered a significant concession from the mine owners to the United Mine Workers union. On the Western front, the Western Federation succesfully lobbied to amend the Colorado State Constitution to force employers to recognize an eight hour work day. The referendum passed with 75% of the voting population in support of the measure.

Any hope of progressive government sentiment spreading westward was crushed, however, when Republican governor James Peabody, notorious for his pro-business views, vetoed the resolution. In protest, several Colorado mining districts went on strike, only to be met with armed vigalantes who proceeded to round up the troublesome miners and expel them from their communities.

Across the West, Mine Owner Associations crushed union organizing drives and labor strikes with armed guards, Pinkerton security forces, and State militias. Mine owners sought out and hired the most ethnically diverse workforce possible, not to promote some early incarnation of multiculturalism, but rather to ensure that employees be divided by language and culture. Union organizers were frequently subject to harassment, unwarranted arrests, and lynching. The capitalist class had the resources and time to wage this fight, but the workers had one key weapon: their labor.

In a 1911 speech, William Haywood, recalling his work as the Western Federation of Miners Secretary Treasurer, stated, “If the workers are organized, all they have to do is to put their hands in their pockets and they have got the capitalist class whipped.”

Fearing the growing number of union men employed in the mines, the superintendents sought out fifty known members and promptly fired them. Tuolumne’s Mother Lode Banner proclaimed the fired mineworkers to be “fifty good miners, family men, old residents, and taxpayers.” The community as well as the rest of the miners shared this sentiment, and on April 17, four days past the ten days set by the miners for the owners to respond, the Jackson Miners Union declared a strike and 1000 men walked away from the mines across Amador County.

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

"Jackson Union Makes Demands" Amador Ledger [Jackson, Ca] 10 April 1903

Limbaugh, Ronald H., and Willard P. Fuller. Calaveras Gold: the Impact of Mining on a Mother Lode County. Reno: University of Nevada, 2004.

"The Miners Union" Amador Ledger [Jackson, Ca]  03 March 1903

1 comment:

  1. What a refreshing site! Three or four years ago I was visiting Jackson and I went into the museum there and I saw a WFM ribbon displayed in one of the display cases. I often wondered about the history of the WFM in Jackson and surrounding areas. I retired from driving a city bus in San Francisco about 10 years ago and now live in Lodi.I will bookmark your site and try to keep up.
    H. Bell. (