Monday, May 9, 2011

The Ground We Walk On: A History of The Jackson Miners Union (Post 10)

The union organizer as a noxious weed that
blooms every spring, from the conservative
Democrat "Puck Magazine."
By David Roddy

Note: See previous posts here.

April 17th, 1903
They posted the notices all around the mines of Sutter Creek and
Jackson, up and down the main streets of those towns, tacked onto church and city hall walls. The April rain smudged the ink, but the stark clarity of the message remained intact.

Strike Notice-Notice is hereby given to all men of Jackson district that a strike is declared on all mines and mills of Oneida, Zeila, Gwin, Kennedy, Central Eureka, and South Eureka Mines.
  Crews of around two mineworkers each guarded all the roads and trails leading to the mines, turning around men on foot and horseback on their way to work in the morning. The strike was on.

Despite months of union organizing, the mine owners refused to recognize the Jackson Miners Union. They also refused to respond to the workers demands for shorter hours and a stable wage. More pressingly, rumors circulated in the last weeks of March that the mine owners were also in the process of organizing  for their benefit. The Amador Ledger reported on March 20th, 1903, that

“the news comes from San Francisco that the miners of Amador and other mining sections have perfected a strong organization to resist any demands that may be made for recognizing any branch of the Western Federation of Miners. They are determined to manage their properties without dictation on the part of the employees. The organization is backed with $300,000 capital, and more if necessary. All the mines in Amador County, with few exceptions, are represented in this counter combine.”
The paper’s description of San Francisco stockholders as “miners” made the organization seem representative of actual mineworkers, despite the opposite being true. The formation of Mine Owners Associations was in no way unique to California. Mine owners across the western United States responded to the organizing drives of the Western Federation of Miners by conglomerating their resources to finance fierce anti-union campaigns. Writing about the Colorado labor wars between the W.F.M. and mine owners, historian George Suggs observed that:

These organizations were not content with destroying militant unionism, and, in the words of two historians, ambitiously tried to erase the "organized labor pattern from the consciousness of the average American citizen" by the adroit use of propaganda which placed "organized labor on a moral defensive." They skillfully cloaked their public releases in the rhetoric of American individualism, and they convincingly portrayed union members and leaders as tyrants who oppressed the community and victimized the employer.”
The mine owners association of Amador County released a statement  to the public on April 13 that argued that a small number of employees associated with the union had intimidated all other employees to leave work at the mine. They urged the public to support their call for the sheriff to deputize citizens to guard the mines. Suggs noted:

“Their propaganda proved successful in rallying local communities to support crusades against specific unions. Perceptive employers, watching those effective experiments in union control, decided that organized labor could be checked if they organized and marshaled public opinion behind their cause.

Miners in the Keystone mine, 1905.





Perhaps the swiftness of the mineworkers strike after rumors of the formation of an Amador mine owner’s organization prevented a massive public relations campaign on the part of the mine owners, though the ardent anti-unionism of the newspapers may have made such an effort redundant.

Nevertheless, the response of government officials to the labor upheaval points to a more sympathetic view of the union amongst the public at large. Law enforcement ignored the demand for the protection of strikebreakers through the employment of deputies. Sheriff T.K. Norman justified his inaction by stating he would not “put the County to the great expense of appointing a large force of deputies.”  The District Attorney went so far as to label the strike action “just.”

Oneida, to the south of Jackson, was the only mine that remained in operation in the last weeks of April. It did so by hiring armed men to protect strikebreakers working at the mine. As the strike wore, on the pleas of the owners for the iron hand of the law to reopen the mines became more frantic.


Amador Ledger [Jackson, Ca]  20 March 1903

"A Strike Declared" and "Mine Owners Demand Protection" Amador Ledger [Jackson, Ca]  17 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.

Suggs, George G. Colorado's War on Militant Unionism; James H. Peabody and the Western Federation of Miners. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1972.

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