By David Roddy (Previous posts in this series here.)
The week between Friday the 17th and 24th of April 1903 shut down the gold mining communities of Amador County. Until the mine-owners guaranteed an eight-hour workday, higher wages, and recognition of the Jackson and Amador Miners Unions, the miners refused to work.
|1883 cartoon depicting the American workman tied to the fire of monopoly.|
From Puck Magazine.
That week, the gold embedded deep in the quartz of the Mother Lode lay undisturbed by the blasts of dynamite and the ever-searching power drills that normally would have torn deep into the earth. The men, who would have previously spent the week laboring deep underground, instead patrolled the land surrounding the mines, hoping to deter any would-be scab. The mines and mills no longer hungered for the raw materials needed for them to run, effectively paralyzing the lumber and quarry workers of the mountains. The miners, bringing in no wages, could no longer buy items from the merchant shops. The entire local economy had its base pulled from beneath it. The Amador Ledger reported on the 24th that:
“It is estimated that over 100 have left during the week. Business of all kinds is stagnant. Jackson is the trading center of most of the mines involved. The strike means at least $1500 per day withdrawn from circulation among the business houses here. Contractors for timbers, laggings, charcoal, etc., are also idle, awaiting the outcome. Three months of this inactivity will mean the suspension of the mining industry for a whole year, as these supplies cannot be obtained in winter months.”The growing urgency of the situation forced the mine owners to begin negotiations with the union. The first to begin negotiations was the Gwin Mine, located near Sutter Creek. Located outside of the Jackson mining district and organized by the recently formed Amador Miners Union, the Gwin employees struck in conjunction with the Jackson miners. Why the Gwin mine company was the first to attempt a negotiation with the union is not immediately clear. The Amador Dispatch noted that the Gwin was a “large dividend player, and by far the largest producer of the group.” Another factor that may have contributed is the economic isolation of the mining community relative to other Amador County towns. Gwin employees in the town of Paloma, whose sole economic livelihood depended on that single mine, alone formed the Amador Miners Union. Perhaps this limited the town’s ability to absorb the loss of its citizens’ income, increasing the pressure on the mine owners to negotiate.
The Amador Ledger reported the following about the negotiation process:
“The strike situation took a big stride toward a settlement at the Gwin mine last Friday. On that day manager McClure, by virtue of the manifesto agreed upon at a meeting of the superintendents of the various mines involved, held a conference with a committee of his own employees as such. They have all joined the union recently formed at Paloma, and which is said to number 200 members. It was understood that he did not confer with them as a committee appointed by the union.
Neither would he recognize M. W. Moor, representative of the ' Western Federation, in his representative capacity. But it was finally agreed that he should be present at the gathering and reduce the terms of the agreement to writing.”
"After protracted negotiations, a basis of settlement was formulated as follows: No recognition of the union; no discrimination against' either union or non-union men; no agreement on the part of the company to reinstate discharged men, the manager being left entirely free to exercise his own discretion in the matter; nine hours to constitute a day's work underground.The assumption that all the Amador mines affected by the strike would follow the negotiations between the strikers and employers at the Gwin mine was quickly challenged, however.
It was naturally understood that this arrangement was subject to its ratification by the board of directors of the company, the two directors at the mine, superintendent Thomas and McClure, were in favor of the settlement, and they are the largest individual stock holders. It was also tacitly agreed that the superintendents of all the companies concerned should act together. A settlement by one' meant a settlement by all. And as another meeting of the superintendents was called for the following day, Saturday, in Sutter Creek, the prospect of a complete settlement, satisfactory to both sides of the controversy, seemed a question of only a few hours. It was at once noised about that the trouble was virtually settled. Congratulations were indulged in by strikers and businessmen that the industrial war was over.”
“Early Saturday, the meeting of superintendents was held in the office of the Amador Electric Company. Objections at once arose concerning the terms of the agreement, more particularly the clause relating to hours. This it was held left room for misunderstanding.By April 20th the Gwin began to reopen.
It might be interpreted— and in fact it was so interpreted — that the nine hours should commence from the time the employees were lowered into the shaft, and end at their reappearance there from after work. This would amount practically to eight hours actual work. After much discussion, the meeting re solved to definitely guard this point —whether a modification of the original agreement or not we do not know— by making the clause read nine "working" hours. In this form it was acceptable to all; the respective superintendents having authority to treat on that basis.”
“The modified terms were agreed to by the committee representing' the Gwin employees, and again the outlook for a speedy end was bright. A meeting of the Gwin directors was held in San Francisco Monday morning, at which the agreement was ratified without a dissenting voice. Again a cheerful spirit prevailed. Employees of the Gwin were notified to report for duty. Thirty or forty men were working on the surface and preparations were made for starting full blast Tuesday.”The Jackson Miners Union was not willing to concede their demand for an eight hour work day, however:
“In the evening however, a telephone message was received to the effect that B. Johnson, bookkeeper of the Gwin, had received instructions to take no further steps toward the resumption of work until further orders. The import of this was only a matter of surmise, until further particulars were known.The superintendents of the Zeila, Oneida, Kennedy, South Eureka, and Central Eureka Mine and Milling Companies signed the notice. The next day the superintendent of the Gwin Mine and Milling Company capitulated with the rest of the mine owners, stating that:
On comparing notes Tuesday a serious discrepancy in the understanding of the compact of settlement between the Gwin and its employees turned up.
That agreement was intended to be a basis of settlement for all companies. The mine owners were willing to concede a reduction of actual working time one hour, making nine hours instead of ten. A meeting of Jackson union was called Tuesday afternoon, and when this proposition was put to them it was rejected. They wanted eight working hours, and those who participated in the arrangement with the Gwin never understood it in any other way. This blocked the plan of settlement, Wednesday the representatives of all the companies concerned, except the Gwin, held a meeting, and resolved to stand together for the original agreement as they understood it. They issued the following as their final position:
We have held a meeting, and agree to stand upon the terms in our original agreement as follows:
Employees may retain to work, union and nonunion men, and no discrimination against either.
Where time of working shift is now ten working hours, same shall be reduced to nine working hours, with same rate of wages.
Union not to be recognized. We decline to concede eight working hours.”
“What you all stand by is understood same as the Gwin. We have never conceded eight working hours; only one hour less on working shift.”The Ledger concluded:
“This seems to fix the issue definitely. Many of the miners are firm in their demand for the eight-hour system. A meeting of all the superintendents is being hold in Sutter Creek today. It is confidently expected that matters will take a turn toward adjustment are long.”
'The Big Strike" Amador Ledger [Jackson, Ca] April 24, 1903.
"Strike Situation in Amador" Amador Dispatch [Jackson, Ca] April 18, 1903