Friday, August 19, 2011

The Ground We Walk On: A History of The Jackson Miners Union (Post 13)

1886 engraving of the Haymarket Affair
Ending the Strike
By David Roddy

On May 1, 1903, the Amador Dispatch reported that the great Amador gold mine strike had ended. The date of this announcement was frustratingly fitting, as exactly 18 years previously the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions declared a standard eight-hour workday, prompting mass marches and strikes across the country and culminating into clashes between Chicago protesters and police in what is now known as the “Haymarket Affair.” Workers lost the fight for an eight-hour workday in 1886 in the United States, and the miners of Amador County lost the fight in 1903.

 The mine owners did concede a nine-hour day, one hour less than the pre-strike standard. The mine owners refused to grant official recognition to the Jackson and Amador Miners Unions, and allowed management to re-institute individual miners at their own discretion. This loss for the workers was somewhat offset with the promise of a nondiscriminatory policy towards union members. More significant than the details of the agreement is the scale at which the miners strike transformed the culture of
Amador County.

The most obvious and immediate impact was the changed nature of industrial relations. Through their collective organizing, the miners changed from inert laborers to active agents within their work environment. The threat of a strike, actualized in the spring of 1903, stripped the mine owners of their previously singular authority to manage the mines. 
On March 20, 1903, the Amador Ledger noted that the Amador mine owners had
“perfected a strong organization to resist any demands that may be made for the recognition [of] any branch of the Western Federation of Miners.”
The paper also stated, perhaps more revealingly,
“They are determined to manage their properties without dictation on the part of the employees.”
The next week, the Ledger heralded the official formation of the California Mine Operators Association. The paper argued that the creation of the group was not simply in reaction to the labor organizing of Amador County:

 “It is not to fight the labor unions; not to make aggressive warfare upon employees whether union men or not. It is an alliance for mutual protection. It means that with the might of numbers the federated workers shall not be allowed to encroach upon the rights of the employers in detail. A contest at one point means a united front in defense of their right to conduct their business according to their own notions and to employ whomsoever they please, without dictation or coercion.” (emphasis added).
The paper approvingly concluded:
“If we have gauged the spirit of this new born organization aright we regard it as a step in the right direction; one that cannot fail to have a salutary effect in reestablishing confidence and the revival of mining activity all along the lode.”
A similar scene of Australian miners striking for an eight hour day.
The following month’s strike proved the paper wrong; with the “might of numbers,” the federated workers did indeed encroach upon the declared “rights” of the employer. The strike and semi-successful negotiations of the mineworkers dampened this authoritarian impulse on the part of the mine owners.

Another, perhaps more significant, effect of the strike was that the Union had established itself as a serious organization, thus providing an institutional framework for both a forum for dissent and fraternity for primarily poor, immigrant miners. In the ensuing years, the
Union would hold dances for miners and their families, be a venue for socialist activists to speak, participate in parades, and organize more strikes with the aim of bettering their working conditions.

"California Mine Operators Association" Amador Ledger [Jackson, Ca] March 27, 1903

"The Strike is Off" Amador Dispatch [Jackson, Ca] May 1, 1903

1 comment:

  1. I've really enjoyed this series!!