A Labor Movement Born in Butte
Rough and Tumble Beginnings in the Mining City
BY PAT HILL
The Treasure State and the American labor movement share deep roots sprung from the coal of Appalachia to the copper veins below “the Richest Hill on Earth” at Butte, Montana.
The American labor movement was born in those dangerous mine shafts that mostly immigrant laborers newly-arrived from Europe toiled in during the late 19th century. In the northeastern part of the nation, it was coal to fuel the burgeoning young nation that was taken out of the ground. In the West, it was precious metals like gold, silver, and copper that were being extracted from the ore-bearing rock beneath the soil.
Corporate entities soon dominated the mining frontier in both areas, and safety took a back seat to profit for corporations such as the Amalgamated Copper Company in Butte. The days of the solitary miner panning for his riches were long gone by the time underground miners at the Alice and Lexington silver mines in Butte decided not to accept a pay cut in 1878. Four hundred silver miners marched behind a brass band that day instead of descending into the mines. Later that evening they gathered to form what would become the Butte Miners' Union, the first union in Butte.
The Mining City was also destined to be acknowledged in the labor world as the “Gibraltar of Unionism.” Within ten years of the formation of the Butte Miners' Union, every mine in Butte was unionized. The Bluebird mine was the last to join the union ranks, and on Miners' Union Day (June 13) in 1887, the miners of the Bluebird were “gently” coaxed by union members from other mines to close operations and march up to the union hall to be initiated as members in the Miners' Union. The “Bluebird incident,” as it came to be known, essentially made the Butte mines a “closed shop,” meaning that non-union men wanting to make a living in the mines would have to join the union before they could work.
In 1893 Butte miners played a major role in the formation of the Western Federation of Miners. Miners from across the West converged on the Mining City to consolidate regional representation of their interests. The Butte chapter of the WFM emerging from that meeting became Local Number One.
Butte boasted 18,000 union members by 1900, with 34 different unions representing workers inclu-ding brewers, teamsters, blacksmiths, and construction workers. Musicians and theatrical workers unionized in the Mining City also, as did waitresses and bartenders. Even typographers and newsboys organized in the multi-daily newspaper town . But the battle between organized labor and corporate interests never really stopped in Butte, and that battle centered on the copper coming from the mine shafts underneath the Mining City.
Corporate heavy-hitter Standard Oil eventually ruled the roost regarding ownership of Butte's mining operations. In 1899, Standard Oil bought the interests of virtually all the other previous mine owners on the Hill and named their Butte operations the Amalgamated Copper Company. The “Company,” as it came to be known, eliminated their last competitor in Butte by 1903. F. Augustus Heinze, one of the area's “Copper Kings (along with Marcus Daly and William A. Clark)”, had the ear and allegiance of the Butte courts, but the Company could not sway the judiciary to rule in their favor, and no change of venue laws to force Heinze's hand existed at the time. So the Company conducted what came to be known as the “Great Shutdown” to get their way.
The Great Shutdown involved Amalgamated Copper Company shutting down all its Montana mining and other operations in order to try to force the Montana Legislature into Special Session to make a law allowing for a change of venue. With 20,000 workers sitting idle in the state, the legislature gave in to the company, making a law allowing for a change of venue. When the Company got its way, it realized greater political power, and the already unsteady cooperation between miners and owners for their mutual benefit came to an end in the Mining City.
Heinze probably summed up the miners' future relations with the company in a speech he made on the steps of the Butte-Silverbow County Courthouse in October of 1903; the speech also prophesied his future:
“If they crush me today they will crush you tomorrow,” said Heinze. “They will cut your wages and raise the tariff in the company stores on every bite you eat and every rag you wear. They will force you to dwell in Standard Oil houses while you live and bury you in Standard Oil coffins when you die.” But Heinze's speech may have been more related to his own survival than the best interests of miners.
“The way [the Butte Miners' Union] was set up was a two-edged sword,” said Ken Morris, who is married to the grand-daughter of John “Scootch” Doris, one of the early treasurers of the Butte Miner's Union. Morris told the Pioneer that Doris began working in the mines as a helper at age nine, and later left the underground shafts after injuring his shoulder in a fall while working underground.
“Scootch said the Company set up the factory stores and housing arrangements as benefits to the miners,” said Morris. “And the union bosses would use that against the Company.”
By 1912, it was the Company that held sway in Butte. Though the price of copper had increased, miners were being paid the same wages as in 1878. Miners deemed Socialists were fired. Detectives from both the Pinkerton and Theil agencies infiltrated the Union. Miners started to wonder about the union that was supposed to represent their best interests. Things were heating up in Butte by the time the Miners' Union Hall was dynamited after a mob high on anger and alcohol broke into the building on Miners' Union Day (June 13) of 1914.
The Butte Miner's Union Hall was dynamited again during the next regular union meeting on June 23. The head of the Western Federation of Miners, Charles Moyer, was in town attempting to calm the waters and quell the mistrust and anger, but the meeting led to shots being fired and more explosions. The Company took advantage of the teetering situation within the Union and announced it would no longer recognize the Western Federation of Miners, ending the era of the closed shop in Butte for a time.
In 1917, the International Workers of the World (the Wobblies) attempted to organize Buttes' copper miners into a larger vision the Wobblies had of “One Big Union.” Frank Little, a veteran organizer for the Wobblies, arrived in Butte in mid-July to take on the task. The Wobblies vision of workers controlling the means of production wherever they successfully organized did not sit well with the Company.
he United States had entered the First World War earlier that year, and a general anti-war sentiment among the mostly-European immigrant workers in Butte was also making the company nervous. When Little insisted during public speeches in the Mining City that workers had more in common with one another than with the capitalists he said started the war in the first place, he may have gone too far. On August 1, Little was taken into “custody” by men identifying themselves as police officers, beaten, dragged from behind a car, and left hanging from a railroad trestle. No murder convictions, however, resulted from his murder.
The Wobblies continued to try to organize in Butte, but without much success. After an attempted strike at the Neversweat Mine in 1920 ended in gunfire and death, the Company also banned members of the IWW from their mines.
By the 1930s, buoyed by support for organized labor by the Roosevelt Administration, Butte unions were making a comeback and managed a successful summer strike that brought the closed shop back to town in 1934. That success helped galvanize action on the national front, and bring legitimacy to unions the next year with the passage of the Wagner Act. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 further strengthened the unions, which would call more strikes in the Mining City in the 1960s and '70s in an attempt to hold onto gains achieved. But for Butte's copper miners, the struggle came to naught. The Berkeley Pit, the big open-pit copper mine that had swallowed up many of Butte's old ethnic neighborhoods in the search for ore, was finally shut down in 1982. Though unions continued to bargain for a year after the shutdown, the pumps that kept the pit from filling with water were turned off, and the legacy of Butte's copper miners and the labor movement became history.