Column by George Sibley
Labor – September 2003 – Colorado Central Magazine
DOES THE LAW apply to money, or just to people? Last issue, I commemorated the centennial of Colorado’s great miners’ strike of 1903-04, when the miners tried to raise that question: If America was a “nation of laws,” then shouldn’t mine owners have to obey Colorado’s eight-hour work day law? But I only managed to get as far as the beginning of the strike in August, 1903. Since the strike went on until late 1904, however, I guess there’s no hurry.
The mine owners, of course, had their own ideas about which laws needed to be obeyed (those applying to workers) and which didn’t (those applying to capital). And after a decade of being on the defensive in the mine districts due to a labor shortage and smart organizing by the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), the owners got themselves better organized for the showdown over the radical, communistic, anarchical idea of an eight-hour day.
Last month, I chronicled how the owners proceeded to do everything in their considerable power to buy the law, once they got their man, James Peabody, in the Governor’s mansion. They had Peabody put a former mine manager, Sherman Bell, in charge of the state’s National Guard. Then, since the state had no money to activate the National Guard, they pledged the necessary money to bring out the Guard when the miners struck. They also contracted with a small army of Pinkerton detectives and some other “enforcers” who were basically gun thugs, and they encouraged the organization of “Citizens’ Alliances,” which were essentially vigilante organizations made up of small businessmen and other mining town citizens who were frightened by the socialist talk of the WFM or who wanted the good graces of the owners more than that of the workers.
So when the miners in the Cripple Creek and Telluride districts went out on strike in August 1903, led by WFM president Charles Moyer and head organizer “Big Bill” Haywood, the mine owners were ready with a fast and vicious response. As soon as the general strike began in August, General Bell himself led 1,000 guardsmen to Cripple Creek, and sent another 1,000 (all of them funded by the Colorado Mine Owners’ Association) to Telluride.
They practiced a kind of “preemptive justice,” declaring martial law in both those potentially volatile areas before anything actually happened, suspending all constitutional guarantees and setting up barb-wire bullpens in public places where anyone who looked at a guardsman cross-eyed was immediately incarcerated.
When a lawyer came with a writ of habeas corpus to free some of his miner clients, Bell shouted, “Habeas corpus, hell! We’ll give them post mortems!” When someone mentioned the Constitution, he said: “To hell with the Constitution!” We’re not following the Constitution!”
WHEN THE NEWSPAPER IN Victor, a few miles away, criticized these blatant violations of American due process, guardsmen went to Victor and brought back the whole newspaper staff and put them in the bullpen.
The union halls were wrecked by the Guard; an 8,000-volume union library in Cripple Creek destroyed. The WFM tried to start some food stores for the strikers and their families, but those were attacked too, and the food was either destroyed with coal oil or carted off by the guardsmen.
Moyer and Haywood were eventually arrested on charges of desecrating the flag, for putting up a poster of the flag under the question: “Is Colorado in America?” On each stripe of the flag the WFM cited an example of the lawlessness and violations of basic rights of the state/business coalition.
Deportation became the state’s major strategy: WFM officials, members, and any lawyers or public officials or locals who supported them, were put on the train and sent out of state. But considering the viciousness of the state attack, the strike discipline was remarkable; most of the deported miners hopped on the next freight back and returned to the fray. On Labor Day, 1903, the miners (those not yet in the bullpens) held a parade down Bennett Avenue in Cripple Creek — between rows of guardsmen wielding bayonets.
Ultimately, all of this became too much for the rest of the people in Colorado. Over vigorous opposition from Bell and Peabody — the “homeland security” boys of their day — a growing public concern led to the restoration of habeas corpus rights for those held in the bullpens (to which Bell responded by re-arresting the miners he had to release on vagrancy charges and deporting them).
In 1904, the voters turned Governor Peabody out of office, but the mine owners tried to use their power over the state supreme court to have him declared the winner anyway (in an act that foreshadowed the great Florida Ploy of 2000). But Peabody himself had lost his taste for the job by then and resigned.
Who won that round?
The workers who hoped to establish some political rights? Or the economic forces that regarded them as just another cost?
It’s debatable. Forty-two men died in that strike; 112 were wounded; 1,345 were arrested and put in the bullpens; and almost 800 were deported from the state. In Telluride, the owners capitulated in December, 1904, giving miners and smelter workers an eight-hour day at $3 a day, but known leaders in the strike were blacklisted. In Cripple Creek, the miners gained nothing but blacklisting.
IT IS AN UGLY STORY that was essentially repeated in 1913-14 when the National Guard was again called out at the behest of (and funded by) mine owners. That time the public revulsion became a national affair after 19 women and children died when the Guard burned a tent city of strikers at Ludlow near Trinidad. But it was another 20 years before the federal government, under Franklin Roosevelt’s urging, granted workers the legal right to negotiate conditions and wages with managers and owners.
Is Colorado in America? That depends on which side you hang your flag on, I guess. Personally, I am amazed by the sheer gumption of the miners in standing up for law and order against the full force of a state overtly committed to economic power rather than the law.
But even more than that, I think, I am amazed by that Cripple Creek library of 8,000 books. The working class, then, was reading, thinking, planning and plotting a workable world. Can you imagine that today?
Consider the last real mining district near Central Colorado, the coal mines of the North Fork of the Gunnison. A couple of decades ago, all those mines were unionized. Today, not a mine there is unionized. I asked one of the last old United Mine Workers pensioners what had happened. “The young guys,” he said, “they just gave it all away.”
We know, in a vague peripheral half-knowing kind of way, that “we” — the collective United States — have been tolerating this kind of activity in a lot of places around the world: Indonesia, Africa, even barely across the border in Mexico. But could it happen in America again?
George Sibley teaches at Western State College in Gunnison, where he is also active in community affairs.
(Information for this story comes from two sources: a wide-ranging paper on “Labor in the Headwaters Region, Past and Present,” presented at Western State College in November 2000; and Labor’s Untold Story by Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais.)