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Labor History

Cripple Creek miners’ strike shaped America’s labor movement

By DEBORAH A. MILES

Cripple Creek strikers

Union men on parade before the strike in Victor, Colorado, 1894. Image courtesy of the Cripple Creek District Museum, made available via Heritage West.

Cripple Creek in Colorado was among the flourishing gold mine boomtowns in 1894. Workers from around the country flocked to the mines, seeking jobs. They quickly organized the Free Coinage Union, which affiliated with the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), and became Local 19.

In that same year, the Cripple Creek mine owners, J.J. Hagerman, David Moffat and Eben Smith, announced a lengthening of the workday to 10 hours from eight, with no change to the $3 daily wage. Workers protested, and the owners agreed to the eight-hour day, but lowered the pay to $2.50.

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Union president John Calderwood issued a notice a week later, demanding the mine owners reinstate the eight-hour day at the $3 wage. There was no response, so the miners went on strike, which lasted five months.

They set up roving picket lines and closed most of the mines. They epitomized solidarity as the miners who still worked gave part of their wages to support the strikers, and the union set up soup kitchens.

The strike had an immediate effect. Every smelter in Colorado was either closed or running part-time. A month into the strike, the Gold King and Granite Mines conceded and resumed the eight-hour day. Mine owners who held out for the 10-hour day hired strike breakers. Violence followed when an armed group of miners ambushed and captured six sheriff’s deputies, shooting one to death.

After this assault, El Paso County Sheriff M.F. Bowers wired Gov. David Hanson Waite and requested state militia intervention. Waite, a 67-year old Populist, dispatched 300 troops to the area. Calderwood assured the governor his members would cooperate, even surrender for arrest if requested. The state militia left Cripple Creek a few days later, as there were no incidents. The governor then intervened and helped negotiate the eight-hour day at a $3 daily wage for the miners.

The mine owners agreed not to retaliate against or prosecute any miner who had taken part in the strike, and the miners agreed not to discriminate against or harass any non-union worker who remained employed in the mines.

But Sheriff Bowers was vindictive and unable to control the army he created. His deputies went to Bull Hill where they exchanged gunfire with miners, before they turned their anger to the Cripple Creek miners. The deputies arrested and imprisoned hundreds of citizens without cause. Many town residents were pulled from their homes, then clubbed, kicked or beaten. Calderwood and 300 union miners were arrested and charged with a variety of crimes. Only four were convicted of any charges, and were quickly pardoned by the sympathetic populist governor.

The Cripple Creek strike was a major victory for the miners’ union. The WFM used the success of the strike to organize almost every other worker in the Cripple Creek region, including waitresses, laundry workers, bartenders and newsboys into 54 local unions. They all flourished for nearly a decade and helped to elect most county officials, including a new sheriff.

The strike also transformed the WFM into a strong political force throughout much of the Rocky Mountain West. The union’s success altered the course of Colorado’s politics. Citizens blamed Waite for protecting the miners’ union, encouraging violence and anarchy. The backlash led to Waite’s defeat at the polls in November 1894, and the election of the Republican candidate, Albert McIntire.

Under McIntire’s administration, a political alliance was formed with the mine owners. They increased the use of strike breakers, and implemented lockout and blacklist as a means of controlling union members.

McIntire also sent in the state militia at the Leadville Miners’ Strike in 1896. The WFM lost the strike and its influence in Leadville. The results caused the WFM to sever its relationship with the American Federation of Labor, and to turn strongly to the left politically. But the WFM remained powerful for awhile longer, as it was instrumental in launching the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1905.

The IWW’s heyday was short-lived, but along with the WFM, both unions deeply influenced the ideals of the American labor movement as it remains today.

Table of Contents – July-August 2017

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