The Legacy of the Bunker Hill Mine

Posted July 16, 2009 in Mining Labor History

Miners took possession of a number of mines, including Bunker Hill. Over 1,500 Federal and state troops were brought in on the side of the mine owners on July 14th. Hundreds of miners were imprisoned in bull pens without formal charges or trials. This allowed the mines to reopen with scab miners.

Though the mine owners had their scabs and an overwhelming armed force, they lacked one thing -- real miners. The scabs were nothing more than incompetent class traitors, and in time they drifted away from the hard work in the mines. The owners were then forced to bring back the union miners and the union was re-established in all the mines.

The Coeur d'Alene district struggle, along with other struggles of western miners, showed the need for stronger organization. At a convention in Butte of independent miners' unions a new federation was created on May 15, 1892. It was named the Western Federation of Miners (WFM). The WFM fought a number of bitter miners strikes in the next few years, including one in the Coeur d'Alene District in 1899.

This strike turned out to be as bloody as the last one. There was an intense reign of terror against the miners and their families. Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg, who had been elected with WFM support the year before, called in troops to put down the strike. Once again hundreds of miners were placed in bullpens, some for over a year. Several miners were sent to the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. Out of anger several hundred union miners seized a train in the town of Burke, loaded it with dynamite, and aimed it at the Bunker Hill mill and remodeled its decor into a smoldering scrap heap of twisted metal and splintered wood.

A few years later, in 1905, Steunenberg was killed by a bomb. A petty criminal named Harry Orchard, who had been a paid spy for the Mine Owners' Association, confessed to the killing. Though it later came out that he had his own economic reasons for the bombing, he said he was hired by three WFM leaders -- Big Bill Haywood, George Pettibone, and Charles Moyer. All three were illegally kidnaped to Idaho. Haywood was the first to go on trial. After a very dramatic trial he was found not guilty. Later Pettibone was acquitted and then the charges were dropped against Moyer.

It did not take the WFM long to realize that they needed to be a part of a labor federation beyond their industry, so they joined the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1896. The AFL turned out not to be what they were looking for, and they withdrew from it the following year. The AFL was biased against any worker who was not what they viewed as a "skilled" worker. Their views on workers and their trade union structure was based on the old craft guild system which divided workers on the job and throughout industry. Also, the AFL lacked worker solidarity and gave the WFM no support in their strikes. What the WFM wanted was a federation of industrial unions, and the year after discarding the AFL as a waste of time, they created the Western Labor Union. Seeing that their organization had to extend further than just the west, they changed its name in 1902 to the American Labor Union.

Still this was not enough -- the WFM and other unions wanted a labor organization that was not just a federation of affiliates, but an industrial organization that would organize the working class to its greatest possible extent, for they had learn that the labor struggle was not a battle with individual bosses, but rather a class conflict between the employing class and the working class.

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Kellogg Wallace

Did You Know.......

A mine is a hole in the ground, owned by a liar.
-Mark Twain


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