Gallup Coal Strike

views updated

Gallup Coal Strike

United States 1933-1934


In August 1933 miners in Gallup, New Mexico, walked out on strike against the coal producers. Although the strike began peacefully, the state governor declared martial law and used National Guard troops to seal off the town for five months. The strike ended in early 1934 when the miners and the coal companies reached a settlement, although not all of the miners returned to work. In the aftermath of the strike, a riot erupted on 4 April 1935, and after a sensational trial union members were convicted for the murder of the county sheriff and two other men.


  • 1919: With the formation of the Third International (Comintern), the Bolshevik government of Russia establishes its control over Communist movements worldwide.
  • 1924: In the United States, Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall, along with oil company executives Harry Sinclair and Edward L. Doheny, is charged with conspiracy and bribery in making fraudulent leases of U.S. Navy oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming. The resulting Teapot Dome scandal clouds the administration of President Warren G. Harding.
  • 1929: On "Black Friday" in October, prices on the U.S. stock market, which had been climbing wildly for several years, suddenly collapse. Thus begins the first phase of a world economic crisis and depression that will last until the beginning of World War II.
  • 1931: Financial crisis widens in the United States and Europe, which reel from bank failures and climbing unemployment levels. In London, armies of the unemployed riot.
  • 1934: Austrian chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, who aligns his nation with Mussolini's Italy, establishes a fascist regime in an attempt to keep Austria out of the Nazi orbit. Austrian Nazis react by assassinating Dollfuss.
  • 1934: Dionne sisters, the first quintuplets to survive beyond infancy, are born in Canada.
  • 1937: Japan attacks China, and annexes most of that nation's coastal areas.
  • 1939: After years of loudly denouncing one another (and quietly cooperating), the Nazis and Soviets sign a nonaggression pact in August. This clears the way for the Nazi invasion of Poland, and for Soviet action against Finland. (Stalin also helps himself to a large portion of Poland.)
  • 1942: Axis conquests reach their height in the middle of this year. The Nazis control a vast region from Normandy to the suburbs of Stalingrad, and from the Arctic Circle to the edges of the Sahara. To the east, the Japanese "Co-Prosperity Sphere" encompasses territories from China to Burma to the East Indies, stretching deep into the western Pacific.
  • 1945: April sees the death of three leaders: Roosevelt passes away on 12 April; the Italians execute Mussolini and his mistress on 28 April; and Hitler (along with Eva Braun, propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, and Goebbels's family) commits suicide on 30 April.
  • 1949: North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is established.

Event and Its Context

A Frontier Coal Town

Gallup, New Mexico, was founded in the nineteenth century along the westward route of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad by rail workers who stayed behind to mine the rich coalfields of McKinley County. These twin interests—coal and railroading—were reflected in Gallup's geography, for the main street in town, Railroad Avenue, ran parallel to Coal Avenue one block south. For many of Gallup's citizens, these streets symbolized the deep cultural and racial divisions that would threaten to tear the community apart in the mid-1930s, for they formed the boundaries that divided the moneyed, Anglo district that controlled the railroads and mines from the poorer neighborhoods, home mostly to Mexican immigrants who descended daily into the mines.

Despite the hardships of mining, the people of Gallup, even many of the miners themselves, had always been ambivalent about labor unions. Unions were "eastern," but Gallup saw itself as a frontier town that did not need unions. Unions carried a foreign, even communist, taint; indeed, a Gallup resident could turn onto Railroad Avenue and follow the fabled Route 66 to Chicago and the offices of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, the "Wobblies"), a radical labor organization that had led strikes in the coal mines of the Rockies and the lumber camps of the Pacific Northwest. Militant IWW unionists, such as William Haywood of the Western Federation of Miners and socialist Eugene V. Debs, would have been alien figures to the citizens of this dusty western coal town that prided itself on not being like "uppity" Albuquerque to the east.

Nevertheless, in 1917 the United Mine Workers (UMW) succeeded in negotiating a labor contract with one of Gallup's big coal companies, the Victor American Fuel Company. The town's other big mine, run by the Gallup American Coal Company, was not unionized, so the UMW called a strike. Gallup American responded by bringing in strikebreakers, primarily Mexicans, and allowed them to build adobe houses and shacks on its land on the town's western edge in a district that came to be known as Chihuahuaita. This community, which eventually housed about a hundred families, would become the epicenter of the controversy that led to violence in 1935.

The UMWA Versus the National Miners Union

By the mid-1930s, John L. Lewis had been president of the UMW for over a decade. Faced with declining membership throughout the 1920s, he seized on the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, with its encouragement of organized labor, to launch a major membership drive and rebuild the UMW into a large and powerful union. Although the UMW had been representing some of the miners in Gallup since 1917, in the spring of 1933 the rival National Miners Union (NMU) won recognition by the Gallup miners. As a result of grievances over recent wage cuts and the low wages paid for "deadwork," or nonmining maintenance work, the union called a strike. On 29 August 1933 Gallup American workers climbed out of their mines. In sympathy, workers in the other mines followed suit, and picket lines formed at each of the five major mines in town. The NMU claimed that 970 out of about 1,000 workers had joined the union and walked the picket lines.

Response to the strike forms a case study on how simple fear can affect political decisions. State politicians and local business leaders were nervous. It was the decade not only of the Great Depression but of "Red scares" as economic distress opened the way for the Communist Party, a fringe element in the 1920s, to move closer to the mainstream of American politics and invigorate organized labor. That the NMU was markedly more radical than the UMW was confirmed by a local assistant administrator of the National Recovery Administration, who declared that the NMU was "linked to the Communist Party." Everyone from Governor Arthur Seligman to the Gallup American Legion post feared the influence of communism in the town's affairs. Memories were still fresh of 1928, when martial law had been declared in response to a strike in Colfax County, New Mexico, led by the radical Wobblies.

Seligman had considerable assistance in deciding how to respond to the strike. Lewis, who had been chafing under the NMU's recent organizing victory and had been watching closely as events unfolded, contacted the governor and offered his help. In his telegram he reminded the governor of the ties between the NMU and the Communist Party and wrote, "The policy ought to be for the mine operators in Gallup to make an agreement directly with the UMW and encourage a union which is committed to upholding of American institutions." At the same time the McKinley County sheriff, Gallup's mayor, and several local mine managers sent telegrams predicting "bloodshed and probable loss of life and damage to property." Accordingly, the strike had been under way for just one day, without violence, when Seligman declared martial law and called in the National Guard.

Temporary Truce

In the weeks and months that followed, tensions ran high. Children walked to and from school under the eyes of 300 armed troops. Checkpoints and search warrants became commonplace. Some union leaders were jailed for violating curfew. A "mass gathering ordinance" required a permit for meetings of five or more people; because permits were routinely denied to strikers, the union held meetings across the border in Arizona and picketers strung themselves out along the roads in groups of three or four. The UMW offered membership to those who crossed the picket lines, so technically they were not "scabs," but because many of them were Mexican, racial slurs directed against them were common. Children who had formerly crossed the divide to play together no longer did so. American Communist Party publications enflamed the situation by calling the strike a victory for "the new proletarian spirit created by the Depression in America."

Seligman died suddenly on 25 September, leaving his successor, vice governor Andrew Hockenhull, with a dilemma: National Guard units were costing the state $80,000 a day, but if he withdrew them and the mines shut down, the state would lose sizable tax revenues. Determined to relieve the town from martial law, he dispatched prominent representatives to Gallup to resolve the strike. Finally, the parties worked out a settlement that increased the miners' wages from $4.48 to $4.70 per day. The companies agreed to rehire about 100 of the 400 miners who were still out on strike, though they later reneged on that pledge. The jailed union leaders agreed to leave the state. Finally, on 31 January 1934, Hockenhull lifted martial law, but the peace was uneasy.

The Aftermath

Gallup had survived coal strikes before, but it was the aftermath of this strike that remained seared on the town's consciousness for decades. Despite the new wage agreement, many miners did not return to work, for although the smaller mines adhered to the wage agreement, Gallup American did not and remained closed. Animosities festered as some members of the community thought that the miners were acting unreasonably in turning down work paying nearly five dollars a day during the Great Depression. The plight of the striking miners, many of whom were blacklisted by the companies, deteriorated when at about this time the NMU dissolved at the national level. The Gallup local struggled on under local leadership, but in the spring of 1935 it faced a decision: either continue as a weak local union or join the UMW. A meeting convened on the morning of 3 April 1935 to discuss the details of a merger with the UMW, but many of the union's members arrived with another issue on their minds.

The issue was the fate of Chihuahuaita. Since 1917 the miners who lived there had paid a modest ground rent of 10 to 15 dollars a year. In 1935 workers who continued to strike occupied most of the homes. For the companies' part, one way to finally break the strike would be to force these miners out of their homes. Accordingly, Gallup American sold about 110 acres of Chihuahuaita to state senator Clarence Vogel, who then offered to sell lots back to the striking miners on a payment plan of $10 to $15 a month. Worse, any buyer who defaulted on a single payment would forfeit all payments made to that point. In the meantime, Vogel introduced a bill in the legislature that would have made it easier to foreclose on defaulting debtors. In the eyes of many people, the scheme was a thinly disguised attempt to break the strike with the collusion of a state legislator.

In time Vogel served eviction notices on three residents. When they failed to vacate, they were jailed. The NMU came to their defense, and discussion of the issue was heated during the meeting of 3 April 1935. On 4 April a bitterly angry crowd gathered in town in an effort to free the men. Gunfire erupted, and the sheriff and two other persons lay dead in the streets. One hundred eighty union members were arrested, 48 were jailed, 14 were arraigned, and 10—all Mexican—were bound over on murder charges.

In October 1935 those 10 were tried in an atmosphere rife with charges of "agitation," "communism," "Bolshevism," "radicalism," and "anarchism." Although all were acquitted of capital murder, the jury found three of the men guilty of second-degree murder. Despite a clemency recommendation, the judge sentenced them to 45 years at hard labor. On appeal, the conviction of one of the three was overturned in 1937. Under pressure from the UMW, Governor John E. Miles pardoned the remaining two in 1939. Few observers today are prepared to say who really shot the sheriff.

Key Players

Hockenhull, Andrew (1877-1974): Hockenhull was serving as vice governor of New Mexico when Governor Arthur Seligman died in 1933. He then served out the rest of the term before being defeated for reelection.

Lewis, John L. (1880-1969): Lewis was born in Lucas, Iowa, and went to work in the coal mines at age 16. He worked his way up through the ranks of the United Mine Workers until he become vice president in 1917 and acting president in 1919. In 1920 he was elected president, a post he held until 1960.

Seligman, Arthur (1871-1933): Seligman served briefly as governor of New Mexico. He took office in 1931 but died while in office in 1933.

See also: Industrial Workers of the World; National Industrial Recovery Act; United Mine Workers of America; Western Federation of Miners.



Rubenstein, Harry R. "Destruction of the National Miners'Union." In Labor in New Mexico: Unions, Strikes and Social History Since 1881, edited by Robert Kern. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1977.

Stuart, Gary. Gallup 14. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000.


O'Neill, Bill. "Gallup's Worst Day—April 4, 1935."Master's thesis. New Mexico State University, 1978.

State of New Mexico v. Ochoa, et al. 41 N.M. 589; 72 P2d 609.

—Michael J. O'Neal