Western Federation of Miners

views updated Jun 08 2018

Western Federation of Miners

United States 1893


In reaction to the use of federal troops to break a strike of unionized miners of nonferrous metals in Idaho, miners' unions from five western states formed the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), an industrial union of wage earners (miners and smelter workers) in and around the mines. The WFM endorsed the class struggle in the preamble to its constitution and engaged in labor strikes in which the mining corporations used troops to defeat the union miners. The WFM created the Western Labor Union and its successor, the American Labor Union, as competitors to the more conservative, craft union-dominated American Federation of Labor. The WFM endorsed the Populists in 1896 and the newly formed Socialist Party in 1900, and in 1905 the WFM took a leading role in the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World, an organization committed to industrial syndicalism. In 1916 the WFM changed its name to the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers and adopted the more conciliatory language of bread-and-butter unionism.


  • 1893: Henry Ford builds his first automobile.
  • 1898: United States defeats Spain in the three-month Spanish American War. As a result, Cuba gains it independence, and the United States purchases Puerto Rico and the Philippines from Spain for $20 million.
  • 1900: China's Boxer Rebellion, which began in the preceding year with attacks on foreigners and Christians, reaches its height. An international contingent of more than 2,000 men arrives to restore order, but only after several tens of thousands have died.
  • 1903: Polish-born French chemist Marie Curie becomes the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize.
  • 1908: Ford Motor Company introduces the Model T.
  • 1913: Two incidents illustrate the increasingly controversial nature of the arts in the new century. Visitors to the 17 February Armory Show in New York City are scandalized by such works as Marcel Duchamp's cubist Nude Descending a Staircase, which elicits vehement criticism, and theatergoers at the 29 May debut of Igor Stravinksy's ballet Le Sacrédu Printemps (The Rite of Spring) are so horrified by the new work that a riot ensues.
  • 1914: On the Western Front, the first battles of the Marne and Ypres establish a line that will more or less hold for the next four years. Exuberance is still high on both sides but will dissipate as thousands of German, French, and British soldiers sacrifice their lives in battles over a few miles of barbed wire and mud. The Eastern Front is a different story: a German victory over Russia at Tannenberg in August sets the stage for a war in which Russia will enjoy little success, and will eventually descend into chaos that paves the way for the 1917 revolutions.
  • 1918: The Second Battle of the Marne in July and August is the last major conflict on the Western Front. In November, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicates, bringing an end to the war.

Event and Its Context

Early Labor Unionism

The earliest miners in the American West were prospectors and placer miners in search of quick riches that seemed possible from the California gold rush in 1849 through the 1860s. Many of those who stayed in the West after their dreams evaporated found employment in the deep shaft mines that began to develop in California in the 1850s and spread throughout the West in the following decades. The miners' resentment of their lost independence coupled with the shared dangers of underground mining produced a strong sense of solidarity. Starting with the first hard rock miners' union in 1863 at Nevada's rich Comstock Lode, hard rock men pushed for a uniform wage for all underground workers. As one of the earliest successful American industrial unions, the local miners' union was often a formidable force in small mining towns. They were especially effective when middle-class shopkeepers and professionals, who were dependent upon workers' wages, threw their support to the miners' union during conflicts with mining corporations that were financed by eastern and European capital. The miners also voted for city officials, including law enforcement, who were friendly to labor.

In reaction to the miners' community support, major mining corporations used their influence at the state level to exert judicial and military powers against miners' unions. This occurred most dramatically in 1892, when mining companies in the Coeur d'Alene mining district of northern Idaho convinced the state government to request U.S. Army troops to break a strike by miners who opposed a wage reduction. The military rounded up hundreds of union members and imprisoned them in an open stockade known as the "bull pen." Edward Boyce, who would become president of the WFM, and 11 other union miners who were incarcerated for contempt of court, came together to devise a plan for a federation of local miners' unions.

The Birth of the Western Federation of Miners

In May 1893, 40 delegates from 15 miners' unions met in Butte, Montana, home to the Butte Miners' Union (which was America's largest local labor union during the 1890s), to found the Western Federation of Miners (WFM). The preamble to its constitution called for moderate labor measures—safety legislation, decent wages, and arbitration. Even a moderate union met strong opposition from mining companies. In 1894 mine owners in Colorado's Cripple Creek mining district increased the workday from eight to nine hours. The miners waged a successful strike in great part because Governor Davis Waite, a Populist whom the miners had supported, used the state militia to disperse the company's gunmen.

Edward Boyce, one of the architects of the WFM and a member of its executive board, was elected president in 1896. He affiliated the WFM with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in the belief that membership would strengthen the miners' position. At Leadville, Colorado, in 1896, local officials swore in strikebreakers as National Guard troops and enlisted them to break the strike. When the Leadville miners went on strike, Boyce asked for financial assistance. After the AFL neglected to provide assistance, Boyce took the WFM out of the eastern-dominated amalgamation of trade unions. In 1898 Boyce played a significant role in the Salt Lake City convention that founded the Western Labor Union as a regional competitor to the AFL. In 1899 federal troops broke a strike in the Coeur d'Alene district where Boyce had served as the recording secretary of the Wardner Miners' Union and as a strike leader in the 1892 defeat.

A significant increase in mergers of American corporations occurred between 1898 and 1902. The metal mining and smelting industries reflected this merger movement with the creation of the Phelps Dodge Copper Company, the American Smelting and Refining Company, and the Amalgamated Copper Company (owned primarily by Standard Oil executives), which dominated the industry and the western communities where they extracted and processed ore.

Colorado Labor Wars

Miners supported labor friendly candidates, especially from the Populist Party. In1899 the Colorado legislature enacted an eight-hour workday, but the Colorado Supreme Court struck it down. In 1902 Colorado voters passed a referendum to amend the state constitution to include the eight-hour day, but the legislature failed to pass the legislation.

In addition to the political battle, Colorado experienced a struggle that became known as the "Colorado labor wars" (1901-1903), between the WFM and mining corporations. In 1901 the Telluride miners' union struck to protect the eight-hour day. The owners' backed down, but the WFM wanted mine owners to recognize the union. After a violent confrontation, Vincent St. John, president of the Telluride Miners' Union, negotiated a ceasefire. The governor refused the companies' request for troops. The miners returned to work with the eight-hour day intact, but without union recognition.

The WFM attempted to organize smelter workers at Colorado City in the Cripple Creek district during 1902. Over the next two years, the governor ignored local officials and at the companies' request intermittently sent the state militia to stifle the union's organizing drive, suspended habeas corpus, and allowed the arrest and deportation of union members. Charles Moyer, a South Dakota smelter worker and president of the WFM, was jailed and denied habeas corpus, which precipitated his advocacy of socialism and broad-based radical unionism. Local citizens' alliances intimidated union sympathizers. The WFM called off the strike in 1904. The mining companies also used the militia, martial law, arrests and deportations, and Citizens' Alliances to defeat the WFM, in 1903-1904, at Idaho Springs and San Juan in Colorado.

Left-wing Unionism

In the meantime, the WFM moved further to the political left as membership reached its highest point of 30,000 out of 200,000 employed in the metalliferous mining industry. The Miners' Magazine, a WFM weekly founded in 1900, denounced corporations, capitalism, and the government. In 1902 the Western Labor Union (WLU) changed its name to the American Labor Union as part of an unsuccessful attempt to organize workers in the East, and the WFM and WLU endorsed the Socialist Party. In1905 the WFM took the lead in founding the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), an industrial union built on the syndicalist principles of direct action and opposition to time contracts with employers. By the end of 1905, the IWW had 50,000 members, of which 27,000 belonged to the WFM.

In December 1905 a dynamite explosion murdered Frank Steunenberg, a former governor of Idaho who was disliked by the miners for his role in defeating the WFM during the Coeur d'Alene strike of 1899. Upon the testimony of Henry Orchard, a man of suspect character; the court extradited WFM president Moyer; WFM secretary Bill Haywood; and George Pettibone, a small businessman who had been a leader in the Coeur d'Alene strike of 1892, and charged them with Steunenberg's murder. Famous attorney Clarence Darrow helped achieve acquittals for Haywood and Pettibone and dropped charges for Moyer. The long trial was costly, however, and deprived the WFM and the nascent IWW of leadership during a crucial period.

The IWW's second convention of 1906 split the organization into two factions: one led by Charles O. Sherman, which most WFM members followed, and the other led by Daniel DeLeon and William Trautmann. Goldfield, Nevada, became the battlefield of IWW factions within the WFM. Here Vincent St. John, a WFM delegate to the IWW convention and former WFM local president, led an IWW local affiliated with the De-Leon-Trautmann faction that opposed time contracts and conciliatory relationships with employers. St. John organized non-miners in Goldfield and brought them into the WFM local, which forced it into local, nonmining labor disputes. Business leaders eventually convinced Nevada's governor to call in federal troops to stop the turmoil. This signaled the end for the IWW and WFM locals in Goldfield and set the stage for the national WFM to cut all fiscal and organizational ties with the IWW in 1908. The WFM rejoined the AFL in 1911.

Death of the WFM

In 1913-1914 the WFM, which had been organizing copper miners in Michigan's upper peninsula, became involved in a bitter nine-month strike against poor working conditions, low wages, and company control of daily life. Company gunmen shot Moyer and the strike was eventually crushed. The action depleted WFM's treasury. When an internal struggle destroyed the Butte Miners' Union in 1914, the WFM lost its most reliable source of income. The WFM had fewer than 17,000 members in 1916 when it changed its name to the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers.

For over 20 years, the WFM confronted Gilded Age mining corporations whose wealth and political connections often enlisted the aid of the courts and the military to break labor strikes. The extreme violence and oppression transformed a moderate industrial union into a leading radical labor organization that repudiated the conservative trade unionism of the AFL and embraced socialism and syndicalism to fight the class struggle.

Key Players

Boyce, Edward (1863-1941): Boyce emigrated from Ireland and worked as a hard rock miner, planning the formation of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) while imprisoned for his leadership of Coeur d'Alene strike of 1892. He served as WFM president (1896-1902), pushing for the formation of the Western Labor Union and support of the Socialist Party.

Haywood, William Dudley (1869-1928): Haywood held various WFM offices, played a major role in the Telluride and Cripple Creek strikes, and chaired the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905. He was jailed in 1906 for the murder of a former Idaho governor but was acquitted in 1907. He was expelled from the WFM in 1908.

Moyer, Charles H. (1893-1929): Moyer served as president of WFM from 1902 until dissolution of WFM in 1916 and continued as president of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers until 1926. He was jailed for the murder of a former Idaho governor in 1906 and acquitted in 1907. He participated in the formation of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), took WFM out of the IWW in 1908, and rejoined the AFL in 1911.

O'Neill, John M. (c. 1857-1936): O'Neill, a college-educated journalist, edited the Miners' Magazine (1901-1910), the WFM's weekly publication, and made it a vehicle for radical unionism and socialism. He was a delegate to the first IWW convention, but by 1910 advocated rejoining the AFL.

St. John, Vincent (1876-1929): St. John led the Telluride Miners' Union in the 1901 and 1903 strikes, helped to found the IWW, and was a leader of the faction that supported revolutionary industrial unionism. As a member of the IWW executive board, he organized workers in Goldfield, NV, an action that contributed to the WFM's withdrawal from the IWW. He served as IWW general secretary-treasurer (1908-1915).

See also: American Federation of Labor; Industrial Workers of the World; People's Party; Socialist Party of America



Jensen, Vernon H. Heritage of Conflict: Labor Relations in the Nonferrous Metals Industry up to 1930. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1950.

Laslett, John H. M. Labor and the Left: A Study of Socialist and Radical Influences in the American Labor Movement, 1881-1924. New York: Basic Books, 1970.

Perlman, Selig, and Philip Taft. History of Labor in the United States, 1896-1932. Vol. 4: Labor Movements.New York: Macmillan, 1935.

Wyman, Mark. Hard Rock Epic: Western Miners and the Industrial Revolution, 1860-1910. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

Additional Resources


Brown, Ronald C. Hard-Rock Miners: The Intermountain West, 1860-1920. College Station: Texas A&M University, 1979.

Byrkit, James W. Forging the Copper Collar: Arizona's Labor-Management War of 1901-1921. Tucson: University of Arizona, 1982.

Calvert, Jerry W. The Gibraltar: Socialism and Labor in Butte, Montana, 1895-1920. Helena: Montana Historical Society Press, 1982.

Cash, Joseph H. Working the Homestake. Ames: Iowa State University, 1973.

Conlin, Joseph R. Big Bill Haywood and the Radical Union Movement. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1969.

Dubofsky, Melvin. We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1969.

Emmons, David M. The Butte Irish: Class and Ethnicity in an American Mining Town, 1875-1925. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Jameson, Elizabeth. All That Glitters: Class, Conflict and Community in Cripple Creek. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

Lankton, Larry. Cradle to Grave: Life, Work and Death at the Lake Superior Copper Mines. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Larson, Robert W. Populism in the Mountain West.Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1986.

Lingenfelter, Richard E. The Hardrock Miners: A History of the Mining Labor Movement in the American West, 1863-1893. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.

Malone, Michael P. The Battle for Butte: Mining and Politics on the Northern Frontier, 1864-1906. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981.

Mellinger, Philip J. Race and Labor in Western Copper: The Fight for Equality, 1896-1918. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1995.

Paul, Rodman. Mining Frontiers of the Far West,1848-1880. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1963.

Smith, Robert W. The Coeur d'Alene Mining War of 1892: A Case Study of an Industrial Dispute. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1968.

Suggs, George G. Jr. Colorado's War on Militant Unionism:James H. Peabody and the Western Federation of Miners. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1972.

Wright, James Edward. The Politics of Populism: Dissent in Colorado. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974.

—Paul A. Frisch

Western Federation of Miners

views updated Jun 27 2018


WESTERN FEDERATION OF MINERS, a radical labor union founded among miners and smelters in the Rocky Mountains in 1893. At first affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), it broke away because of the AFL's conservative policies. The Western Federation called the strikes at Cripple Creek, Colo., in 1894, Leadville, Colo., in 1896, and the Coeur d'Alene district, in Idaho, in 1896 and 1897. Much bloodshed and violence marked these strikes, as militant union members clashed with company guards and strikebreakers, and with state and federal troops. Allied with the Industrial Workers of the World from 1905 to 1907, the Western Federation rejoined the AFL in 1911. In 1916 the union changed its name to the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers.


Mellinger, Philip J. Race and Labor in Western Copper: The Fight for Equality, 1896–1918. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1995.

Stanley, Kathleen. "The Politics of the Western Federation of Miners and the United Mine Workers of America." In Bringing Class Back in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives. Edited by Scott G. McNall et al. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991.

Suggs, George G. Colorado's War on Militant Unionism: James H. Peabody and the Western Federation of Miners. Norman: University of Okahoma Press, 1991.

Alvin F.Harlow/d. b.

See alsoCoeur D'Alene Riots ; Helena Mining Camp ; International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers ; Leadville Mining District .

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Western Federation of Miners