The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was founded in Chicago in 1905 as an explicitly anarchist-socialist alternative to the major labor unions of the time, which the IWW’s leaders deemed too conservative. In the following decades, the organization suffered from government suppression on both the local and federal level, leading to the stifling of IWW activity and arrests of the union’s leaders. Amid their decline, in 1927, the IWW organized workers in Colorado’s coalfields, leading to a major strike. The strike was the IWW’s only major organizing effort in Colorado and is considered by historians to be the last major activity of the organization’s golden age.
The Industrial Workers of the World was struggling to survive by the mid-1920s. IWW leaders, also called “Wobblies,” vocally opposed World War I, leading to arrests and trials throughout the 1910s and 1920s, while the union’s offices were ransacked. Nationally, the Espionage and Sedition Acts had decimated the organization. In Colorado in particular, the more conservative United Mine Workers (UMW), which had emerged from the bloodshed of coal strikes in Lafayette and Ludlow, refused membership to miners believed to be “dual-carding” with the IWW (belonging to both unions at the same time).
Meanwhile, throughout 1924 and 1925, the powerful Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I) began circulating a petition among the workers that would allow the company to cut miners’ wages. The UMW opposed the cut but made it clear that the union would not call for or support a strike. The company went forward with the wage decrease.
Enter the IWW
In response to the UMW’s apparent fecklessness, the IWW mobilized organizers in coalfields throughout the state. To the miners, the Wobblies appeared to come out of nowhere. “We don’t know where they came from,” one miner said, “but out of a clear blue sky they were here organizing.” Frank Palmer, founding editor of Colorado Labor Advocate, speculated that the IWW had “roving searchers” who wandered the country looking for unrest. His assessment was largely correct. In September 1925, IWW organizer Frank Jurich was sent to Colorado from union headquarters in Chicago to assess the situation in the coal mines. He quickly decided to form an IWW office and began organizing mine workers. Jurich was joined by more national IWW organizers within a matter of months. Adam Bell, a fifty-year-old Wobbly, became a coal miner in Erie, giving the IWW direct access to the workforce. In March 1926, experienced organizer A. S. Embree joined them to consolidate their organizing efforts in the northern coalfields.
Organizing Methods and Strategy
Part of the IWW’s strategy for creating a militant workforce was to combine demands that company owners found unreasonable with more broadly supported and easily obtainable requests. The IWW knew that mine operators would not recognize the IWW’s demands, nor would they recognize the IWW as a legitimate organization. That was fine with the IWW. For the most part, it was not interested in collective bargaining, just mobilizing workers under the group’s militant banner.
The IWW had success in organizing Colorado’s coal mines, largely because workers lacked a good alternative. By the 1920s, the UMW in Colorado was even more dysfunctional than the almost-decimated IWW. A main reason the UMW had refused to call a strike was because it simply did not have the resources. For the IWW, on the other hand, strikes were the first resort, and resources for miners were secondary. In March 1927, the UMW lost its most valuable stronghold in the central coalfields because of layoffs. The UMW’s refusal to take a militant stance against the companies had strong effects on rank-and-file miners. “The [UMW] just didn’t care or something,” one miner said. “They just didn’t figure there was any chance of everybody organizing.” Miners started to see the IWW as their only option for combating the companies. As another miner put it, “The WCTU [Women’s Christian Temperance Union] could have led the strike. We didn’t care who led it!”
The IWW’s organizing success was attributable to other factors as well. A. S. Embree and Adam Bell employed various tactics to make miners feel involved and at home in the IWW. The organizers formed plenty of internal committees to include as many miners as possible. Miners could join committees for picketing, grievances, finance, publicity, defense, and other activities. This system was in stark contrast to the UMW, which appeared centralized around the union’s president.
Moreover, the conservative UMW looked like mining’s past. The leadership was entirely white and largely Protestant. By the 1920s, however, mines were worked by multiracial immigrants. Colorado miners reported thirty-six different national backgrounds. The IWW reached out to these workers, printing materials in multiple languages and treating minority workers and their families as equals. This effort did the IWW great favors in mobilizing the miners.
The IWW’s broad goal of organizing every mine did not hinder its organizational abilities. It established auto caravans—sometimes more than 100 cars strong—that transported organizers and rank-and-file workers from north to south.
In the fall of 1927, Colorado miners eagerly anticipated a strike. This anticipation on the part of the miners was matched by an equally great fear on behalf of the general public, as wounds from violent strikes in the previous decades were still fresh. The IWW officially called for a mass strike to begin on October 8, 1927, with the miners demanding much higher wages, elected management positions, fewer workdays, and safer conditions. In response, the state attorney general declared the strike illegal because the IWW did not legally represent the miners. The Colorado Labor Advocate responded that if that was the case, “what is to prevent the commission declaring any strike called by any labor organization illegal for the same reason?” Because the attorney general’s ruling increased the potential for state violence, IWW leaders delayed the strike by another ten days to call for a vote. This also gave the group a chance to better organize coalfields where it did not yet have a strong presence. The strike, officially illegal, then started as planned on October 18. Thus began a chaotic pattern of marches and subsequent arrests at mines throughout the state.
Even before the strike, the IWW faced brutal repression in southern Colorado mining communities. Two IWW organizers in Walsenburg were arrested, beaten, and robbed by local deputies, and the IWW offices in Walsenburg were destroyed by a vigilante mob. This kind of repression continued during the strike. The mines and the company towns that surrounded them suddenly saw armed private security forces and electrified fences. In Las Animas County, twenty people were arrested for picketing within the first week of the strike.
The 1927 strike came to a bloody head in late November with the Columbine Mine Massacre in southern Weld County, but the IWW was not ready to quit. Strike bulletins continued to be circulated until early February. After the massacre, however, miners were demoralized and afraid. The strike lost momentum, and miners began to return to work. One week after the shooting, 103 miners went back to work at Columbine. Other mines gradually reopened, with full mine operations resuming within a few weeks.
At a mass meeting in February 1928, A. S. Embree formally called for the miners to return to work. “To protect yourselves, to maintain your organization, to win further concessions later on, you should get back into the mines at once,” he said. “Union men must mine the coal in Colorado . . . Remember the sacrifices made by your fellow workers.” Eighty percent of the miners at the meeting voted to return to work. Across the state, the miners received a raise that amounted to 40 cents less than they had demanded.
The Colorado coal strike would turn out to be the last major organizing campaign for the Industrial Workers of the World. The IWW had already been crippled by the Espionage and Sedition Acts, and anticommunist persecution would only increase in the following decades. The 1927 strike turned out to be the last major miners’ strike in Colorado as well.