Josephine Aspinwall Roche (1886–1976) was a Colorado industrialist, labor advocate, and politician known for her role in reforming the Colorado coal industry in the 1930s. The daughter of a wealthy coal baron, Roche improved miners’ working conditions and pay when she took over the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company in 1928.
Roche was born near Omaha, Nebraska, in 1886 and enjoyed all the advantages of a family of means. At age twelve, she made her first trek west with her father, John, treasurer of Rocky Mountain Fuel, a prosperous coal-mining company. When she asked her father to see the inside of a coal mine, her father replied it was too dangerous. “Then how safe is it for the miners?” asked a young Roche.
Roche graduated from Vassar College in 1908 and earned her master’s in sociology from Columbia University in 1910. Her thesis was titled “Economic Conditions in Relation to the Delinquency of Girls,” and it exposed the fact that most New York City prostitutes had left jobs that paid them only six dollars per week. After earning her degree, Roche worked as a probation officer in the juvenile court of Judge Ben Lindsey in Denver and later performed similar duties in New York City, where she became an anti-child-labor activist. In 1912 Roche returned to Denver, where she was hired as an advocate for street children by Police Commissioner George Creel to patrol the city’s dance halls, cafés, saloons, theaters, skating rinks, and bordellos. Judge Lindsey attested that “she could break up a dance hall row or a riot in front of a saloon better than any experienced policeman.”
Much to her father’s horror, Roche next turned her attention to the plight of coal miners. She inherited a majority stake in Rocky Mountain Fuel after her father’s death in 1927, and by 1928, she had gained full control of the company. Roche shocked other coal mine operators by inviting the United Mine Workers of America (UMW) to organize and by naming labor organizer John Lawson as company vice president. Roche famously claimed that “capital and labor have equal rights,” and wages at her mines escalated to an unheard-of seven dollars per day.
Roche’s actions horrified John D. Rockefeller, owner of Colorado Fuel and Iron, the largest coal producer in Colorado. Rockefeller denounced Roche as “a dangerous industrial radical” and lowered the price of his coal to drive her out of business. In response to Rockefeller's actions, Roche doubled down on her pro-union, Progressive rhetoric and opened her books to the public to illustrate how Rockefeller’s price-lowering move had nearly bankrupted the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company simply for the “sin” of treating its workers like human beings. This publicity led Roche to take the stage for the first time, speaking in public at pro-labor events and Progressive functions.
In 1934 Roche was nominated to challenge Governor Edwin C. Johnson in that year’s Democratic primary election. The 1934 campaign was bitter and divisive. Endorsed by US senator Edward Costigan, her longtime colleague and fellow Progressive, Roche traveled over 8,000 miles on her campaign tour. Labor and the poor embraced her candidacy. Under the slogan “Roosevelt, Roche, Recovery,” she advocated a graduated state tax that would affect the rich more than the poor. Roche’s campaign manager, John Carroll, declared that “a wide-awake woman is better than a drowsy man,” despite his own doubt about a woman governor. But thanks to desperation tactics such as bribing potential coal-camp voters, pardoning a Mexican boy accused of murder to garner Latino support, and shifting state highway funds to areas where he needed a boost, the folksy Ed Johnson carried fifty-seven of Colorado’s sixty-three counties.
Roche never ran for political office again, but she became one of Colorado’s foremost political and social leaders of the 1930s. She left Denver to become assistant secretary of the treasury—the second-highest ranking woman in the Franklin Roosevelt administration, after the secretary of labor and her former Columbia classmate, Frances Perkins. Roche continued to champion labor, and in 1947 she became an assistant to UMW president John L. Lewis. The next year she was appointed director of the UMW pension fund. Her long life, dedicated to the advancement of women, young people, labor, and unionism, ended with her death in Bethesda, Maryland, on July 29, 1976.
Adapted from “Josephine A. Roche: Champion of the 1930s Working Class,” Colorado Heritage 14, no. 1 (Winter 1994).