The Leadville strike of 1896–97 was a nine-month labor conflict pitting the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) against the owners of the district’s mines. The strike began in June 1896, when miners requested higher wages and were rejected, and reached a violent climax in September, when strikers attacked two mines that had reopened with low-wage strikebreakers. Governor Albert W. McIntire promptly sent in the state militia to protect the mines, allowing owners to resume production. With no leverage remaining, the strikers limped along for several months before capitulating in March 1897. The strike marked the start of a new, more militant phase of conflict between western US miners and management.
After the Panic
The Leadville strike of 1896–97 had its origins with the Panic of 1893, an economic depression, and the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which sent the mining industry into a tailspin across Colorado. In Leadville, five smelters and every large silver mine closed. The Knights of Labor, which had organized some local miners before the strike of 1880 and again after 1884, agreed to a districtwide wage cut as a way of reopening some of the mines that had shuttered and getting men back to work.
By 1895, however, the mining district had recovered from the effects of the panic. Thanks to diversified production in gold, lead, copper, and zinc, Leadville returned to its position as Colorado’s top mining town, with a level of production not seen since 1889. Many mines returned to the $3.00 daily wage that had prevailed before 1893, yet roughly one-third of local miners remained tied to the $2.50 daily wage that was originally intended as a stopgap measure. Owners claimed that a lower cost of living made the wage comparable to earlier rates, but workers increasingly struggled to support their families.
The Cloud City Miners’ Union believed the revival of Leadville mining meant it was time to fully retire the emergency wage scale from 1893. Formed in May 1895, the union was Local No. 33 of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), a new organization that was both more powerful and more aggressive than the old Knights of Labor. Within a year, it counted more than 800 local miners as members. On May 25, 1896, union representatives requested that mine owners set a base rate of at least $3.00 per day for all miners in the district. The owners rejected the request. Three weeks later, on June 19, union representatives asked again. By this time, union membership had tripled to more than 90 percent of the mining camp. The owners still said no.
On the evening of June 19, about 1,200 union members met to discuss the repeated rejections of what seemed to them a reasonable request. They voted almost unanimously to go on strike in all mines that paid workers $2.50 per day. The next day, they followed through, with 968 miners walking off the job at thirteen mines. In response, mine owners decided to shut down all mines in the district and lock their employees out, tossing another 1,332 men out of work. Mining in Leadville—and, as a result, much of the town’s economic activity—ground to a halt.
Both sides felt themselves to be in a position of strength, and neither proved willing to compromise. The union represented nearly all of Leadville’s miners and had the backing of the WFM, which had just seen a notable success in the Cripple Creek strike of 1894. Meanwhile, Leadville mine owners, fearful of the growing strength of the WFM, had formed a secret agreement not to negotiate with or even to recognize the union; their responses were invariably addressed to “the miners of Leadville" instead of the union.
Despite the stalemate, tensions never boiled over during the early months of the strike. In July, Governor Albert W. McIntire checked in with the sheriff and heard that all was well. That began to change on August 13, when owners offered the $3.00 wage during any month when the price of silver exceeded 75 cents an ounce as long as striking miners went back to work immediately. When the union rejected the offer, owners retracted it on August 18 and declared that if strikers did not return to their jobs by August 22, the mines would be reopened using strikebreakers.
Now both sides were on edge. The union, which had recently received a shipment of 100 rifles, dispatched guards to all routes into Lake County to repel any incoming strikebreakers. News of armed workers policing the county’s borders predictably alarmed Leadville’s property-owning class, who started to whisper worriedly about possible attacks on area mines. Some mines used local strikebreakers to reopen (paying $2.50 a day), but others simply shut down their pumps and allowed their tunnels to flood, a clear indication that they did not plan to resume production anytime soon.
Long-feared violence finally broke out at one in the morning on September 21, when a group of a few hundred strikers marched to the reopened Coronado Mine, just a short walk from downtown. Angered by the use of strikebreakers, the armed strikers opened fire on the mine and tossed three dynamite bombs at its surface structures. As an oil tank broke open, strikers and strikebreakers engaged in a half-hour shootout. When the oil tank eventually caught fire, the strikebreakers fled the mine, having suffered no losses. On the union side, three men were fatally wounded. The confrontation caused another casualty when one of the firefighters working to douse the oil fire was shot and killed. Despite the late hour and their reduced numbers, the strikers left the Coronado and walked a mile outside of town to the Robert Emmet, another reopened mine, to take on strikebreakers there. Again, they tossed bombs and attempted to damage the mine’s surface structures, but this time shots from the strikebreakers turned them away after fatally wounding one union worker. By dawn on September 21, the early morning riot had resulted in five deaths and roughly $50,000 in property damage.
In a reprise of the Leadville strike of 1880, local businessmen and mine owners quickly formed their own militia and appealed to the governor for support from the state. Governor McIntire agreed, and the first state militia troops arrived on the evening of September 21, with more following over the next two days. They were housed in barracks made from the wooden structure of the Leadville Ice Palace, built the previous winter in an attempt to stimulate the local economy. Protected by hundreds of troops posted at the mines, owners imported trainloads of strikebreakers from Missouri to resume production.
Back to Work
As in 1880, the strikers had little chance once the state decided to back the owners. Unlike 1880, however, when the strike had collapsed as soon as the militia arrived, this time the WFM provided the moral, economic, and organizational support for the strikers to hold the line for months. But their only real leverage—their ability to stop production by withholding labor—was gone. As the strike continued, union ranks gradually decreased as miners either left Leadville or went back to work. Meanwhile, tensions remained high between strikebreakers and the remaining strikers; local newspapers carried reports of harassment and violence, sometimes even shootings.
Despite its besieged position, the union held on through the fall and into the new year. As late as January 1897, strikers rejected a deal from owners, signaling that they believed they could hold out for something better. As winter dragged on, that optimism faded. On March 9, the union voted to end the strike and return to work at the old wage scale. The state militia left Leadville the next day.
The strike of 1896–97 significantly reduced production in the Leadville mining district, which declined by more than 20 percent in those years because of closed and flooded mines. After the strike, however, Leadville’s mines boomed for a decade, consistently hitting production levels not seen since the 1880s. The Cloud City Miners’ Union survived and continued to recruit workers, but it never regained the strength it had before the strike. The owners had won a decisive victory. Leadville miners did not go on strike again for more than twenty years.
Leadville miners may have lost, but their strike reverberated far beyond Lake County. Historian William Philpott has called it “a pivotal point for the WFM” because “it was in 1896 and 1897—when the miners’ struggle in Leadville was fought and lost—that the unrelenting hostility of management became unmistakably clear to western union miners.” In Leadville, the WFM witnessed owners’ new strength and organization. Faced with such an entrenched opposition, the WFM was forced to revise its tactics.
After Leadville, Philpott argues that the WFM “turned left.” It split from eastern counterparts such as the American Federation of Labor, which had notably failed to provide support to strikers at Leadville, and started to see itself not only as protecting workers’ rights but as representing workers as a class against the antagonistic class of owners and managers. It rejected conservative goals and conciliatory positions in favor of building a militant labor union that could effectively take on an organized and hostile opposition. This position only reinforced owners’ conviction that the WFM was dangerously radical and must be destroyed. The next major battle between the two sides would come in the violent 1903–4 Colorado labor wars.