The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) formed in 1890 to fight for better pay and working conditions for the nation’s coal miners. In Colorado the union was most active in the early twentieth century, with thousands of members joining strikes in the southern coalfields of Fremont, Huerfano, and Las Animas Counties. In the spring of 1913, the UMWA led a strike there that resulted in the Ludlow Massacre and the ensuing Coalfield Wars.
The UMWA’s involvement in the Coalfield Wars made it one of the most famous unions in Colorado history. Unlike Colorado’s other famous union, the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), the UMWA still exists today; it serves about 70,000 workers across seven districts in the United States and Canada. Colorado is part of the union’s western district, which serves about 4,000 members, most of whom belong to the Navajo Nation.
With coal fueling most of the nation’s industry during the late nineteenth century, coal companies accumulated great wealth and political power. In Colorado, William Jackson Palmer’s Colorado Fuel & Iron was among the largest corporations in the nation, consisting not only of coal mines throughout the state but also railroads and a steel mill in Pueblo.
Meanwhile, nineteenth-century coal miners held one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. They worked fourteen or sixteen hours a day in dirty, cramped conditions. Mine shafts could collapse, flood, or fill up with flammable gas and explode, like when the Jokerville Mine blew up near Crested Butte in 1884. Companies paid miners not in cash but in scrip, a kind of company currency that could be used only at company stores, which were often the sole local source of tools and food. This practice ensured that most wages were returned to the company. Miners also paid the company to live in “company towns,” corporate-controlled villages that reflected companies’ desires to keep their workforce close and under control.
In this arrangement, workers held little power. Before the 1890s, miners were often fired or jailed for trying to improve their situation by organizing and striking. These brutal corporate reprisals created fertile ground among workers for the formation of labor unions.
The United Mine Workers was forged in the battlegrounds of the Midwestern coalfields, where workplace accidents and punishment for labor activism were common. The UMWA began on January 25, 1890, when two Ohio-based unions, the Knights of Labor and the National Miners’ Federation, joined forces in Columbus. Their constitution called for a strategy of “conciliation, arbitration, and strikes” to improve pay and working conditions for miners. Among their initial demands was an end to company stores and the outlawing of “non-resident police officers” who were often deployed against striking miners. Dues were set at five cents per month.
The union’s initial membership consisted mostly of British immigrants. The UMWA was among the first unions to explicitly allow African American miners in its ranks, though they were not treated equally and were often relegated to more menial jobs. The union also included workers who fought on both sides of the American Civil War and later brought together various groups of European immigrants, breaking down language barriers with solidarity based on common problems. Over the years, the UMWA’s inclusive approach to organizing became its hallmark, allowing the union to outlast other, more exclusive unions.
In 1897 the union scored its first victory when it earned an eight-hour work day from mine operators after a strike that involved 150,000 coal workers across the Midwest. Later, in 1902, the UMWA became the first union to be recognized by the federal government when President Theodore Roosevelt negotiated the end to another strike in the Midwest. Companies, however, were reluctant to recognize the union, so labor strife persisted throughout the twentieth century.
First Activity in Colorado: Strike of 1894
The UMWA made early inroads in Colorado, which was the heart of the western coal industry at the time. In 1890 two colliers from Erie, on the Front Range, founded the state’s first UMWA chapter. By 1892 there were some 800 members throughout the state, including Italians, Austrians, Greeks, Britishers, Latinx, and others.
In 1894 miners in Fremont County participated in the UMWA’s nationwide strike, the first activity associated with the union in Colorado. Groups of strikers traveled to Las Animas and Huerfano Counties, encouraging other coal miners to join in the strike. A depressed regional economy—reeling from the Panic of 1893—hurt the union’s recruiting efforts, but the strikers persevered. They reorganized into larger groups and continued marching for solidarity in the southern coalfields, even as they witnessed company-hired thugs beating union members in some of the camps. Strikers numbered some 1,200 strong by the time their procession reached Trinidad. Miners from Crested Butte walked out in solidarity as well.
Among the strikers’ demands was a fairer pay system that included a semimonthly payment in cash instead of scrip, as well as abolition of the company store. But the strikers could only hold out for so long, living off food and other donations from friendly farmers and townspeople. In August 1894, 400 strikers from Fremont County narrowly voted to return to work at prestrike wages, a decision echoed by the other UMWA groups in Colorado. Although the 1894 strike was unsuccessful, it proved that southern Colorado was fertile ground for union activity and that unions had community support.
Strike of 1901
By the turn of the twentieth century, the power of coal bosses and companies such as CF&I created a terrible situation for Colorado coal miners. When they attempted to organize for a redress of grievances such as pay and work conditions, local authorities jailed, fired, or assaulted them on behalf of companies. Huerfano County Sheriff Jefferson Farr was particularly known for his violent raids on union gatherings. One observer referred to this expression of corporate power in the southern coalfields as “a reign of terror.”
Under these conditions, in January 1901, UMWA workers in southern Colorado organized a strike against CF&I in solidarity with other company workers in Gallup, New Mexico. This time, CF&I chief John Osgood gave in to some of the miners’ demands, including revision of the unfair compensation system that paid miners by weight of coal mined. This system often created unsafe work environments, as it drove miners to spend more of their time gathering coal instead of shoring up safety features. Osgood agreed to several changes that made the weight system fairer but did not dispose of it. The strike also failed to win concessions from bosses on things such as scrip or company stores.
In the wake of the 1901 strike, the state of Colorado created a legislative committee to investigate the working and living conditions of coal miners. When the committee’s work was published, its account of miners living in rudimentary housing on paltry wages and enduring beatings by sheriffs turned public sentiment against companies like CF&I and generated sympathy for unions. The investigation prompted CF&I to set up a “sociological department” in 1901 to improve living conditions in company towns, many of which lacked basic necessities such as clean water. In this way, the UMWA’s partially successful 1901 strike laid the groundwork for future labor gains.
Labor Wars of 1903–4
After a brief lull in 1902, Colorado was again rocked by labor conflict in 1903–4. The Western Federation of Miners led walkouts in the metal mining districts of Telluride and Cripple Creek, while in September 1903 the UMWA again organized a strike among southern coalfield workers. The strikers made many of the same demands as in 1894, including semimonthly payments in cash, higher wages, and adherence to laws that required proper ventilation in mine shafts. Again, they were defeated, as Governor James Peabody was an antiunionist who sent in the National Guard to crush the strikes.
Ludlow and the Coalfield Wars
Even though companies like CF&I had promised to shorten workdays and reform company towns, historian Clare V. McKanna notes that “town life had improved little” by 1913. That fall, UMWA coal miners in southern Colorado again went on strike to demand better wages and improvements to working and living conditions. Again, they were met with force from mine owners and the government. On behalf of mine owners, who had already bought such union-busting tools as an armor-plated car, Governor Elias M. Ammons deployed the National Guard to the coal camps in Las Animas County. On April 20, 1914, guardsmen opened fire on armed miners at the Ludlow tent colony, about fifteen miles north of Trinidad. Guardsmen then lit the encampment on fire, and thirteen women and children—families of the miners—burned to death while taking shelter in a pit beneath a mattress in one of the tents.
When other miners in the area learned of the guard’s actions, they went on the warpath. Dozens of people were killed on both sides over the next week, until President Woodrow Wilson sent in the US Army on April 28. The strike did not end until December 10, 1914.
The Rocky Mountain News referred to the incident that started the Coalfield Wars as the “Ludlow Massacre,” and the guard’s callous disregard for miners’ families won the union public sympathy. UMWA leaders leveraged the tragedy into a successful public relations campaign that turned even more Americans against the companies. In response, CF&I owner John D. Rockefeller, Jr., sought to forge a middle route by creating a company union. Although this signaled a tolerance for worker organization that scarcely existed before Ludlow, the formation of the company union dealt a blow to the UMWA because it did not gain the recognition it sought during the strike.
The 1920s saw more labor disputes across the state, especially in the northern coalfields in Boulder County. Tensions remained high in the south, too. In 1921 CF&I cut miner pay by thirty cents, prompting independent mines in southern Colorado to do so as well. In response, the UMWA organized another strike, doling out $800 to striking miners and their families during the work stoppage. After this unsuccessful strike, mining demographics began to shift, as about 60 percent of new hires in the mining industry were of Mexican or other Spanish-speaking ancestry. Other strikes occurred again in 1922 and 1927, neither of which afforded workers much respite from their ongoing plight. Instead, the strikes of the 1920s, combined with changes in federal law, helped convince CF&I to abandon its company union in 1933.
Labor and industry were both decimated by the Great Depression of the 1930s, but the election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a prolabor Democratic Congress in 1932 was a shot in the arm for the nation’s struggling labor movement. In 1933 Roosevelt signed the National Industrial Recovery Act, which banned company unions and allowed collective bargaining. Two years later, the Wagner Act compelled businesses to bargain with unions that had majority employee support. With two scrawls of his pen, Roosevelt accomplished what the UMWA had sought for more than three decades—union recognition.
By the 1940s, Colorado’s UMWA chapters had more Latinx members, as the Spanish-speaking working class expanded through immigration and guest-worker programs like the Bracero Program. In April 1946, UMWA President John L. Lewis organized a nationwide strike to win union-sponsored healthcare, another aspect of miners’ lives that remained under company control. Company doctors had incentives to downplay conditions such as black lung, a deadly respiratory disease caused by breathing in coal dust. The 1946 strike involved 400,000 miners from twenty-six states, including Colorado, where coal mines in Routt County went “idle” and railroads from Steamboat Springs to Aspen ran fewer trains on account of the coal shortage. Eventually, President Harry Truman saw the strike as a threat to the nation’s postwar economic recovery, so he ended it by presenting UMWA leadership with an agreement that created the UMWA health and welfare fund, which still serves union members today.
Over the ensuing decades, the power of coal companies waned as oil began to overtake coal as the nation’s preeminent fossil fuel. This translated into fewer strikes and direct actions by unions like the UMWA.
The UMWA survived President Ronald Reagan’s union-busting campaign and endures today. The union serves not only coal miners but also workers from the manufacturing, health care, and corrections industries. It has more than 70,000 members from all fifty states as well as Canada.
In an era marked by widespread divestment from coal, Navajo coal miners in the UMWA’s western district are among the strongest advocates for continuing coal production. In 2013 the UMWA helped organize Navajo miners to support a new lease that would have kept their nation’s coal plant operating until 2044. Although the new lease passed, the plant’s parent company, Salt River Project, decided to abandon the lease after finding cheaper energy elsewhere.
In Colorado, the legacy of the UMWA is tied to the Ludlow Massacre. Union leaders voted to put up a monument to the victims of the massacre in 1916, and in 2014 Governor John Hickenlooper included UMWA representatives on his team tasked with commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the tragedy.