Founded in 1893, the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) was one of the largest and most active labor unions in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American West. The union was involved in some of the most important labor disputes in Colorado and American history, including the 1894 Cripple Creek Strike, the Leadville Strike of 1896–97, and the Colorado Labor Wars of 1903–4.
The WFM stood out among other labor unions at the time on account of its steadfast belief in socialism and its willingness to use violence against the property and agents of industry. In 1905 WFM leaders helped create a larger union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), but eventually the two unions separated. In 1967 the WFM merged with the United Steel Workers of America.
In the late nineteenth century, mining operations across the American West were becoming more consolidated, with large companies acquiring not only mines but also the mills, railroads, and smelters. This happened in part because the technological demands of hard-rock mining increasingly required more capital investment, which drove many smaller and medium-sized firms out of the mining industry. A major crash in silver prices in 1893 only exacerbated this trend, as only the wealthiest companies could make the investments required to continue operation. As large companies like Colorado Fuel & Iron became more powerful, they assumed greater control over their labor forces, which began to push back against corporate exploitation.
Whether they worked in coal or metal mines, nineteenth-century miners held one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. They worked fourteen-hour shifts in dirty, cramped conditions. Mine shafts could collapse, flood, or fill with flammable gas and explode, like when the Jokerville Mine blew up near Crested Butte in 1884. Meanwhile, mill and smelter workers were also subject to injuries from machinery, toxic air, and other workplace hazards. Many 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 ensured that most wages were ultimately returned to the company.
In this arrangement, workers held little power. Before the 1890s, when they struck to protest their pay, hours, and conditions, they were often fired or jailed for trying to improve their situation. These brutal corporate reprisals created fertile ground among workers for the formation of labor unions.
In 1893—the year silver prices collapsed and threw thousands of miners into poverty—miner Edward Boyce formed the Western Federation of Miners from a jail cell in Butte, Montana. Union chapters soon sprang up in other western states, and the WFM grew after its success during the 1894 Cripple Creek Strike in one of Colorado’s wealthiest gold districts.
The WFM started out as a more traditional union, but its leadership soon took a radical turn in response to escalating conflicts with organized, antagonistic mine owners. In the wake of the Leadville Strike of 1896–97, in which armed strikers attacked strikebreakers in a confrontation that left five dead, WFM president Boyce announced support for “rifle clubs” among union members. In 1897 the WFM withdrew from its coalition with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which had failed to support the strike. In 1902 the union elected a socialist president, Charles Moyer. Historian Katherine Benton Cohen writes that the WFM “did not shy away from lawbreaking and sabotage, nor did its opponents.”
Activity in Colorado
The WFM’s formation stemmed from violent conflicts in Idaho and Montana, but in 1900 the union moved its headquarters to Denver, Colorado. It is in Colorado where the WFM solidified its reputation as one of the most powerful labor unions in the West.
WFM activity in Colorado began with the 1894 Cripple Creek Strike, where the union was helped by a sympathetic politician, Populist Governor Davis Waite. During the conflict, Waite initially refused to send in the National Guard to assist mine owners. When owners got the local sheriff to bring in an armed, strike-breaking posse, WFM members dynamited the train platform where the posse was about to disembark. Violence continued on both sides until Waite finally brokered an agreement that favored the miners, gaining the WFM fame and a broader membership. By 1903 the union had 28,000 members in Colorado across forty-two local chapters.
Part of the 1894 agreement was an eight-hour workday, and in 1899 the Colorado legislature enshrined that into state law. But in 1903 mining and smelting companies broke their promise and the law, cutting wages to make up for lost productivity. This prompted WFM strikes across the state, from mines in Idaho Springs, Telluride, and Cripple Creek to smelters and mills in Denver. Urged by WFM secretary Bill Haywood, nearly 4,000 miners left their posts in the Cripple Creek District. When mine owners hired strikebreakers to keep mines operating, WFM strikers clashed with strikebreakers, sabotaged mine equipment, and even dynamited a mine, acts that resulted in casualties for both sides.
This time, however, the WFM ran into a less sympathetic governor in James Peabody, who declared martial law in Cripple Creek and sent in the National Guard to arrest strikers and kick them out of the district. Eventually, jailed strikers were freed by a court order, and those who were deported were paid a total of $60,000. Meanwhile, Peabody also sent National Guardsmen to Telluride, where in 1904 National Guard captain and local mine manager Bulkeley Wells built Fort Peabody on a mountain pass east of town to keep WFM miners out of San Miguel County.
During the Cripple Creek Strike, Haywood wrote directly to President Theodore Roosevelt, arguing that “a duty devolves upon you as President of the United States to investigate the terrible crimes that are being perpetrated in Colorado in the name of law and order.” In 1905 the Roosevelt administration began such an investigation, uncovering documents such as “yellow dog” contracts, in which the signer pledged not to join a union as a condition of employment. The contracts, legal then but later banned in the 1930s, were clear attempts to disempower workers.
For all the efforts and sacrifices of its members, the WFM’s actions in Colorado made little headway for workers. By 1904 most mines had reopened with nonunion labor, and WFM membership had dropped by about 4,000 across the state.
From the West to the World
Even though the union met with some success in its early years, by 1905 the WFM’s involvement in violent disputes across the American West resulted in declining membership, as well as a lack of allies and public support. To address these shortcomings, WFM leaders, including Secretary Haywood and President Moyer, met in Chicago to form a new, international workers’ union. The result was the International Workers of the World, also known as the “Wobblies.” The IWW adopted the core principles of the WFM, which now reaffirmed its existence as “an industrial union endorsing socialism and united economic and political action by the working class,” according to historian Eric Clements.
However, the IWW was plagued with leadership problems from the start. It was also ideologically split between moderate unionists, who favored bargaining with corporations, and radicals who sought an end to the existing arrangement between companies and workers. Eventually, the infighting resulted in a more moderate WFM detaching itself from a radical IWW in 1907. Bill Haywood, long known as a radical unionist, was among those who stayed with the IWW. Meanwhile, at its 1908 convention, the WFM reelected Moyer as president and announced it would focus on growing its ranks instead of pursuing a more radical agenda. Three years later, the WFM rejoined the AFL.
Several factors contributed to the waning influence of the WFM in the 1910s, but among the most important were the failures of its strikes during the previous decade and the infighting that undermined it. In Colorado, hard-rock mining was also in decline during that period, as most of the profitable veins had been tapped out and many surviving mines folded when metals prices declined after World War I. In 1916 the WFM changed its name to the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (IUMMSW).
After World War I, when the nation’s attention turned to the alleged evils of Communism, the Socialist IWW suffered declines in membership and public support. Mining and industrial unions did not regain power until the 1930s, when the WFM/IUMMSW was again revived under a Communist banner; this time, the union’s influence spread not only through the West but also the South and East, especially among steelworkers. But after World War II, anti-Communist sentiment prevailed again, and aside from a 1950 strike among zinc miners in New Mexico, the IUMMSW was not very active. In 1967 the union merged with the United Steelworkers of America.