William Dudley “Big Bill” Haywood (1869–1928), a labor activist in the late 1800s and early 1900s, was the most prominent leader of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), the largest union ever operating in Colorado and the Rocky Mountain states. Hardened by tragic and bleak experiences early in his life, Haywood became the epitome of radical labor in the American West. Based in Denver after 1900, he spearheaded the WFM’s 1903–4 strike, a violent dispute that rocked many Colorado mining and milling towns.
Born in Salt Lake City in 1869, Haywood’s childhood experiences help to explain his radicalism. In his 1929 autobiography, Bill Haywood’s Book, he recalled the burial of his father, a miner felled by pneumonia when Bill was three, as the last time he ever attended church. Like many others in the late nineteenth-century West, Haywood became a wage earner early in life. At the age of nine he lost the vision in his right eye in an accident. Soon he was working in the mines, spending his adolescence following mining booms throughout Utah, Nevada, and Idaho. In between mining jobs, Haywood worked for farmers, ranchers, and shopkeepers.
After his marriage, Haywood tried homesteading in Nevada. Sharing the fate of many homesteaders, Haywood sank hard work into his place but was never able to take full possession. The government ordered the Haywoods off their land in 1893, the year western silver mining collapsed, and the entire global economy faltered. A depressed Haywood considered joining Coxey’s Army, a group of unemployed workers on a protest march to Washington, DC. Haywood later celebrated the march as one of the greatest demonstrations of unemployed workers that ever took place in the United States.
Haywood soured on the American dream. He was not alone. Thousands of others had rushed into the Rocky Mountain West filled with visions of gold and silver, or at least good wages and property ownership. After 1893, however, many found themselves landless and jobless with chronic back and lung problems, willing to toil fourteen hours a day for $2.50. The mining frontier had evolved into a depression-cursed corporate world of huge underground mines and hot, smoky smelters that reduced ores to precious metals.
In 1896 Haywood found work in Silver City, Idaho, where he saw a falling slab of rock crush a workmate’s face against a drill. Haywood helped pick up the body and took it to the waiting family. Shortly afterward, Haywood almost lost his right arm when it was pinned between a mine car and an ore chute. Neither his dead companion’s family nor the unemployed Haywood received any compensation from their employer. Miners assumed horrible risks and bore the full consequences—broken equipment was repaired, but broken men were simply replaced.
Western Federation of Miners
Haywood was ready to listen when Edward Boyce, president of the Western Federation of Miners, came to Silver City, Idaho, to preach the union gospel. The union, formed in 1893 in a Butte, Montana, jail cell by Boyce and other imprisoned strikers, had grown rapidly after its successful 1894 strike in Cripple Creek, Colorado. There the WFM achieved its greatest victory, winning recognition from the mine owners as well as a $3 minimum wage for a maximum eight-hour workday.
Haywood became a zealous WFM convert. He boasted of never missing a meeting and soon became the WFM’s top recruiter. Long before the “closed shop” (a workplace hiring only union members) was legal, Haywood made it the law in the mines by routinely telling miners to join the WFM or “hit the trail.” Everywhere he went, Haywood talked, argued, and fought for his union. Down in the mines, up in the saloons and union halls, and out on the picket lines, Haywood’s toughness became legendary. Both Boyce and Charles Moyer, who succeeded Boyce as WFM president, were impressed with the one-eyed giant. He was a good, if unorthodox, administrator who stored membership forms in his hat band. Haywood was particularly hard-nosed about collecting union dues and keeping financial records straight. He helped the WFM avoid the fraud, theft, and mismanagement that plagued many other unions.
After holding every office in the Silver City Local, Haywood was selected as the union’s national secretary-treasurer. When the WFM moved its national headquarters from Butte to Denver in 1900, Haywood came to the Mile High City. With his wife and two small daughters, Haywood settled into a house at 1250 Evans (now Cherokee) Street. From there he took the streetcar to the WFM office in the Mining Exchange Building at Fifteenth and Arapahoe Streets. Haywood also worked on the WFM’s monthly Miner’s Magazine, which declared in its first issue in January 1900:
We will at all times and under all conditions espouse the cause of the producing masses, regardless of religion, nationality or race, with the object of arousing them from the lethargy into which they have sunk and makes them willing to live in squalor, while their masters revel in the wealth stolen from their labor.
Three years after moving to Denver, he would direct the WFM’s bitterest, bloodiest, and last major campaign.
Fight for the Eight-Hour Day
Although the support of Colorado governor Davis H. Waite had helped the WFM to turn Cripple Creek into Colorado’s “Gibraltar of Unionism” in 1894, subsequent strikes elsewhere in Colorado helped to convince Haywood that labor could not depend on the conventional political process. After the WFM struck Leadville mines in 1896, mine owners came up with a new tactic. They persuaded Governor Albert McIntire, who succeeded Waite in 1895, to send in the Colorado National Guard to protect their mines and strikebreakers. The National Guard, however, did nothing to prevent the harassment of Eugene Debs, the national union leader who had come to Leadville to rally the strikers. Haywood was impressed with Debs and followed him into the Socialist Party in 1897. Shortly thereafter, Haywood helped persuade the WFM to join the Socialist coalition supporting Debs’s candidacy for president of the United States.
In June 1903, representatives of Denver Smeltermen’s Union No. 93 proposed a strike to Haywood and other members of the WFM executive board. Representatives of the Globeville Local reported that 70 percent of Denver’s smelter workers still toiled twelve hours a day while the remaining 30 percent worked ten-hour days. Starting pay for the twelve-hour day was $2.50. Haywood, who had successfully spearheaded unionization of the smelter workers beginning in 1902, went to a mass meeting of smelter workers at the Globeville town hall on July 3, 1903. After a unanimous declaration at midnight, the WFM began its strike on July 4. Even though Haywood predicted a long, bitter struggle for the eight-hour day in Colorado, WFM miners joined a statewide sympathy strike in support of the striking smelter workers.
Between July 1903 and July 1904, Colorado experienced its bitterest, most widespread labor war. Several dozen men lost their lives during the conflict, making it Colorado’s second-deadliest labor war. Only the 1913–14 coal miner’s struggle, which culminated in the Ludlow Massacre, was more violent.
As WFM President Charles Moyer spent most of his time jailed on charges that were later dropped, Secretary-Treasurer Haywood spearheaded the strike, which quickly shifted from a struggle for the eight-hour, $3 day to a fight for the WFM’s own survival. Mine owners hired guards to protect their mines and defend strikebreakers, and they convinced Governor James H. Peabody to declare martial law and send the Colorado National Guard into Cripple Creek and other hotbeds of union militancy, particularly Telluride and the southern Colorado coalfields. Peabody, a Republican businessman from Cañon City, showed little sympathy for the striking miners. When violence and murder flared, Peabody attributed it to the WFM, as did most Colorado newspapers (the notable exceptions being Denver’s Rocky Mountain News and the Durango Democrat). When Peabody sent Adjutant General Sherman Bell to Cripple Creek with the Colorado National Guard, the tide of the strike changed dramatically. Bell and the Colorado National Guard, in collusion with private guards hired by the mine owners, forced the resignation of prounion officials in Teller County, arrested strikers and imprisoned or deported them, destroyed WFM union halls and stores, and ransacked the office of the district’s prounion newspaper, the Victor Record.
By August 1904, most Colorado mines, mills, and smelters were back in operation using nonunion labor. WFM members were blacklisted and refused jobs. By December 1904, all eight WFM locals in the Cripple Creek District had disappeared, and only thirty of Colorado’s forty-two locals remained. In June 1905, Haywood recommended that assessment of the locals be dropped, and the WFM discontinued paying benefits to sick and injured union members. The strike was broken, and the WFM would never recover. Haywood, for his part, continued the WFM’s struggle to attract national attention to events in Colorado. A rash of articles, books, and pamphlets on Cripple Creek appeared between 1904 and 1906; though some of these adopted the mine owners’ perspective, others continued to press the cause of organized labor in industrializing America.
On February 17, 1906, a deputy sheriff without a warrant arrested Haywood at his home in Denver. At the county jail, Haywood discovered that Moyer and George Pettibone, a blacklisted WFM miner, had also been jailed. Records of the Pinkerton Detective Agency reveal that James McParland, manager of the agency’s Denver-based western division, had carefully planned the arrests in cooperation with Colorado governor Jesse F. McDonald and Idaho governor Frank R. Gooding. As he traveled in handcuffs on a private train car late at night to an unknown destination, Haywood learned from Bulkeley Wells, manager of the Smuggler-Union Mine in Telluride and commander of the National Guard deployed to San Miguel County, that he was to be charged with the murder of former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg.
During several rounds of questioning by Pinkerton detectives, Harry Orchard, the man who planted the lethal bomb at Steunenberg’s house, allegedly confessed that Haywood, Moyer, and Pettibone, along with the “inner circle” of the WFM, had commissioned him to kill the governor, who had recently crushed a strike in Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene region. Haywood alleged that Orchard, whose real name was Albert Horseley, had been hired by the mine owners to infiltrate and discredit the WFM. Clarence Darrow, a celebrated Chicago lawyer, represented Haywood, Moyer, and Pettibone. After he spent thirteen months in jail awaiting trial, a jury of Idaho farmers found Haywood not guilty and he promptly returned to Denver.
International Workers of the World
Haywood, forever associated with militant unionism and enjoying international prominence thanks to his legal troubles, spent a good deal of time in Chicago. Eugene Debs and other founders of the International Workers of the World (IWW, “The Wobblies”) sought to create one big union that would be more inclusive of the women, racial minorities, unskilled laborers, and migrant workers shunned by other unions. Haywood declined the presidency of the IWW but later became secretary-treasurer. He successfully directed the 1912 Lawrence Woolen Mills strike in Massachusetts and unsuccessfully directed the 1913 Patterson silk workers strike in New Jersey.
During World War I, Haywood and hundreds of other American leftists were jailed for expressing their belief that the war was a conflict between imperialistic capitalists who were bent on convincing the working classes to fight and die to enrich war profiteers. Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis gave Haywood the maximum penalty allowed under the Espionage Act of 1917—a $10,000 fine and twenty years’ imprisonment. In October 1917, Haywood was among his peers in the IWW cell block of Chicago’s Cook County Jail when they received news that Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution had succeeded. The prisoners began to sing from the IWW’s Little Red Songbook.
Flight to the Soviet Union
After Haywood posted his $30,000 bond, he promptly fled the United States. Sailing out of New York Harbor on March 31, 1921, Haywood saluted the Statue of Liberty, or as he called it, “the old hag with her uplifted torch,” and told her, “Good-bye, you’ve had your back turned on me too long. I am now going to the land of freedom.” Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik Revolution, welcomed Haywood to the fledgling Soviet Union with open arms. Haywood was given a suite in the Lux Hotel in Moscow and placed in charge of a mining project in the Donets region. Yet Haywood’s new life in Russia failed to pan out as he hoped. Lonely and depressed, he slipped into alcohol abuse and died of a stroke in Moscow on May 12, 1928. At his request, half of his ashes were placed in Moscow inside the Kremlin. The other half were sent to the Waldheim Cemetery in Chicago to lie in solidarity with radicals executed after the 1886 Haymarket Riot.
The article is adapted from “William D. Haywood: ‘The Most Hated and Feared Man in America,’” Colorado Heritage Magazine 4, no. 2 (1984).