Scott Walker returns to his office as governor of Wisconsin today having survived an attempt by a ballot to remove him from office. He can go back to work trying to destroy the collective bargaining rights of Wisconsin unionists gained over the past hundred years. As often happened in the history of the American labour movement, the rich factory owners and businessmen used their financial power and their political clout within the state to achieve by legislation, and the use of ‘deputised’ private armies, their determination to resist the democratisation of the workplace, the job security of the workers and the payment of a fair day’s wage.
However, despite this being the general rule, from the Coal and Iron Police in the Pennsylvania coal fields to the Ludlow Massacre in 1914 where the National Guard was brought in to kill scores of miners, one example shines out as the exception to this rule. It is ironic that it is today, June 5-6, that one remembers the Cripple Creek Strike of 1894. It is the anniversary of the day that Colorado Governor Davis H. Waite ordered in the National Guard to save the Western Federation of Miners from an all—out assault by the thugs hired by the mine owners and deputised by the police as ‘law enforcement officers’ on the miner’s last redoubt at Bull Hill. It was the only time in United States history when a state militia was called out in support of striking workers.
The background to the strike is interesting and enlightening. By the mid-1890s the gold-mining town of Cripple Creek, Colorado had grown to over 15,000 inhabitants; the second largest town in Colorado (about twenty miles from Colorado Springs). Surface gold had been discovered in 1891 and within six years there were one hundred and fifty mines in operation. After the Panic of 1893 the region filled up with new migrants to Colorado, all looking for jobs. This influx of miners into the Cripple Creek gold fields led to the growth of competition between the current miners, who had organised themselves into a branch of the Western Federation of Miners (Local 19) and the job seekers. The union was based in Altman, and had chapters in Anaconda, Cripple Creek and Victor This union had agreed a contract with the mine owners.
However, with the loss of jobs in the region owing to the financial crisis produced by the 1893 Panic the influx of new workmen looking for jobs was tempting to the mine owners. The three largest mine owners in Cripple Creek, J.J. Hagerman, David Moffat and Eben Smith, announced that they were unilaterally extending the working day from eight hours to ten with no rise in pay . The union president, John Calderwood, met with the mine owners to protest. He was told that the miners had a choice. They could choose to work the full ten hour day for $3.00 a day or keep the eight hour day and receive $2.50 a day. The union said that they already were getting the $3.00 a day for the eight hour day and would accept neither a pay cut nor a longer day. The mine owners imposed a ten hour day without the agreement with the miner’s union. The miners declared a strike. In a few days the smaller mines gave in and agreed to continue to pay the $3.00 a day for an eight hour day, but the three biggest mines refused.
After two weeks of being on strike the mine owners obtained a court injunction ordering the miners not to interfere with the operation of their mines, and brought in a small number of scabs (strike-breakers) to open the mines. The WFM unionists attempted to persuade the scabs not to take their jobs, but when they were unsuccessful, the union physically prevented the scabs from entering into the mine fields. This was what the mine owners were waiting for. They pressed the local Sheriff, M.F. Bowers, to declare that there was a civil emergency. Bowers telegraphed the governor and asked for the State Militia to be sent to Cripple Creek. The governor sent three hundred troops. When they arrived they found a peaceful area with union pickets. The commander of the State Militia, Adjutant General T.J. Tarnsy, sent a message to the governor that there was no disturbance and that he had met with the miners who stated that theirs was a peaceful protest. The governor recalled the troops.
When the troops were recalled, Bowers arrested the head of the WFM, eighteen other miners and the mayor and town marshal of Altmont. He sent them for trial in Colorado Springs where they were found not guilty. The mine owners were furious. They met again with the WFM and offered $2.75 for and eight hour day but this offer was refused. The owners announced that they were replacing the entire workforce in their mines. The also announced that to protect these new miners they were hiring a private army of around two hundred policemen, thugs and unemployed firemen to protect their new miners. These thugs were deputised as Deputy Sheriffs by Bowers and they were armed by the mine owners. They gathered and marched on the miners’ encampment. The WFM sent over a former Army major, Junius J. Johnson, who led the miners to a redoubt they has built on Bull Hill, where the Strong mine was located. The deputies prepared for an attack on the miners.
As the deputies deployed against the strikers' camp, the miners at the Strong mine blew up the shaft house with dynamite, throwing the structure more than 300 feet into the air. A few moments later, the steam boiler was also dynamited, showering the deputies with timber, iron and cable and boiling water. The deputies fled to the rail station and left town. The mine owners summoned Bowers and told him to hire 1,300 new ‘deputies’ for which they would pay. Bowers began to muster a new army.
By then the governor heard what was happening. Gov. Waite interceded again in the strike. He issued a proclamation in which he called on the miners to disband their encampment on Bull Hill. Moreover, for the first time in American labour history, the governor declared the private army of 1,200 deputies to be illegal and ordered the group disbanded. He also ordered in the state militia to be on the alert for a possible move by them in Cripple Creek. He called for further talks. The miners authorised the governor to arrange the meeting on their behalf. Waite and several local civic leaders called union president Calderwood and mine owners Hagerman and Moffat to a conference in a meeting hall on the campus of Colorado College at Colorado Springs. As the meeting opened there was a loud noise outside the hall. There was a mob of local citizens who were attempting to enter the meeting in an attempt to lynch the governor and the head of the union. A local judge distracted the mob and, Calderwood and Waite escaped out a rear door and onto the governor's waiting train.
The outrage this provoked within Colorado and the Federal Government led to the mine owners to agree a resumption of the $3.00-per-day wage and the eight-hour day. The mine owners also agreed not to retaliate against or prosecute any miner who had taken part in the strike. This should have ended the strife, but the owners and the Sheriff, with his 1,300 ‘deputies’ were not willing to let it end like that. They began a campaign of violence against the miners and the community. They cut the telephone and telegraph wires in the town of Cripple Creek where Bull Hill was located. They arrested several reporters who witnessed their actions. The deputies wanted to isolate the mining communities.
They surrounded Bull Hill and started to exchange gunfire with the miners; preparing for an assault on their headquarters. Governor Waite dispatched the State Militia under the command of General E.J. Brooks there to stop the deputies. The troops were better armed than the deputies. General Brooks moved his troops to where the deputies were encamped and told Sheriff Bowers to stop all violence. While Bowers was distracting the General the deputies attempted to mount a charge against the miners. The State Militia troops intervened and stopped the charge.
The deputies now moved to take over the town of Cripple Creek itself instead of the mines. They arrested and imprisoned hundreds of citizens without cause. Many inhabitants of the town were seized on the street or pulled from their homes, then clubbed, kicked or beaten. The deputies formed a gauntlet and forced townspeople to pass through it, spitting, slapping and kicking them. With Bull Hill in his possession, Gen. Brooks began detaining the deputies. By nightfall, Brooks had seized the town and corralled all of Bowers' men. [i]
Still the mine owners and Bowers refused to disperse. Governor Waite told the mine owners that he would declare martial law and keep the militia there for at least thirty days and that he would bill the mine owners for the cost. Faced with the prospect of paying for their own paramilitary force which could only sit on its hands as well as the costs of the Militia, the owners agreed to disband their army of thugs. A few days later, June 11, 1894 the deputies had dispersed and the Waite Agreement went into force. The miners retained an eight hour day at $3.00.
Perhaps it is too much to hope that one day again we can see a governor with the social consciousness of Governor Davis H. Waite and the motivation to serve the full range of his citizenry. There will always be greedy mine owners and their ilk ready to steal the crumbs from the tables of the working people. America had never had a shortage of those. Still less has America lacked for the Sheriff Bowers of this world, standing by to do the bidding of whoever was willing to pay them and put a badge on their shoulders. It may not be the right time to blow up the shaft house or the steam boiler but sometimes it feels as if it ought to be.
[i] Suggs, Jr., George G. Colorado's War on Militant Unionism: James H. Peabody and the Western Federation of Miners. 2nd ed. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.