Utah History Encyclopedia
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THE UTAH LABOR MOVEMENT

By J. Kenneth Davies

Salt Lake streetcar workers on strike, 1907

The history of the Utah labor movement is to a large extent one of a symbiotic relationship with the Mormon Church. They have been intrinsically bound together even though they often have been in conflict. Because of Mormon dominance in Utah, any attempt to understand Utah unionism without understanding its relationship to Mormonism would be ineffectual. Interestingly, Utah's relative isolation in the nineteenth century did not prevent its unionism from closely paralleling the history of the American labor movement.

When the Mormons entered the Valley of the Great Salt Lake in 1847, they brought with them a tradition, albeit a short one, of craft and merchant guilds in their short-lived capital, the city-state of Nauvoo, Illinois. Contributing to this tradition was the heavy influx of working-class converts from Great Britain with their experience in the growing British trade union movement, along with workers from the not yet industrialized northeastern states. In the seven years of Nauvoo's Mormon history, guilds were established among at least the tailors, smiths, boot and harness makers, coopers, actors, wagonmakers, spinners, and printers--apparently with the blessings of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith.

Within five years of their arrival, Salt Lake actors formed the Deseret Dramatic Association. While not intended as a union, it did serve as a precursor of such union-like organizations as the Actors Guild, Musicians Union, and Stage Employee's Union established later in that century. The first concerted action of the association, taken in 1852, was the petitioning for the use of the church's tabernacle for their performances. The petition was turned down by Brigham Young, a patron of the theatre, but a much better facility, the Social Hall, was soon on the drawing boards. No further concerted action was noted until 1864, when the theatre workers successfully demanded pay from Young for their work, which up to that time had been considered in the Mormon tradition as unpaid missionary service. The association appears to have died out in the early 1870s.

Utah's first permanent craft guild to evolve into a full-fledged labor union was established at least as early as 24 February 1852 when Brigham Young opened the First Annual Printers' Festival with prayer. This was also the year of the founding of the first permanent national union, the National Typographical Union. On 13 January 1855 a more formalized Typographical Association of Deseret was organized, consisting only of Mormon typographers, who were associated with the church-owned Deseret News. Phineas Young, a brother of Brigham Young, and a local church leader in his own right, was its first president. Involved with the association over the next few years were a number of other church leaders including some apostles and a future church president, Wilford Woodruff. In 1856 the requirement of church membership was dropped, and in 1868 the association evolved into the Deseret Typographical Union, Local 115, associated with the International Typographical Union. The local president, Henry McEwan, was a devout Mormon, as were at least eight of the ten charter members.

Paralleling like developments on the national scene, other union-like organizations were the product of the Civil War years. In the Fourth of July parade of 1851 in Salt Lake City, numerous groups of workers marched carrying banners with religious, political, and economic messages; the latter were most numerous, and many of them had union themes. These included the blacksmiths, tinsmiths, and coppersmiths, carpenters and joiners, coopers, painters and glaziers, boot and shoemakers, stonecutters, and printers. Of the fifty-one identified trade leaders in the parade, at least forty-eight were Mormons.

While the Civil War brought unionism to Utah, it also brought conflict as unionized workers, most of them Mormons, sought to protect their standard of living from the inflation of the war years with higher wages. However, they were strongly counseled by church leaders not to engage in strikes. In the following years, higher wages were seen by church and community leaders as a drag on the local economy, reducing the ability of locally produced goods to compete with cheaper goods imported by the growing number of non-Mormon merchants.

With the coming of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, the competition from national markets became even more intense, threatening the economic viability of local producers. The church took organized action to induce workers to lower their wages, understandably not a very popular position among Utah workers. Church, not secular, institutions, including a Mormon cooperative movement, were seen as the answer to all social, political, and economic problems.

However, with the subsequent feared and heavy influx of non-Mormon workers, especially railroad workers and miners, the Mormon-established guilds and unions were "invaded by strangers," who were not beholden to and often were antagonistic toward Mormondom. The result was a growing independence of the unions from LDS Church influence.

The long, nationwide depression of the mid-1870s produced a hiatus in both the Utah and national labor movements. In addition, the Mormon Church renewed attempts to create a solution for Mormondom's economic ills in the form of the United Orders. These organizations were intended to organize Mormon workers and capital under the ultimate control of the church and into a socio-politico-economic system independent of the outside world. Yet by the time of the death of Brigham Young in 1877, the attempt was essentially dead. However, one of its effects was to pull many Mormon workers out of the weak and fledgling unions, often leaving the unions in the hands of non-Mormons, and thus almost eliminating a moderating Mormon influence on union activities.

With the economic rebirth of both the nation and Utah in the 1880s came the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor, a national federation of labor unions. The Utah Knights began activities as early as 1883; their first known local was the Fidelity Assembly No. 3286 in the coal mines of Grass Valley, near Coalville, and consisted mostly of Mormons. The Knights formed a district assembly in 1886-87 and by 1888 had reached a peak membership in Utah of about eleven hundred, with miners and smelter workers predominant. Unfortunately for its Mormon members, the organization became allied in Utah with the anti-Mormon Liberal party and attempts were made to exclude those practicing polygamy, then practiced by many devout Mormons. During this period, LDS Church leaders counseled church members through the Deseret News not to become members of the Knights.

The meteoric rise of the Knights was short-lived. Many national and local trade unionists remained independent. By 1889 there were about twenty local unions in Salt Lake City, most associated with independent national unions. Fourteen of these, representing 2,400 men, organized into the Utah Federation Trades and Labor Council under the leadership of Robert Gibson Sleater, a Mormon polygamist and leader of the typographers. About half of the sixteen initial officers were Mormons. While the Knights declined after 1888, most Utah unions soon became associated with the rapidly growing American Federation of Labor (AFL). This move was engineered by Sleater, who attended the AFL's 1889 convention and served as its Utah organizer in 1891-92. However, the first known charter for the Utah AFL was not granted until 1893, just as Utah and the rest of the nation were sinking into a devastating, union-destroying depression. Railroad workers throughout the nation remained independent.

In 1890 Sleater attempted to bring about a political alliance between the unions and the Mormon Church with the creation of the Workingmen's party in support of the Mormons' People's party campaign of that year. His efforts were made without the cooperation of his fellow union leaders, however, and he failed, his reputation as a unionist somewhat tarnished. However, it was not enough to prevent his election as the first president of the new Utah Federation of Labor, chartered in 1896, just as Utah was finally achieving statehood. Sleater was also a national vice-president of the International Typographical Union for a short period of time.

In the 1880s and 1889s, Utah's growing numbers of precious metal miners began to organize, becoming associated with the rapidly expanding, radically oriented Western Federation of Miners. By the turn of the century, miners frequently came to dominate the Utah labor movement. When they became associated with the even more radical Industrial Workers of the World--the Wobblies--Utah became an unofficial headquarters of revolutionary unionism. But with the execution in 1915 of Joe Hill, poet laureate of the Wobblies, for an alleged Salt Lake murder, Utah's anti-union posture took on national significance. The Mormon Church, supposedly in alliance with the "copper bosses" and politicians, was seen by many unionists as sharing responsibility for what they perceived as a political execution. The nationwide campaign against the IWW following World War I ended the Wobblies' power in Utah as elsewhere.

By the turn of the century, the LDS Church and Utah were in the process of joining the United States politically and economically. The transition meant the ascendancy of capitalism, with its anti-unionism. Mormon leaders, who had not been exactly comfortable with unions, became increasingly supportive of capitalists and more and more critical of unionism. Especially under church attack was the union practice of closed shops, which often resulted in the lack of union membership (and hence, work) of devout Mormons, who often looked on union membership as opposed to church policy. Such practices were seen by Mormon leaders as a violation of the Mormon doctrine of "free agency."

The national, anti-union, open-shop American Plan of the 1920s became particularly evident in Utah with church, industrial, and government officials prominently involved in promoting the movement. Utah was often portrayed as its originator. Whether this was true or not, once the sociopolitical revolution of the New Deal had run its course, Utah, with the active support of Mormon Church leaders, became one of some twenty states to pass an updated version of the American Plan, a "Right-to-Work" law, in the 1940s.

Utah's increasingly numerous coal miners, who had organized locally as early as the 1870s, experienced special problems during the decade of the 1920s. They had been organized into United Mine Worker locals at the turn of the century, but were deserted by the United Mine Workers and defeated in a series of disastrous strikes. Organizing began again in 1918, and by the time of the national coal strike of 1922 they were highly organized. Faced by a thirty percent cut in wages and the refusal of operators to recognize their unions, they struck, supported by the UMW and the Utah AFL leadership. The ensuing conflict with mine operators frequently resulted in violence. The entrance of the Utah National Guard into the conflict did not prevent fatal shootings on both sides. Trials were held for union men, who were convicted and sent to prison. Mormons were involved on both sides of the conflict, but were more evident on the side of management and were frequently seen as the primary source of strikebreakers, as unions called them, "scabs."

Utah unionism, along with that of the nation, went into a significant decline in the 1920s. However, the 1930s saw the rebirth of unionism in the form of trade unions, associated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the industrial unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

The latter organization in Utah was dominated by the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, successor to the defunct Western Federation of Miners and carrying with it much of the radicalism of the earlier organization. At the national level, this union was controlled by communists, and Utah's union, primarily associated with the copper and lead industries, had its share of communists. However, under the leadership of Clarence Palmer, a devout Mormon, about half of the Utah MMSW members and locals left that organization in the mid-1940s because of its communist leanings. Palmer had also been a leader in an abortive attempt to oust the communist leadership at that union's 1946 national convention.

After the war, Utah's increasingly conservative congressmen were in strong support of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. This act permitted states to pass legislation outlawing all forms of union security, including those allowed by the act itself. Utah's increasingly conservative state legislature responded with the passage of Utah's version of the restrictive legislation. It is one of about nineteen states still retaining such a law.

The decline of the national union membership and power in the 1950s through the 1980s was paralleled in Utah. In 1956, Utah unionists, following the lead of their national unions, created the Utah AFL-CIO, in part as an attempt to forestall the decline. However, reunification did not halt the reduction. In 1960 approximately 19.9 percent of Utah's non-agricultural labor force was unionized, compared with 33.3 percent for the United States. By 1970 the figures were 13.1 percent and 29.2 percent respectively. The decline continued, with approximately 8.5 percent of the Utah non-agricultural labor force unionized in 1989. In addition, following national patterns, Utah unionists have been on the defensive in the collective bargaining process, losing in the 1980s many of their earlier hard-won gains and rights.