THE UNITED MINE WORKERS OF AMERICA
United Mine Workers, Helper, 1919
Organized labor first entered the Utah coal fields when chapters of the
Knights of Labor were established in the Coalville and Scofield areas of
the state in the early 1880s. The Knights of Labor were active only a few
years in Utah, however, and never succeeded in gaining recognition by Utah
coal companies. By January 1890, when the United Mine Workers of America
was organized, the Knights of Labor were no longer active in Utah's coal
During the first decade of its existence, the UMWA was primarily an eastern
union. Most of its support and strength was in the states of Pennsylvania,
Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. The Panic of 1893 hit the coal industry especially
hard and miners wages were reduced from 10 to 30 percent for those who did
not loose their jobs. By 1897 the union membership had shrunk to under 10,000
most of whom lived in Ohio. The UMWA desperate leadership called for a strike
to begin on 4 July 1897. The strike call met a favorable response by miners
in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois and in the end wage increases
While Utah coal miners did not participate in the 1897 strike, they did
recognize the growing strength of the UMWA. After the successful 1902 anthracite
strike, the national leadership turned its attention to the West. An organizing
campaign was launched in Colorado in 1903; the UMWA succeeded in organizing
the Northern Colorado coal fields and the Wyoming coal fields owned by the
Union Pacific Railroad, but met strong resistance from the Colorado Fuel
and Iron Company and smaller companies in the southern Colorado fields.
A strike began in Colorado began in September 1903, and within a matter
of days coal miners in Utah's Carbon County joined the strike when they
were recruited by UMWA organizers sent from Colorado. Utah miners were receptive
to the UMWA for several reasons: (1) the Scofield Mine Disaster of 1 May
1900 had demonstrated the need for greater safety precautions in the mines
and a stronger united voice in negotiating with the coal mine owners; (2)
miners in Winter Quarters and Clear Creek had sought to secure pay raises
and better conditions by going out on strike in January and February 1901;
(3) as coal mining expanded in the 1890s and early 1900s, a large number
of Italians who were ready candidates for the union and who had ties to
other Italian miners in Colorado were brought in as miners; (4) union membership
was increasing throughout the United States and in Utah as workers sought
to improve their circumstances through collective bargaining; and (5) the
UMWA sent in effective organizers, including the legendary "Mother
Mary" Jones to strengthen the resolve of Utah strikers.
In the end, the strike attempt failed as Utah coal companies stood firm
against the demands for union recognition. They were aided by Mormon Church
officials, who encouraged their members to go to the mines as strikebreakers,
and also by state government officials who sent in the National Guard to
"protect" company property and those who did not support the strike.
Despite promises by the UMWA that they would stand by the Utah strikers,
the financial drain was too severe and the union was forced to withdraw
from the state in the fall of 1904, leaving bitter feelings by those strikers
who were now without jobs and no other support.
The next attempt by the UMWA came in 1917 during World War I. Prosperity
and a somewhat sympathetic attitude toward labor by the Wilson administration
gave the union a new opportunity to return to Utah. Organizers were sent
from Colorado, and several local unions were established. Although Utah
miners were not included in the 1919 Nationwide coal miners strike call,
some Utah miners attempted to strike; the threat of potential violence led
to federal troops being sent to Carbon County from Fort Douglas and Camp
By 1920 union records listed a total Utah membership of 2,064 members in
eight local unions: Sego, Latuda, Wattis, Rains, Standardville, Scofield,
Kenilworth, and Castle Gate. However, coal companies still refused official
recognition of the union, and clandestine recruitment of members was essential
to avoid having miners fired for union membership.
Local union leaders clashed with the Colorado district leaders and petitioned
the National Headquarters for Utah to be transferred to a Wyoming district.
The transfer was completed on 1 July 1921. Nine months later, Utah miners
joined the Nationwide miners' strike when over 650,000 coal miners struck
on 1 April 1922. The strike had two major objectives--to restore wage cuts
which coal operators had made and to secure the organization of nonunion
mines. Again, Utah members were not included in the strike call; however,
faced with wage cuts of nearly 30 percent, workers in many Carbon County
mines joined the strike. A large number of strikers were Greek immigrants
who had first entered the coal mines after the 1903-04 strike. There was
violence. Strikers and company guards were killed and the Utah National
Guard returned to the Carbon County coal fields. In the end, the companies
agreed to restore the previous wage scale, but refused recognition of the
UMWA. The district offered substantial support to Utah members, especially
those who were arrested and on trial.
As the 1920s continued, wages were reduced and clandestine union meetings
and collection of membership dues was undertaken by local leader Frank Bonnaci.
An Italian immigrant, Bonacci became secretary of the Hiawatha local in
March 1919. In November 1919 he was fired by the United States Fuel Company
and his wife and children were evicted from their company house. As an organizer,
Bonacci received some financial support from the district until 1929 when
the continued resistance of the coal companies, the worsening depression,
and restricted union resources, led to the temporary abandonment by the
UMWA of Utah.
Frank Bonacci remained in Carbon County and played a leading role in the
organization of the UMWA in 1933 after New Deal legislation gave labor the
right to organize and be recognized for the purposes of collective bargaining.
Challenged by the more radical National Miners Union which moved into the
Utah coal fields ahead of the UMWA in 1933 advocating revolutionary if not
communistic ideals, the more conservative UMWA found considerable support
among the coal companies that had resisted the traditional union. By the
end of 1934, the last vestiges of the National Miners Union were absorbed
into the UMWA, which had established local unions in all of Carbon County's
Under the strong national leadership of John L. Lewis and the full employment
which World War II brought, the UMWA prospered during the 1940s, and miners
demonstrated their appreciation to Franklin D. Roosevelt and his support
for organized labor by voting over ninety percent Democratic in some coal
camps and over seventy percent throughout Carbon County in the presidential
elections of 1936 and 1940.
Assigned to Wyoming's District 22 in 1921, the Utah coal fields have remained
within that district to the present. As coal production in Wyoming decreased
significantly and Utah surpassed Wyoming in its number of United Mine Worker
members, District 22 headquarters was transferred from Rock Springs, Wyoming
to Price, Utah in 1964.
Utah's coal industry was depressed for the decades of the 1950s and 1960s,
but with the energy crisis of the 1970s and the construction of coal-fueled
power plants in nearby Emery County, coal mining greatly expanded and a
number of new mines were opened. The boom period brought new members into
the UMWA and in 1982 a new headquarters building was constructed in Price.
The boom also saw new challenges as several non-union mines were opened
offering pay and benefits comparable to those provided to union miners.
In 1992 there were approximately 3,500 members of the UMWA in eleven locals
in Utah. Among the members are approximately 1,500 retirees who receive
liberal pensions and medical benefits because of measures taken by the union
during the 1930s and 1940s.
See: Allan Kent Powell, The Next Time We Strike: Labor in Utah's Coal
Fields, 1900-1933, (1985); and Helen Zeese Papanikolas, "Unionism,
Communism, and the Great Depression: The Carbon County Coal Strike of 1933,"
Utah Historical Quarterly 41, (Summer 1973).
Allan Kent Powell