Utah History Encyclopedia


By Allan Kent Powell

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 By January 1890, when the United Mine Workers of America was organized, the Knights of Labor were no longer active in Utah's coal fields.

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 were granted.

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 Kearny, California.

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 coal mines.

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.