Utah History Encyclopedia


By David L. Schirer

Miners' Union Day, Bingham, 1912

The Western Federation of Miners was organized in the Couer d' Alene district of Idaho following the areas successful miners' strike in 1893. The Western Federation of Miners was a strong proponent for industrial unionism, which held that all workers were equally important in the work process and should be treated fairly. This belief led the Western Federation of Miners to form the Western Labor Union in 1898 and the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905.

The Western Labor Union was established in opposition to the crafts-oriented American Federation of Labor, and included workers from all industries. The Industrial Workers of the World was then created as an international extension of the Western Labor Union. Although the Western Federation of Miners represented a major portion of the Industrial Workers of the World's membership, the two unions severed their relationship in 1908. [original published text of the next sentence states: "The split was the result of continued strong affiliation of the Industrial Workers of the World with the American Communist Party"][revision of this statement based on historical accuracy is inserted at the end of this article.]* The era of the Western Federation of Miners came to a close in 1916 when the it changed its name to the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. This union continued to be active into the 1960s.

Utah's first brief affiliate with the Western Federation of Miners was the Mercur Miners Union No. 91, formed in 1899. The local was short-lived, however, disbanding later the same year. The next local, the Valley Smeltermen's Union No. 99, formed in January 1900 and paid dues off and on between 1900 and 1904 before finally falling silent. During its operation, Local No. 99 represented a strong organizing force within the state. Members took to Murray's streets on Labor Day of 1901, marching a force sixty strong preceded by Old Glory down State Street. This force included all the men able to get off work from the local smelters. Later that same morning the local led the second division in the Labor Day celebrations at Salt Lake City. Local No. 99 further boasted organizing the miners of Bingham Canyon under the flag of the Western Federation of Miners during October 1901 (Local 67), and it established Boden (Union) Hall in Murray during 1904. Its membership became instrumental in the creation and operation of the WFM District Union No. 1, encompassing all of Utah. Utah's strong involvement with the Western Federation of Miners also brought the annual convention to Salt Lake City in 1905.

The Western Federation of Miners organized a total of thirty-five locals in Utah between 1900 and 1916. Of the Utah locals established during these sixteen years, thirty represent hard-rock miners and only five involved coal miners. Utah's coal miners tended to join the eastern based United Mine Workers rather than the predominantly hard-rock Western Federation of Miners. Utah's early locals also tended to come and go quickly; only the locals at Alta, Bingham, Eureka, Mercur, Murray, Park City, and Tooele lasted more than five years, and most locals lasted only one or two. The only Utah locals that survived the strike of 1912 and its aftermath were located in Eureka, Park City, and the Bingham Canyon Area. Utah's last Western Federation of Miners established local was the Park City Miners Union, which went defunct in 1933. Following World War II the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers reestablished itself in Utah, forming twenty-nine locals between 1946 and 1960.

Despite the apparent success of the WFM in Utah, membership patterns indicate the transitory support both miners and smeltermen had for the union. Membership came from the combined effect of worker dissatisfaction and organizing efforts. Between 1900 and 1920, Utah membership in the WFM peaked three times. The first rise began in early 1906 and peaked in October 1907. This corresponds with the arrest, trial, and acquittal of WFM leaders Bill Haywood, Charles Moyer, and George Pettibone. All three men were arrested and changed with participation in the bombing death of Idaho's Governor Frank Steunenberg. The events surrounding this trial aroused both organized and unorganized workers throughout the United States, and appears to have boosted the ranks of the WFM. The second and third peaks are associated with strikes in the Salt Lake Valley's mining industry, as was the formation of the WFM's second affiliate, Local 99, in 1900. The strike years of 1909-1910 and 1912 produced record industry profits. For the workers, these profits were counteracted by an influx of foreign workers to meet the increased production goals of the companies. Ready access to a willing, inexpensive labor force resulted in a decline in the worker's economic and job conditions. Workers responded by striking the Salt Lake Valley smelter industry in 1909 and the Intermountain mining industry as a whole in 1912.

The strike of 1912 represents the Western Federation of Miners' strongest attempt at organizing Utah. The Utah portion of the strike began when the Murray Smeltermen's Union, Local 45, called the men out on strike on 1 May 1912. When strike breakers were brought in the strike escalated into shooting incidents, a dynamite explosion, and continued for six weeks. Worker unrest in the industry remained even after the smelter strike had been crushed.

The Western Federation of Miners led a larger strike for increased pay, better working conditions, and union recognition in September. The September 1912 strike effected most of the mines and smelters in the eastern portion of the Intermountain West. The hard-rock mines and smelters of Arizona, Montana, and New Mexico threatened strikes, while those of eastern Nevada and Utah struck. The strike was centered in Bingham Canyon, but Alta and Minersville struck within two days. Eureka threatened to strike but the miners were appeased by a pay raise. The Bingham actions brought the mines and smelters of Ely and McGill, Nevada, into the foray during October. The strike was resolved by reopening the mines and smelters with strike breakers. The union was ignored in negotiations, but the miners were given pay raises after the strike ended. The Industrial Workers of the World again struck the Bingham mines in 1913, but this strike was even less effective than that of the Western Federation of miners.

Most of Utah's Western Federation of Miners locals had either stopped paying dues prior to 1912 or were crushed by the 1912 strike. Even those that struggled on did so with greatly reduced membership. Although organizers from both the Western Federation of Miners/International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers and the Industrial Workers of the World continued their attempts to entice Utah's workers back into the "one big union," the mines and smelters were not again effectively organized until after World War II.

*Revision of original published text as noted in the second paragraph of this article is as follows...

Revision submitted by Richard Myers, Secretary-Treasurer, Industrial Workers of the World; Denver General Membership Branch on March 19, 2009.

Concerning the statement that... "The split [between the Western Federation of Miners and the Western Labor Union] was the result of continued strong affiliation of the Industrial Workers of the World with the American Communist Party," I have been studying the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) for more than twenty years, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that this is false.

For one thing, the Industrial Workers of the World was constitutionally prohibited from having any affiliation, relationship, or involvement with any political party from 1908 onwards. The two political parties with which the IWW did have a relationship prior to that prohibition were the Socialist Labor Party, and to a lesser extent, the Socialist Party.

Add to this the fact that the Western Federation of Miners left the Industrial Workers of the World in 1908, and the American Communist Party wasn't even formed until 1919.