February 8, 2024
From The Real News Network
383 views


On Feb. 7, 1894, the Western Federation of Miners declared a strike in the boomtown of Cripple Creek, Colorado, in protest of increased working hours. For the next five months, thousands of miners upheld the strike will fending off violent attacks from mercenaries hired by their bosses. The resulting victory became the first in a long chain of contentious and often violent labor struggles known as the Colorado Labor Wars. Independent historian Kyle Steven Kern joins The Real News for an overview of the Battle of Cripple Creek and its significance to US labor history.

Studio Production: Adam Coley
Post-Production: David Hebden


Transcript

The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.

Mel Buer:

Welcome back, my friends, to the Real News Network podcast. I’m your host, Mel Buer. Before we get started on today’s episode, I wanted to take a moment to thank you once again for listening to us week after week. Look, we know you’ve got limited hours in your day. Whether you’re listening to us in traffic, have us in your regular work pod rotation, or wind down the day with us. The Real News Network is committed to bringing you ad-free, independent journalism that you can count on. We care a lot about what we do, and it’s through donations from dedicated listeners like you that we can keep on doing it. Please consider becoming a monthly sustainer of The Real News Network by heading over to therealnews.com/donate. If you want to stay in touch with us and get updates about our work, then sign up for our free newsletter at therealnews.com/sign-up.

As always, we appreciate your support in whatever form it takes. As I’ve mentioned in previous episodes and conversations about my plans for the podcast, it’s my goal to introduce and discuss important dates in American labor history for our listeners. I come from a background in organizing with the IWW, which has a long and storied legacy in the labor movement in this country, and I believe, as most organizers will agree, that knowing where we come from is a huge piece of knowing where we can go next. The struggle we are engaged in is not in a vacuum. We are a product of those who came before us, and we are charting a path that those who come after us will be able to follow. To that end, this season, there will be a number of episodes released on or near the anniversary dates of important labor struggles.

American labor history is rich, varied, and downright incredible. I hope by doing these episodes, we can open a few doors for you and get you thinking about some ways in which we belong to this legacy. To start off this ongoing series, I want to take us back to early February of 1894, 130 years ago this year, to the mining town of Cripple Creek, Colorado, the largest of a number of mining towns in the area organized by the nascent Western Federation of Miners. We’ll get into the meat of the history here in a moment, but before we do, I would love to introduce my guest for today’s episode, my good friend and friend of the pod, Kyle Steven Kern. Kyle is a writer, independent historian, and the co-host of Profane Illuminations, an online show from Zer0 Books. His examinations of working-class life and labor history have been featured in publications like the Bias Magazine, the Activist History Review, and Protean Magazine. He is currently working on his debut monograph for Repeater Books, exploring the connection between philosophy and labor history. Welcome to the show, Kyle. So nice to have you with us.

Kyle Kern:

Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.

Mel Buer:

It’s been a long time since we’ve been on a show together. I’m really excited for this conversation today.

Kyle Kern:

I know.

Mel Buer:

I know. Last time we talked was what, 2020, I think?

Kyle Kern:

Oh, something like that. Yeah.

Mel Buer:

It’s been a while.

Kyle Kern:

Yeah. Nothing interesting has happened since then though, so we can just pick right back up.

Mel Buer:

Life goes on. Yeah. Okay, so we’re talking about the Cripple Creek Miner’s strike of 1894. This is a pretty important piece of labor history that I think is really, really important for us to dive into. February 7th was the start of the strike in 1894, that’s 130 years ago. When this episode gets released on the 8th of February, we will be right around that anniversary. So I think this is a great time for us to have this conversation. I think to start off, a great way to dig in is to take a look at some of the economic factors that played into the start of this strike. There’s a lot going on in 1893-94 in the United States. Do you want to give us a little bit of a sense of what the economic conditions looked like at that time?

Kyle Kern:

Sure. Thanks again for having me. By the way, the economics of the second half of the 19th century in the United States is about as chaotic as the rest of the history in the second half of that century. You have not just the period leading up to a civil war and then the period of the Civil War itself, but everything in the back half of the 19th century is pointing the United States towards the direction of an industrialization. So the lives of everyday working people are changing rapidly. They’re surrounded by change in industry, change in politics, including representation in political parties, as well as just the overall construction of the United States was moving away from an established agrarian economy into a more internationally focused, globally focused, industrialized economy.

A big part of this change in production was the Western expansion in the United States, including the incorporation of the territory of Colorado in, I believe, 1861, which is incredible timing, obviously, not accidental timing considering is around the same time that southern states were seceding. And then the backdrop of all of this is actually the mining industry. The mining industry was something that initially started from the imagination of frontier culture, right? This idea that in 1848 and 1849, when hard metal ore deposits were discovered in places like California, and eventually Nevada, Idaho, and Montana, the U.S. economy made a decided shift toward the grading of silver and gold as a way of measuring its national currency. And so all of this meant that in the beginning, moving out to the western part of the United States meant a… No, that’s not the direction I want to go in. Apologies. Sorry, I’m a little nervous.

Basically, I know I shouldn’t be. So a good place to start actually would probably be 1873. 1873 was the year that the U.S. was, by default, put on a gold standard. It passed the Coinage Act in 1873, and now the price of U.S. currency was wrapped much more closely to the price of rare metals that were being extracted from western states like Montana, Colorado, Idaho, and California. The problem with this period in American history is the various booms, busts, and crises in American capitalism in its early industrial years, meaning that for the last three decades of the 19th century, the American economy, and as a result, because of our focus today, working-class people were experiencing a really incredible change.

And if you jump forward to 1893, which is really the lead up, sort of set the stage for Cripple Creek and everything that happened in 1894, though not exclusively, there’s a banking crisis that historians refer to now as the Panic of 1893, which is basically the reserves of gold in the United States were short, and this led to some pretty significant bank failures and a stock market crash as people rushed to withdraw their money from banks.

The result of this was hundreds of miles of railroad going into receivership, hundreds of banks over a three-month period, a lot of them centered on the newly settled Midwest and Western states completely closed. And after this three-month crash in the middle of 1893, the U.S. entered into its worst financial depression since the beginning of industrialization. In that same year, there was a collapse in silver prices, and it brought a lot of strain on the newly established Western territories who were relying heavily on mining, especially mining for silver and copper and eventually gold, and started us really on this path toward the conflict because miners in this time period were already struggling under very poor working conditions and the strain of all of the other financial panics that they’d experienced for decades before. So unemployment was skyrocketing, and literally hundreds of thousands of people were put into either part-time employment or out on the road to try and find work.

The joint stock corporations that owned these mines were based in places like San Francisco and New York, and a drop, for example, like in Butte, Montana, they experienced this, their work, as they say, copper was king, a slight dip in the prices or in the speculation of the price of copper in New York City or in San Francisco could result in hundreds or thousands of people losing their job in the blink of an eye. So financial speculation, a lack of regulation, and a series of rushes to extract as much rare minerals from the earth as quickly and as efficiently as possible created an environment that was, it was a powder keg. It was a powder keg that was waiting to explode at any moment. And it did, in a series of conflicts over particularly in that decade, set the stage for not just the mine wars of this period, but the ones in places like Colorado as well as back east in coal mines. It sort of set the United States on this path toward the industrial conflicts that it would experience in the early parts of the 20th century.

Mel Buer:

I think there’s a good piece of context that we want to bring in here is that in the 1880s, the Knights of Labor were ascendant and becoming sort of consolidating themselves into what ultimately became the American Federation of Labor, which is the first half of the AFL-CIO Federation that we know today. That kind of organizing was happening in the mid-1880s at the tail end of, I would consider what I would call the first major chapter of what is now successive gilded ages in this country. And there’s a lot of organizing these new laborers, particularly in these mines, as they’re being consolidated by these sort of mining magnets, right? And in Colorado and the surrounding area there is what ultimately became the Western Federation of Miners, which is only about a year old, roughly. They organized in 1892 to ’93, I believe. They were originally called the Free Coinage Union local number 19, and that was quite a few of the miners that were working at something close to 150 mines in the Colorado area, and it became the Western Federation of Miners, not long after that.

So we have a lot of new organizing that is happening in the area as these industries are being consolidated under these monopolies, and particularly in Cripple Creek. It’s one of the largest mines, it’s the largest mining town in the area at the time, and they employ; Cripple Creek mine employs something like one-third of the miners in that area in the 1890s. So they have a monopoly over the labor force as well. And because of the Panic of 1893 and the collapse of silver, the value of silver, gold becomes even more valuable. And so the mining industry, the gold mining industry, becomes, in today’s money, a multi-billion dollar industry because it’s keeping the economy afloat during the panic. So what you’re seeing is on the one hand, you have these capitalists who are consolidating profits and are taking advantage of what ultimately becomes a labor surplus because silver miners need to find jobs elsewhere, and they end up finding jobs in the gold mines in the area.

And on the other hand, you also have really militant labor organizing that’s happening in these mines. And for folks who have been organizing for a long time or are particularly interested in labor history, you know who the Western Federation of Miners are, and we’re going to talk a little bit more about the legacy of that union a little bit later on. But what they’re doing is they are attempting to stabilize, ultimately, an unstable profession in the area. And this is kind of what sets the scene for what ultimately becomes the Cripple Creek Miners strike. Because of this labor surplus, because these bosses know that there are a lot of people looking for work, they start to squeeze the labor force by attempting to mandate a 10-hour workday. Now, prior to this mandate, the miners in the area worked eight-hour days and they got paid three bucks a day, which is roughly about a $100 a day in today’s money.

So this was a standard that they had set. The owners decided that they wanted to add two extra hours to the workday, which is a lot, and they didn’t want to pay more for the additional work. So it was going to be an additional two hours of work per day still for three bucks, which the union said, No, we don’t want this. So the owners said, okay, so you guys can work for eight hours a day, but you’re going to take a pay cut and only get paid 2.50, which is a significant pay cut for no change to the work that they were doing prior. And this is really just the bosses trying to capitalize on the fact that there are a lot of people who need work and someone will take that job for that amount of money, and understandably, it pissed the workers off. There’s no reason why these folks should have taken the pay cut to work the same amount of hours. And so this is what sets the stage for the miner’s strike.

Kyle Kern:

You bring up a couple of really good points. The first one being the effects of Gilded Age policies. The crises of this period that emerged, emerged directly from the policies and conditions of the Gilded Age and are what provoked the responses and the organizing efforts from miners in the Western territories and the establishment of the Western Federation of Miners. And it’s really useful context for understanding the way that these labor conflicts change history because there was a lot happening in the 1890s in terms of conflict between miners and employers, but in the same way that the gold rush was a rush, so too was the increase in, the precipitous, increase in conflict between miners and owners that led to the establishment of the Federation in Butte in 1893, and then the incorporation of the Coinage Union as local 19 in December of that same year.

This is all one year before everything happened, and the establishment of the WFM was catalyzed through incidents like another really important labor conflict at the Coeur d’Alene in Idaho, which was just the year before that. So we’re talking about a banking crisis in 1893, a labor conflict that resulted in violence in the Western territories the year before that. And then in that same year as the establishment of the WFM in Colorado, all of a sudden there was this new interpretation, this new way of looking at work that was not as prevalent before, and we’ll talk about it later when we talk about the changes in organizing, but the Western Federation of Miners became a really important sort of element of the reformist movement that was popping up in multiple parts of the country, but especially out west, and it came to a head in Cripple Creek, just as you said.

First of all, through the differences in working conditions, a lack of uniformity. Industrial production is about taking workers and giving them individual, single small skills as part of a larger operation. It was no longer just a guy panning for surface gold or surface mining on his own or as part of a small crew, but was now a series of workers who were all performing single tasks. And everything from pit mining to surface mining, the role of individual people was fundamentally changing, and that’s the way that they lived their life was. They were in these mining towns, some of them far away from their families, some of them with their families with them, but not often.

The thing that’s really unique about Cripple Creek is how it was established. It was part of the boom town boom, if you will, where these boom towns would all of a sudden pop up because of all of this investment in capital, people were discovering gold, and then the prospectors who were discovering the gold were then at a financial need selling that property to owners, in this case Colorado Springs. And then the guy who found gold in Colorado, he died poor, his name was Bob Womack, and he was at the meeting with the capitalists in Colorado Springs to first enter Cripple Creek. He met with the Raven Gold Mining company as well as a couple of other representatives, but then he died poor. And so it’s a really taxing work, mining, but as mines got deeper, as they went underground, it’s already dangerous work.

When you’re working with surface rock, in Colorado specifically, what they would do is in order to sort of penetrate the surface, they would take a pickaxe and poke patterns in the surface of the rock, and then insert blasting caps into that and then use that to sort of blast out and dig in further. They would dig these, they were often up in water and really sort of cold conditions. Oftentimes, these early miners, and as well as miners later on, would work specifically in the winter because they had to dig horizontally, and in order to protect themselves, they would have to dig while the water was frozen. This is all just to say that not only were the working conditions poor and difficult, but when industrial capitalists came in and started dictating how the working day went, something had to give. There were 150, just as you said, something around like 150 mines just in the Cripple Creek district.

Cripple Creek is a small creek, but the whole surrounding area was named after the place where gold was first discovered. And so you had all of these bosses who all lived in Colorado Springs, and who worked with one another, and colluded with each other, and formed organizations like the Mine Owners Association in order to advocate for one another, but they were working under very variable working conditions, and especially hours being the big part of it. One mine would have eight hours, another mine would have nine hours, another one you would work 10 hours with almost always the same pay. And what the mine owners started doing, as capitalists and industrialists do very well is they themselves started organizing with one another, and that’s how this conflict around the working day combined with the soft labor market, again, Mel, you really hit the nail on the head.

That soft labor market is what resulted in a bunch of silver workers and silversmiths from places like Leadville close by in Colorado, which was very rich with silver, to go out looking for more work. And so when hundreds or thousands of workers were losing employment immediately at the whims of someone in New York or someone in San Francisco washing the market, they started to recognize the difference in their working conditions. But those differences were brought to the surface by the mine owners themselves who did, just as you described, who decided that they wanted to increase working hours because of the soft labor market.

With incidents like Coeur d’Alene peering over the shoulders of everyone who’s in this situation as a big sort of galvanizing moment that pushed organizing and also gave mine owners something to fear. They wanted to adjust the variable hours to a, sorry, I’m going to rewind that a little bit. It all really started, the owner of a particular mine called Isabella, I believe, planned to lengthen the working day from eight to 10 hours, and then that’s when the miners voted amongst themselves to authorize a strike. It was the first big moment that pushed additional organizing in Cripple Creek just on both sides, on the side of the mine owners who established a chapter of the Mine Owners Association in Colorado Springs, and then on the side of workers as well, who used this move specifically around ours to organize the mines in the Cripple Creek district, call it the Free Coinage Union, and affiliate with the Western Federation of Miners more solidly.

That was in December, and when stuff really picks up that next year, it’s just kind of, I think the real takeaway from all of that is it’s so remarkable to think about how quickly these things pop up when necessity is the forefront of people, whether or not people can eat or their families can eat. A lot of the problems that they had too was with working conditions because you can’t breathe that stuff in for that long, for that much time. Surface mining is dangerous because of what you’re breathing in.

The front-tier fantasy probably gave away pretty quickly to the reality of changing an industrial production, which in the case of mining means disaster because the history of mining is a history of workplace disasters. On the one hand, the immediate ones, accidents in transportation, explosions, roof ins, fires. When a fire starts and you’re underground, you die by suffocating because the fire sucks all of the oxygen out. There’s a story that I read for my book, this is about a coal miner, but it’s a story that really sticks in my mind about there was a large coal pile that someone was doing work on standing on top of, and the problem is that it was an unstable pile of coal, and what happened was a pocket of error opened up close to the bottom of it, and then the shift in that coal pile took the worker and sucked him into the bottom of it.

And the thing is that he didn’t die from the pressure or die from that kind of injury. He died by suffocating because he didn’t have any air. There’s this, there’s the effects of mining that are a just full-scale invasion on the body, mining for rare minerals in open-cast context, in surface mining, and in underground mining all have, because we can study this now, we know more about it.

They all introduce elements of black lung disease. So even before we had a name for a lot of these types of things, even before we had an archive that I was able to go and dig around in, or World Health Organization studies talking about the effects of breathing in the effects of mercury on contemporary mining, because mercury is used in mining to extract the… Mercury, it attracts these heavy rare metals. So what they do is they use mercury to combine it with the heavier metals that are present in an ore, and then they use that and then they extract it, and then later on they separate the mercury from the gold or the mercury from the silver or whatever they’re trying to refine.

And exposure to mercury, if you can believe it, causes organ failure and causes neurological problems. And just mining has always been physically dangerous, but it’s always worse than you think it is. And the people who understood this the best were the people who were sitting there and breathing the stuff in. All of this combined together was just like I mentioned a powder keg earlier. Not to be cliche, but that’s what it is. It was something was waiting to happen because of the conditions of industrial production in that industry. And it’s really, you see how quickly things popped off in Cripple Creek, and yet somehow still managed to think, how did this not happen sooner, right?

Mel Buer:

I think there’s an important piece to be sort of looked at, and maybe this is a good segue into the strike itself. So the workers walked off, they struck on February 7th because of the organizing that they had been doing in the region. Workers struck multiple mines at the same time. It wasn’t just the Cripple Creek mine, but it was solidarity strikes and secondary strikes at other mines as well in the area. And as a result of that, according to my own research, there were certain mines that had previously, mine owners had previously potentially pushed for a 10-hour workday. They immediately, upon seeing other mines getting struck, they reversed course and they guaranteed an eight-hour workday, and those mines remained open. I think there’s an interesting sort of parallel, because I always look for, in labor history, as you do as well, we look for the parallels and the strategies that are still in use today. And I think of that particular strategy being most recently very useful for what the UAW was attempting to do with their contract campaign.

Kyle Kern:

Absolutely.

Mel Buer:

Right. And I think this is a good piece to give us a good 10 minutes or so really talking about what strategies were employed during the strike and what were some of the pieces that were unique to this particular strike, especially as it relates to the state response, who was supportive of the strike and who was not. I think that’s a really great place to move toward. What are your thoughts? What has your research told you?

Kyle Kern:

Oh, man, where do you begin, right? In terms of strategy, the most important lesson from this and almost all labor history is the way that workers used the unique particularities of their environment, which includes the type of work that they were doing, it’s historical and political context, the types of workers who were there. Cripple Creek was unique in some ways because it was more homogenized than other mining communities, which had a lot of, for example, European immigrants.

There was a big problem of the Italian question in other mining camps, especially up in Montana, which is, that’s a rabbit trail I’m not going to go on. But the thing about Cripple Creek was that it was, even for mining communities, primitive in a lot of ways. When you came out to the west to mine when you were a prospector, it’s not dissimilar, actually. When you come out prospecting, you come out your first year and you’re in a tent, and you bring probably your food and cans, and then eventually you move into something of a primitive log cabin in that Scandinavian style that was popular in the frontier west in the United States in that time period.

And in other instances, like in Butte, for example, there was enough time through the extraction of things like copper and silver to create more established mining communities. And it’s not that this didn’t happen in Cripple Creek, it did, but it’s because the element of Cripple Creek being essentially the final gold rush in Colorado’s history meant that there was still a sort of lagging behind in this, not to call it the standard of living, but in the type of living that people were doing. So it was an environment where the elevation was extremely high, where it was difficult to get to, and where a mining community had just popped up a couple of years before that. And so, out of necessity, workers found themselves, like all workers do, they found themselves standing shoulder to shoulder by virtue of their condition, not by virtue of national origin or something. I mean, the types of people who were out in Colorado were of all different stripes too.

There were people who had come out earlier, sort of buying into the myth-making of frontier culture as a way to potentially get rich, or find wealth, or stability for their family. There was the Trumpist element of work in that time period, something that I research on as well, where workers who were maybe blacklisted from certain employers out east, especially if they were union organizing or who were general just transient in their day-to-day life would make their way out via rail technology. There was a railway that went into Cripple Creek that was very narrow, which proved to be an advantage for the union. That’s another good thing to add to the list, but that allowed for access for people to make their way east and west. And so it was difficult to do what they did, but it’s always difficult, and the way to overcome the particular context of your labor conflict is to lean into the skid, so to speak, and to capitalize on the actions of your employer.

It’s not surprising that wages, and free time, and working conditions, and health and safety concerns remain problems that people are experiencing. You’ve mentioned the UAW, that is absolutely 100% obviously the best comparative example right now, maybe besides Warrior Met, which we can also talk about. But the idea of the UAW strike, the contemporary most recent UAW strike, a lot of it was about the condition of work. There’s a really good article that’s in The Nation, and I can’t remember who wrote it unfortunately, but it was really great, that was dissecting the claims of injury and difficulty that UAW workers were experiencing. And it’s like I was talking about earlier with the hidden aspects of the difficulty of this work.

For UAW workers, it’s about the stress of repetition in a production line. Your job, say, on a production assembly line is to put seats into a car. The frame gets down to you, and you do the same thing, however many hundreds of times per shift per week, which involves taking a seat, stepping over the frame of a car, leaning into a particular area with your hands and your feet and everything exposed, and doing the same repetitive moves over and over and over again. UAW workers report a lot of issues with their lower backs, and it makes perfect sense, right? The condition your body is put in by doing the same repetitive action over and over and over again is not the result of you not being good at your job. It’s the result of the natural wear and tear that work has on the body, and that injury is a condition of your employer’s profits. They don’t make profits without being able to induce at much injury as possible without breaking the law or without coming on the wrong side of their workers.

Mel Buer:

There’s something also you mentioned about political context here. So it’s one thing to remind our listeners is in the 1890s, we’re in the midst of a pretty intense populist movement in the United States, which has a lot of benefits for union organizing at that time. Particularly in the area, you have a populist governor who is in support of the strike. You have judges and other justices who are also in support of the strike, which means that oftentimes the mine owners trying to employ things like the courts or requests for the state militia, which is the precursor to the National Guard to come and break the strike are sort of sidestepped or outright denied. And ultimately, what you have during the strike, as well is you have a county sheriff who is willing to do the dirty work of the mine owners and deputize something like 1,300 ex-army folks, private mercenaries, the precursor to maybe, I don’t know, freelancers for the Pinkertons to try and break the strike as it drags on over the course of, what, nearly two years.

And what we see is the states sort of for the first time in Colorado history, and maybe the last time in a long time, I think, actually stepping on the side of the striking workers to push back against the sort of militarization of these independent strikebreakers and to ultimately drive them out of the region and force the mine owners to disband these private armies that they have put together to try and break this strike. So this is a very unique sort of space in labor history where we can see what that looks like. And there aren’t very many moments in labor history since then where we can point to the results of a sympathetic government stepping in for workers. The best we can hope for is a sitting U.S. president to walk a picket line.

I think that’s a good piece to remind folks about is that the post-panic or the economic conditions led to some really interesting political shifts that then worked in the favor of these mine workers during their strike, and very quickly experienced a backlash within a couple of years after the strike ended where we did not see that kind of state response again. And in fact, and we’ll talk about this here in a minute, I think it’s a good piece for us to land on as a way to wrap up this conversation, but we see a bunch of interventions by the state, by state militia, by the state governor, by mayors, by court justices, all of whom belong to the camp where they are in support of this because no one likes what the bosses are trying to do. The union, the Western Federation of Miners, really did enjoy popular support for this strike.

You had civilians and individuals who lived in the region who absolutely supported what they were doing. They did not think that the mine owners were in any way justified in their attempts to squeeze more blood from their workforce without adequately compensating them for it. And you’ve noted that the working conditions were abysmal, so they had a real sense of popular support and institutional support for what they were trying to do. And ultimately, after two years of intermittent violence by both sides, right, two years of really incredible sort of things that were happening, including at one point strikers blew up a shaft house above one of the mines as these deputized mercenaries were trying to reach their position where they were holding their line essentially and sent them running back down the hill. So you have these really dramatic moments in the course of this strike that I wish we had more time to get into, but we have this really dramatic sort of story that’s unfolding, and ultimately, the miners were successful.

They ultimately were able to call these mine owners into a room in Colorado Springs and get them to agree to an eight-hour workday with no change in pay, and to really get that on paper. And these mine leaders survived attempts to lynch them outside the meeting house. They had to sneak out the back door in order to find safety. They had pretty much an uphill battle to try and win this, and ultimately, they were successful. And as far as casualties go, I think there were two deaths, one on either side of the strike, and a bunch of miners that were arrested, only six maybe were convicted of crimes as a result of the strike. So ultimately, a resounding victory for this very young miners union. But as you and I both know, there is a backlash to this, right? The backlash at the end of this conflict was pretty swift, and the Western Federation of Miners was forever labeled violent, militant, ultimately socialists, right?

Kyle Kern:

Yeah. The advantage that the Western Federation of Miners had in this case, it really talks about, it really illustrates the complexity of wielding power in defensive workers. The governor of Colorado at the time was a guy named Davis Waite, who reportedly comes from an abolitionist family. He was born in New York, and he moved across the Midwest during the Civil War, and partially because of those abolitionist views. And Waite was radical in some ways in the same ways that the Populist party, which formed, I believe, in 1891 as a coalition of Midwestern and southern agrarian reformers who cared about stuff like reform of the federal government in the form of nationalization of industry, an eight-hour workday, free silver, anti-monopoly, anti-robber baron kind of policies were popular, and Colorado at the time elected a delegation to Congress entirely from the Populist party, including their governor.

So, Davis Waite, the thing about what he did is that he didn’t just intervene in some ways. He didn’t maintain a pure lily-white neutrality or whatever, but inserted himself into the conflict in a way that put him on the side of the workers. He negotiated, in the first round of negotiation, he negotiated on their behalf, and then he did something really remarkable, in the second day of negotiation, he stepped back and showed up in support, but stopped sort of driving the car, right? His goal was to get them, his goal was peace, his goal was stability, but his goal was stability at the bargaining table and fair consideration in the midst of this really intense physical conflict, like, just as you said, that saw after the miners overtook Bull Hill, which was the biggest overlook over Altman, which is the highest point in that district.

They took power by setting up commissaries and boarding houses and prepared for a long haul under the leadership of John Calderwood. They militarized themselves and began performing daily drills, and they started rehearsing for these conflicts. So when things escalated, it became clear that, and as we see, and as you’re saying in the events surrounding this where state power was wielded in the way that we’re most familiar with, which is to break the strike, put people back to work, to maim and kill workers in favor of capitalists and industrial capitalists. The necessity of allies, including the community, is now and shall always be incredibly important. Workers, other hard rock miners from around Colorado showed up to Cripple Creek when they heard of everything that was happening, especially after the union moved to seize some of the mines, raided the general store, and all of these, as word got out, it was clear that people were on their side.

Mel Buer:

I think a great way to talk about, close out this conversation, is that there is a legacy to the strike, as I mentioned. And the Western Federation of Miners’ involvement, ultimately, they saw a boom in their membership and more organizing drives in the years after the strike. But they also had some backlash because they were seen as the instigators of some pretty intense violence. And in the late 1890s, what ultimately ended up happening is that they were forever more seen by mine owners as being these beastly instigators of extreme violence against the machine of capital.

And as we know, capitalists are really good at sort of personifying those mechanisms and creating a sort of emotional attachment to them in the eyes of the citizens that they propagandize. So the Western Federation of Miners was really seen as this sort of too-militant, too-violent workers organization, and they were often blamed for violence breaking out in subsequent labor fights in the area. And ultimately, what that led to is the WFM severed ties with the AFL in the 1890s, and they went on to become a major defining group of organizers in the creation of the industrial workers of the world in 1905, and played a huge part in many of the sort of mining organization and strikes that happened in the first 15 years of the 20th century.

Very important sort of figures coming out of that movement are folks like Big Bill Haywood, Frank Little, who are IWW organizers and affiliated with the WFM within the IWW. So in terms of the legacy, in terms of seeing this timeline stretched a little bit beyond just the last decade of the 19th century, what we’re seeing is this sort of through line of these strikes radicalizing a new generation of organizers workers who are already fed up with the ways in which industrial capitalism has made their material conditions worse. And it leads to some of the most exciting, in my opinion, the most exciting organizing in the decades, the new decades of the 20th century. And we wouldn’t be where we are without the hard-fought wins of places like Cripple Creek. What do you think? Do you agree?

Kyle Kern:

Yeah, I completely agree. And the WFM formed initially with the intent of confederating with the AFL and then left the AFL really quickly. And the reason why is because the AFL didn’t offer them support when they needed it in Colorado. And so it pushed the WFM in a more radical direction, in a direction that would ebb a little bit in terms of their establishment of the IWW, and then their later break, shortly thereafter, their break with the IWW. There’s a difference in strategy, and the determining factor was what’s the best way to approach this? And it’s a time period in where people are establishing new political parties and seeing them as a vehicle for change. They’re doing all kinds of things in order to sort of address the rapidly changing world around them. But the thing that cuts to the core of everything that we’ve been talking about is it raised a new element of working-class spirit in the United States that had never existed before.

And that’s the takeaway from every event in labor history is that while work changes, while economies change, the process of addressing these issues that we’re talking about largely remains the same. And I don’t mean in strategy, because there’s no precise strategy. I don’t mean in blueprint because there is no blueprint, there’s no manual, and there’s no skeleton key for worker struggle. The answer to your problems at work are always born in that struggle, and they’re articulated by those who are willing to stand up for themselves and the people around them, which is something that I believe that everyone has within them. We have it within us to make the determination for struggle based off of our daily life. I’ve been talking about blasting caps and dynamite. Well, it’s all dynamite. The dynamite is the working-class spirit in you because it’s a gift, it’s free, and it’s because the price has already been paid by people who came before you and by you, right?

I think it’s too biblical. But I think about the section of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus said, “For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are a few who’d find it.” And he’s talking about this reflection on a way of living that, on the one hand, there’s a way of living that’s wide and easy, and that requires being told what to do and how to live your life in a particular way that’s very external. That’s through the influence of others sometimes who are taking advantage of you, and then there’s always an alternative path that is inside of you, and that’s to do the difficult thing and make the determination for struggle.

It’s not like the Coolies and the Rockies and the valleys and the curves of the mountains brought gold to the United States, right? It all seems like this big accident. A gold rush leads to statehood, that leads to industrial investment, leads to workers moving to the area, leads to exploitation, leads to conflict, leads to the results of that conflict, and so on and so forth, and keeps moving. In all of this, there was never a guidebook outside of the particular conditions of where they were living. There’s no blueprint telling them what to do. There’s just the magnitude of their life, the necessity of doing something about it, purely for a lack of other options, and the discovery that we make every time we organize, the discovery we make that yes, there is power in standing with one another and in using all means necessary in order to forward a struggle into new decades.

Clearly, the WFM and the IWW have done this and set the stage for history as we see it happen throughout the 20th century. But as you were just talking about with the UAW specifically now, Shawn Fain, the newly elected leadership, and Unite All Workers for Democracy have done something really special, not just through their direct action and through their fights with the big three and with the new organizing that they’re doing right now, but they did so in using history in a certain way that recognizes that history is never closed off. It’s not this thing in a book, in a place, it’s your life. And when they declared their strike the stand-up strike, I think people were able to recognize the weight of what that meant, but history tells us just how heavy that weight actually is. It’s incredible work to be able to take the past and re-articulate it in the present. It’s difficult, and the path is very narrow, but for those who are willing to do it, it’s incredibly rewarding. And as I said earlier, in a way, it leads to life, if that makes sense.

Mel Buer:

It does. I think that’s a great way to end it. Thank you so much for coming on the show, Kyle. Please come back anytime to talk labor history. I would love to have you on again. Can you let our listeners know where we can find you and your work?

Kyle Kern:

Oh, sure. You can find me. I’m on Twitter at LaborKyle on pretty much everything. I have a YouTube channel, and you can also find me on the Zer0 Books YouTube channel semi-frequently, talking about all kinds of stuff, but just keep listening to this show. I think that’s my takeaway.

Mel Buer:

Thank you. All right. That’s it for us here at the Real News Network podcast. Once again, I’m your host, Mel Buer.

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