Lost Butte, Montana, a book by Richard I. Gibson, is in stores and museum gift shops around Butte. Or order from the publisher. It's also in E-book formats at all the usual places. And read an interview with Gibson, here, and on KXLF here. The Facebook page has many historic photos of Butte, and the Butte-Anaconda NHLD project showcases many historic buildings. Location-oriented posts can be found on HistoryPin. On Mondays beginning in January 2016, look for Gibson's "Mining City History" column in the Montana Standard.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Miners Union Day, 1914

By Richard I. Gibson

See also Butte Labor History Center

There are many days that change the world. All of them do, in some way, but some are etched onto human consciousness more than others – D-Day, 9/11, Pearl Harbor, the embattled farmers at Concord, the San Francisco Earthquake.  

Today is the centennial of such a day in Butte. June 13, 1914, was a watershed moment for working people everywhere in the United States.

Miner’s Union Day 1914 was a Saturday. The day before, 1200 miners walked out at the Speculator Mine. They refused to show their union cards – to union officials – and were denied work. The issue was between supporters of the Butte Miners Union and the Western Federation of Miners with which it was affiliated, and the more radical “secessionists” who felt that the BMU and WFM were mismanaged and too cozy with the mining companies.

In 1914, it wasn’t just the Anaconda Company. The Speculator was run by the North Butte Mining Company, and the Black Rock Mine, where the mine was closed the night of June 12 when miners refused to show their union cards, was owned by the Butte & Superior Co. But from the radical unionists’ point of view, all the capitalistic mine owners were the same. And the traditional unions were no better.

Technically, the events of June 1914 were an internal union dispute, but in reality the radical Industrial Workers of the World were organizing and agitating against entrenched unions that were, to many minds, little more than mouthpieces of the companies and that were misusing union monies.

The emotions and tempers of miners in Butte must have been heightened by the events two months earlier at Ludlow, Colorado, where militia and company thugs had murdered two dozen men, women, and children in a striking coal miners’ tent city near Trinidad, Colorado, on April 20. The Ludlow Massacre must have steeled the most rebellious union leaders to a desperate fight, even to the death, and it would have shaken even conservative miners who wanted nothing but to go to work to feed their children. The Ludlow Massacre was tinder for a rebellion in Butte that only awaited a spark to set it off.

On Friday June 12, the only hint of violence was the press of 1,000 men at the Speculator Mine against the union officials checking union cards. It threatened to become violent, but the officials brandished revolvers long enough to flee into a mine office, from which they were soon rescued by armed deputies who whisked them back to town in an automobile. No one was hurt, and no damage was done to property. 

Following the walkouts on Friday June 12, the miners paraded through Butte’s central business district, with leaders calling out “What’s the matter with the Butte Miners Union? What’s the matter with the WFM?” and the crowd came back with “They are rotten!” The crowd ended up at the Auditorium, in the Butte Public Library at the corner of Broadway and Dakota Streets. Their meeting organized a new union, the Butte Independent Industrial Miners Union, not affiliated with either the Western Federation of Miners or the United Mine Workers – umbrella organizations seen as opposing the goals of the workers. At least seen that way by the I.W.W. men the Anaconda Standard reported as organizing that new union. At the meeting, the suggestion was made that they should attack the Miners Union Hall on North Main Street.

Even as the Miners Union Day parade got underway on June 13, the secessionist leaders – they called themselves rebels – urged violence if needed to stop the parade. Newspaper reports suggest that the leaders were not miners, not local Butte men, and that many of them were drunk – but exactly who did what on that day will probably never be known.

The first catcalls and jeering began on Park Street between Montana and Dakota, but nothing much happened until the Anaconda Copper Mining Company Band turned from Idaho onto Park. As they crossed Montana Street heading east on Park, the “jeering became pronounced and the spectators knew that a riot was coming.” The mob attacked the union leaders who were riding on horseback. President Burt Riley and Parade Chairman Jacob Oliver galloped off, but parade marshal Mike Conway was surrounded in front of the Brownfield-Canty Carpet Store at 48-54 West Park, just east of the bus kiosk today. Conway used his whip against the mob, and they closed ranks forcing the ACM Band to stop playing. The mob called for Conway’s head – “Kill him! Lynch him! Break his brainless skull!” He was chased up Dakota to Broadway, where he was pulled from his horse and kicked mercilessly, but they put him back in the saddle and he rode off covered in blood. Other knots of the mob pursued him to Main Street, where Police Chief Jere Murphy, “the only policeman to offer any resistance to the mob,” took him to a refuge.

An agitator in Main Street Alley – that’s the one behind the M&M, alongside the Mantle Block (Piccadilly Museum) and Club 13 – admonished the mob on Broadway to attack the Union Hall. The men headed up Main Street two blocks to the hall in the 300 block (parking lot north of the alley behind the Archives today) where they smashed most everything, from cash registers to cuspidors. The mob numbered around 2,000 by then, and the primary target was the Union’s safe. They took it to the Flats, somewhere on west Front Street (Centennial Avenue) out toward the Centennial Brewery where they eventually blew it up and found $1,350 and important union papers.

Back at the Union Hall, Alderman Frank Curran – one of three Aldermen who served as Acting Mayor that day, in the absence of Mayor Louis Duncan – was pushed out the second-floor window and was lucky to fall on some of the carpets stripped from the Hall, breaking his arm and dislocating his ankle. By the end of the melee, the Union Hall was almost completely emptied, but it still stood, an intact building, windows broken. But only for the next 10 days. And the consequences would echo down the decades for a century.

Life went on.
* * * * * * * * *

The best comprehensive resource for the events of 1914 in Butte and the entire labor struggle is probably Jerry Calver’s book, The Gibraltar: Socialism and Labor in Butte, Montana, 1895-1920, especially p. 82-84 for the events of June 12-13. See also George Everett’s essay, When Toil Meant Trouble.

Sources for photos and quotes in this article: Anaconda Standard newspapers at Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives. The illustration from the 1902 Butte Miner is a photo of a page in Sara Rowe’s collection.

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