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Utahn was key in rise of historic unions

Published March 29, 2014 5:30 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Editor's note: This is the second of two parts.

Working in the capricious field of hard-rock mining for over a decade, Utah-born William "Big Bill" Haywood was hurt in an underground accident in Silver City, Idaho, nearly losing his right hand. With no health insurance, sick leave or workman's compensation, the 27-year-old lost his job and faced destitution were it not for his colleagues' generosity to see him through.

In those days, a miner's future was transient. Hours were long, wages extremely low, absentee mine owners calloused, and safety an inherent issue. From 1880 to 1910, mine explosions, fires, roof collapses, poor ventilation, gases and other accidents claimed thousands of fatalities. In "Roughneck: the Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood," Peter Carlson wrote, "If a miner worked ten years in the hard-rock mines of the West, he stood one chance in three of suffering serious injury and one of eight in being killed on the job."

Unemployed, with his bandaged hand in a sling, Haywood ventured into the crowded Silver City courthouse one evening in August 1896 to hear 34-year-old Irish immigrant Ed Boyce champion the newly founded, Western Federation of Miners.

A radical labor union, WFM was conceived in jail after the 1892 Couer d'Alene miners' strike in Idaho turned into a brutal "labor war" with more than 600 strikers arrested. Industrial unionism — achieved by organizing hard-rock miners and smelter workers — was at WFM's core. Intrigued, Haywood joined.

"All of [our] struggles were for the men underneath, the lower paid men, as we came to learn that when the unskilled worker got a wage upon which he could live decently, there was no danger of the skilled men falling below this level," he wrote in "Big Bill Haywood."

Haywood rose in rank to become an unflagging WFM leader. In 1900, he secretly traveled to the Couer d'Alene where another strike failed, sounding the death rattle of unions that resulted in martial law and incarceration of hundreds of men.

"These men [confined] in squalor were fighting my fight," he wrote. "Their lives, the living of their wives and children were in jeopardy. Their appeals to the corporations went unheard. The only answer I could find in my own mind was to organize, to multiply our strength."

Colorado's 1903 Cripple Creek district strikes also proved disastrous. At home in Denver, Haywood printed, "Is Colorado in America?" above a "desecrated flag poster." He added protest statements within each stripe, was arrested, and irrationally punched a military man. Bludgeoned, a bleeding Haywood was taken to jail, sewn up, and given a desk and telephone to conduct union business.

By 1905, Haywood wanted to create a "universal working-class movement for all," he wrote, "regardless of race, color, creed, sex, or previous condition of servitude."

"Haywood blew the breath of life into the most militant, romantic and legendary union in American history — The Industrial Workers of the World," Carlson wrote.

That same year, Haywood was implicated in the Idaho murder of ex-Gov. Frank Steunenberg, who devastated the Couer d'Alene miners' unions in 1899. Opening the front gate at his home in Caldwell, Steunenberg triggered an explosion set by former WFM bodyguard, Harry Orchard — an assassin willing to make a deal.

Haywood spent 1½ years in jail "charged," he recorded, "with killing a man I had never seen, in a town I had never been, and was 1,000 miles away at the time of his death." Taking over his case, renowned defense attorney, Clarence Darrow secured Haywood's acquittal by proving the state's key witness had committed perjury.

Haywood severed ties with WFM in 1908. He traveled countrywide for the IWW and successfully recruited millions of factory, mill, and mine workers into "one big union."

In 1918, he and other IWW leaders were convicted of violating the Espionage Act by organizing strikes during wartime. Sentenced to 20 years in Leavenworth, Haywood jumped bail while on appeal in 1921 and fled to Russia for a hero's welcome.

William Haywood died in 1928. Half his ashes were buried under the Kremlin Wall; the remaining was sent to a Chicago cemetery and buried near the Haymarket Martyrs Monument.

Historian Eileen Hallet Stone is the author of "Hidden History of Utah," a compilation of her Salt Lake Tribune columns. She may be reached at ehswriter@aol.com.