Living history: In 1912, unions and strikes were part of life in Bingham Canyon
In the summer of 1912, labor organizers, "Wobblies" from the Western Federation of Miners, agitated for industrial unions and equity in the culturally diverse town of Bingham Canyon, where Utah Copper Company was one of the country's leading copper producers. In July, 250 miners signed on to the federation's roster. Within three months, the numbers soared to 2,500. Grievances were many, and according to historian Philip Notarianni, "strikes became almost a way of life for most workers and company personnel."
The Bingham Strike of 1912 was no exception.
Bingham Canyon had been designated a mining district as early as 1863. In the 1870s, it was a boomtown. When Daniel C. Jackling established Utah Copper Company in 1903 and introduced large scale, open-pit copper mining, it opened the door to thousands of immigrant workers seeking to improve their future.
In 1910, Utah Copper produced nearly 64 million tons valued at $16 million. By 1912, 5,000 workers including 4,000 foreign-born struggled to survive on their wages.
In "Toil and Rage in a New Land: the Greek Immigrants in Utah," historian Helen Zeese Papanikolas, wrote, "the payscale was $2 per day for surface men, $2.50 for muckers (diggers) and $3 for miners."
The federation intended to negotiate with mine officials for a 50-cent daily pay raise for all workers and recognition of their union. Greek miners, who comprised the largest number of workers, wanted something else: an end to the "padrone" system and its exploitative labor agent, Leonidas G. Skliris.
Known as the "Czar of Greeks," abroad and in newspaper advertisements, Skliris recruited Greek labor for the mining industry. He usually charged immigrants $20 each to find work and then bill the company $1 or $2 a month for each employee hired. That same amount was often deducted from the worker's monthly paycheck.
"They bitterly resented their suave, well-dressed countryman, Skliris, who lived [luxuriously] on the money he extracted from them," Papanikolas wrote. "If they did not trade at [his] Pan Hellenic Grocery Store, he threatened them with discharge."
On Sept. 17, 1912, while most American-born workers stayed away, 1,000 immigrant miners crammed into the Bingham Theatre. They listened to federation President Charles W. Moyer address the trials of striking, the uncertainty of winning, and the need for more negotiation. They unanimously voted for a walkout.
In a statement made to The Salt Lake Tribune, Moyer said he "almost begged them to consult with the mine operators before taking the final vote."
R.C. Gemmell, Utah Copper assistant general manager, countered, "We do not treat with the officers of the union regarding any matters connected with the mines. We do not recognize the federation."
"Now there is nothing to do but await developments," Moyer concluded.
On Sept. 18, the town was shuttered. Floodlights illuminated railroad crossings and mines. National Guard sharpshooters from Fort Douglas and 25 Salt Lake County deputy sheriffs carrying Winchesters were dispatched to Bingham.
Fully 5,000 miners went on strike. Some, carrying blankets and guns, took to the hills.
"With 800 foreign strikers armed with rifles and revolvers strongly entrenched in the precipitous mountain ledges across the canyon from the Utah Copper Mine raking the mine workings with a hail of lead at every attempt of railroad employees or deputy sheriffs to enter the grounds, the strike situation has reached its initial crisis," the Sept. 19, 1912, Salt Lake Tribune reported.
Gov. William Spry called for peaceful solutions.
"Father Vasillios Lambrides, wearing his black robes and kalimalkion, climbed the mountain to exhort the men to refrain from violence," Papanikolas wrote. "The Greeks took off their caps to him in respect but became enraged when Utah Copper manager Gemmel steadfastly upheld Skliris."
Strikebreakers, some organized by Skliris, were brought in. The protest endured. On Oct. 31, 1912, Utah Copper increased daily wages by 25 cents. Unions went unrecognized, but Skliris resigned and the strike died.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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