May 2011

Historical Metallurgy

Social problems in the mining industry—a historical essay (Part 3)

By Fathi Habashi, Laval University, Quebec City


Confrontation in South Wales

Ashio miners’ riot in Japan (1907)

In the 1890s, the Ashio Copper Mine was releasing caustic effluents into the Watarase and Tone rivers, thus destroying large portions of the Kanto Plain. With the livelihood and health of thousands of farmers at stake, the case quickly became a problem for Meiji social reformers. A decade later, in 1907, the Ashio miners erupted and went on a three-day riot, an unprecedented event in Japanese labour history.

Iquique Massacre in Chile (1907)

In the early 1900s, the nitrate mining companies in Chile exercised extreme control over their employees. Workers repeatedly petitioned the government to bring about improvements in their living and working conditions; however, their reluctance to intervene brought about massive demonstrations. On December 10, 1907, a general strike broke out in the Tarapacá Province. Thousands of striking miners travelled to Iquique and set up camp at the at the Domingo Santa María School. On December 16, thousands of striking workers from other industries arrived in support of the nitrate miners. On December 21, acting on the instructions received from the Minister of the Interior, the army commander informed strike leaders that the strikers had one hour to disband or be fired upon. But the strikers stood firm. An order was given and the Chilean army opened fire on the strikers and their accompanying families. The death toll resulting from the massacre is estimated at more than 2,000. The government ordered that the dead be buried in a mass grave in the city cemetery. The ensuing reign of terror paralyzed the workers’ movement, and for more than a decade, any knowledge of the incident was suppressed by the government.

The nitrate miners’ strike was one of a series of strikes and other forms of unrest that took place at the beginning of the 20th century, chief among them being the strike in Valparaíso in 1903 and the meat riots in Santiago in 1905. In Chile, the workers’ movement in general, and syndicalism in particular, started with the nitrate miners. However, it was only in 1920 that minimum labour standards, such as setting the maximum length of the work day, started to be enacted. In 2007, the Chilean government commemorated the centennial anniversary of the Iquique Massacre by establishing a national day of mourning.

Tonypandy riots in South Wales (1910-1911)

The Tonypandy riots of 1910 and 1911 were a series of violent confrontations between coal miners and police that took place at various locations in and around the mines in South Wales. Conflict arose when the Naval Colliery Company opened a new coal seam at the Ely Pit in Penygraig and the owners began claiming that the miners were deliberately working slowly. The miners, however, argued that the new seam was difficult to work and because they were paid according to tonnage of coal removed (as opposed to hourly), working at a slower pace would be to their disadvantage. The miners went on strike, but in August 1910, the company posted a lock-out notice at the mine.

Riots ensued and on the evening of November 8, 1910, strikers smashed windows of mining officials and those of the shops in the town. The owners then called in replacement workers. The miners responded by picketing the work site and were soon joined by thousands of others who had succeeded in shutting down all the local pits, except for one – Llwynypia Colliery. Military support from then British Home Secretary Winston Churchill was requested and troops were sent in to control the situation. In the end, nearly 80 policemen and more than 500 others were injured; only one miner died as a result of his injuries.

Ludlow Massacre in Colorado (1913)

Coffins are marched through Trinidad, Colorado, at the funeral for victims of the Ludlow massacre

One of the bloodiest labour conflicts in Colorado’s history was the massacre at Ludlow, located 19 kilometres northwest of Trinidad. While relations between coal miners and mining corporations in the state had been poor for more than a decade, it was the refusal of John D. Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel and Iron Company and several smaller mine operators to recognize the union that spurred more than 8,000 miners to strike in September 1913. They demanded union recognition, a 10 per cent wage increase and enforcement of the eight-hour day.

Evicted from company-owned housing, the striking miners, comprised mostly of Slavic, Greek and Italian immigrants, formed their own tent colony. Over the next several months, sporadic violent confrontations between miners and the state militia marred the coalfields. Despite federal mediation efforts, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. refused to concede.

On April 20, 1914, a day-long gun battle broke out between the state militia and miners, culminating in an attack on the tent colony that took the lives of 10 male strikers, two women and 12 children. Over the next several days, miners retaliated by setting fire to mine buildings. By the end of the month, U.S. president Woodrow Wilson ordered federal troops to Ludlow. After more than six months of unsuccessful mediation, miners called off the strike.

In response to the Ludlow massacre, leaders of organized labour in Colorado issued a call to arms, urging union members to acquire all the arms and ammunition legally available; a large-scale, 10-day guerrilla war ensued. Still reeling from the murder of their women and children, between 700 and 1,000 enraged and grief-stricken strikers attacked mine after mine, driving off or killing the guards and setting fire to buildings. Hundreds of militia reinforcements rushed back into the strike zone. The fighting ended only when Wilson sent in federal troops. At least 50 people, including those at Ludlow, were killed during those ten days.

The union finally ran out of money and called off the strike on December 10, 1914. In the end, the strikers failed to have their demands met, the union did not obtain recognition, many striking workers were replaced by new workers, and 332 strikers were indicted for murder.

The strike had a lasting impact both on conditions at the Colorado mines and on labour relations nationally. Rockefeller hired labour relations’ experts to develop reforms for the mines and towns, which included paved roads and recreational facilities, as well as worker representation on committees dealing with working conditions, safety, health and recreation. From that point forward, there was to be no discrimination of workers who had belonged to unions or prohibiting the establishment of a company union. The Rockefeller Plan was accepted by the miners in a vote.

Today, Ludlow is a ghost town. The site where the massacre occurred is owned by the United Mine Workers who erected a granite monument in memory of the striking miners and their families who died on April 20, 1914.

Minnesota’s Iron Range strike (1916)

In 1907, a large uprising in the struggle for workers’ rights and fair wages was crushed with the help of strikebreakers; but by 1916, Minnesota mine workers were poised to confront the steel trust once again. Almost 10,000 mine workers went on strike. U.S. steel companies on the Iron Range deputized 1,000 special mine guards and strikebreakers to keep the picket lines open. Bloodshed soon followed. In the town of Virginia, where the strike was headquartered, armed company thugs confronted a group of picketers and opened fire, killing one miner. Several thousand mourning workers marched from Virginia to the fairgrounds in Hibbing where encomiasts urged the strikers to maintain the struggle and fight back in spite of company repression.

The mining companies refused to recognize any of the strikers’ demands. After futile negotiations between U.S. steel companies and local businessmen and public officials in support of the strikers, the workers looked to the federal government. Mediation efforts broke down and, with winter fast approaching, the miners voted to end their strike on September 17, 1916. Although heralded as a defeat, the workers’ bold confrontation struck fear in company owners who, by mid-October, granted a few of the strikers’ primary demands.

The deportation from Bisbee, Arizona (1917)

Conditions in the Arizona copper mines owned by Phelps Dodge Corporation were difficult, and mine safety, wages and living conditions at the camp were poor. During the winter of 1915-16, a successful four-month strike in the Clifton-Morenci district led to widespread discontent and unionization among miners in the state. In May 1917, the miners presented a list of demands to Phelps Dodge that included an end to blasting while men were in the mine and to discriminating against union members. The company refused and a strike was scheduled to begin on June 26, 1917. When the strike occurred, not only did the miners at Phelps Dodge walk off the site, they were joined by workers from other mines – more than 3,000 of them in total.

The president of Phelps Dodge at the time was Walter S. Douglas, son of James Douglas, the developer of the Copper Queen Mine. Walter Douglas, also president of the American Mining Congress, an employer association, had won office by vowing to break every union in every mine. He ordered his Phelps Dodge mine superintendents to remove the miners from the town. More than 100 men were kidnapped and held in the county jail. Later that day, 67 of them were deported by train to California.

On July 11, 1917, the town’s sheriff met with Phelps Dodge executives to plan the deportation of 2,200 men from Bisbee and the nearby town of Douglas. The next day, deputies arrested every man on their list, as well as any man who refused to work in the mines, forcing them at gunpoint to board train wagons. The miners were housed in tents until September 17, 1917, when a handful returned to Bisbee. In October 1917, U.S. president Wilson appointed a commission headed by the Secretary of Labor to investigate labour disputes. In its final report, the commission denounced the deportation. On May 15, 1918, the U.S. Department of Justice ordered the arrest of 21 Phelps Dodge executives, Calumet and Arizona Company executives, and several Bisbee and Cochise County elected leaders and law enforcement officers. Among those arrested was Walter Douglas. Since it was claimed that no federal laws had been violated and that protecting citizens’ right to movement was a state function, some workers filed civil suits; however, the first jury felt that the deportations had been good public policy and refused to grant relief.

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