Western Federation of Miners /
International Union of Mine, Mill & Smelter Workers Archive
In 1893, Western Federation of Miners (WFM), organized the hard rock miners of the Rocky Mountain states into a labor union deemed radical by most mine owners and investors. The WFM gained a reputation for violent strikes and militant action from the outset. Armed conflict frequently characterized WFM strikes, as the miners were often arrayed against armed company guards and Pinkertons. State militia and federal troops were sometimes called up to keep order in strike areas, such as Telluride and Leadville, Colo., and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. When Frank Steunenberg, a former governor of Idaho, was murdered in 1905, the State of Idaho sought to charge the WFM. Charles Moyer, president of the union, William D. Haywood, secretary, and George Pettibone, a former member, were arrested and stood trial for Steunenberg's murder; defended by legendary attorney, Clarence Darrow. The defendants were acquitted. The WFM had joined the American Federation of Labor in 1896, but the AFL’s conservatism led the WFM to pull out in 1897. In 1898, the WFM tried and failed to organize a rival Western Labor Union. In 1901 the WFM adopted a socialist program, and joined in the formation of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1905. Factionalism within the IWW led to the WFM’s defection to the AFL (1911). The failure of a number of strikes, its reputation for violence and radicalism and economic depression hurt the union. Declining in membership and power, the WFM changed its name in 1916 to the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (IUMMSW).1
In the anti-labor climate of the 1920s, the IUMMSW stayed a shell of its former organization. Like other industrial unions, its leadership seized upon the promise of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to reclaim its position and rights in the western mines. Following a long strike in Butte and Anaconda, Montana (1934), the IUMMSW was not only revived as a labor union, but also joined the New Deal coalition of labor leaders, social reformers, and other activists. Internal factionalism persisted under the presidency of Reid Robinson, who was committed to renewing the union's aggressive organizing and bargaining strategy. Robinson controversially appointed accused Communist Party members to international IUMMSW offices, such as Maurice Travis and Clinton Jencks. Anticommunist IUMMSW members forced Robinson's resignation in 1947, but were infuriated when Travis succeeded Robinson as IUMMSW president. While Travis formally broke with the Communist Party to meet the Taft-Hartley Act's prohibition against communist party membership in labor unions, the union’s former communist affiliations drew the attention of the McCarthy-era investigations.
While the IUMMSW was a founding member of the CIO in 1935, the union was one of eleven expelled from the CIO in a purge of communist elements. The IUMMSW also faced renewed charges of communist influence with the 1954 movie Salt of the Earth, based on a strike against Empire Zinc by IUMMSW Local 890 in Hanover, New Mexico. As its producer, director, screenwriter, and lead actor already on a movie industry blacklist for their progressive activities, the film appeared to justify the accusations of communist influence in the IUMMSW during its release.2
Despite the gaudy charges of communism and radicalism and the frequently implacable resistance of mining corporations, the IUMMSW was often very successful in gaining higher wages, improved health care, greater job security, and medical support for its rank and file during the postwar expansion of American mining and industry. From 1916 to the 1960s, the union expanded from its western origins throughout the country and into Canada to dominate labor representation in mining, milling and smelting. By the 1950s and 1960s, the Mine Mill had done much to replace the old paternalistic company town mentality with a corporate acceptance of labor-management bargaining and a recognition of its mutual benefits.3
During the 1950s, the IUMMSW also faced continuous threats from the United Steel Workers of America (USWA), which used anticommunist and racist rhetoric in its “raids” of Mine Mill locals. While holding onto 37,000 members in 300 local unions, the IUMMSW eventually merged with the USWA on 30 June 1967. 13,000 more workers from Canadian Mine Mill locals joined the merger the following day.
Clinton Jencks, El Palomino of Local 890, a life-long civil rights activist, and Mine-Mill officer, was a graduate of the University of Colorado in 1939. When the International Headquarters of IUMMSW in Denver, Colorado, closed its doors in 1967, Jencks saw to it that the huge 900 linear foot collection of Mine Mill files was donated to the University of Colorado. This collection remains the cornerstone of the Archives’ sizable labor collections. While the WFM makes up only about 147 linear feet of the total holding (16%), its bound volumes, legal files, Miner’s Magazine, and select local materials have long been the focus of a most dissertations, scholarly articles and books written on the Mine Mill archive. More recently, however, the IUMMSW portion has begun to attract researchers seeking sources on labor during the McCarthy Period, on Canadian locals, on mine safety and health, on the Salt of the Earth film, and on the volatile Bayard, Silver City, Hurley and Santa Rita Mine Mill locals in New Mexico.4