It all began in 1894. Cripple Creek had become a boomtown after gold was discovered. Some 150 mines sprang up. So did a strong miners union—the Free Coinage Union No. 19, which was part of the militant Western Federation of Miners (WFM).
Workers started pouring in from around the country desperate for jobs, and soon Cripple Creek had a huge labor surplus. That's when the mine owners pounced. In January 1894, they proclaimed that the working day would increase from eight hours to nine and 10—with no increase in pay. However, the owners did offer an alternative. Workers could keep the eight-hour day for a reduction of 50 cents in their daily pay.
The WFM members opposed both plans. Miners went on strike, set up roving picket lines and closed most of the mines. They showed what solidarity is all about. The miners who were still going down in the working mines assessed themselves 10% of their wages to support the strikers, and the union set up soup kitchens.
There had been plenty of labor battles in the West, but this one differed in several ways. The mine owners failed to get the military or police force they demanded to suppress the strikers. The Populist governor of Colorado, David Waite, was no help to the bosses. They did have County Sheriff Frank Bowers under their thumb, but when he sent a team of six deputies to defend a mine, they were captured by the local marshal's "special police," who were on the side of the strikers.
The mine owners were furious. They secretly organized and paid for a small army to protect strikebreakers and put Sheriff Bowers in charge. When the first group of deputized gunmen under Bowers' control arrived by train, they were greeted by a dynamite explosion at a nearby mine. They climbed back on the train and backed away.
A small war was beginning with shootings and dynamite explosions on both sides. Then, Waite intervened as a benevolent neutral. He sent the state militia to calm things down. Just as important, he sat down with labor and management and helped negotiate an eight-hour day and a $3 daily wage.
As labor historian Sidney Lens writes, the outcome was "a stunning victory for the Western Federation of Miners."
Another great battle at Cripple Creek that had a more tragic ending. When miners went out on a sympathy strike for striking miners at the Standard reduction mill in nearby Colorado City, the employers retaliated. This time, they had a powerful tool in their arsenal lacked previously: a viciously anti-union governor, Jim Peabody. He sent in hundreds of troops under Gen. Sherman Bell, who arrested union leaders and activists, city and county officials, and staffers of a newspaper that published an editorial he didn't like—all without legal warrants or any charges other than "military necessity."
The Mine Owners' Association was at least as ruthless. The owners blacklisted pro-union miners, and a mine explosion was blamed on the union despite evidence of the mine owners' guilt. The anti-union tactics worked. The strike was broken and the WFM in Cripple Creek was crushed. It was years before the miners could—and did—organize openly and win their rights.
Lens, Sidney, The Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sit Downs. Haymarket Books, 2008. Blevins, Tim, Nicholl, Chris, and Otto, Calvin P., (editors), The Colorado Labor Wars: Cripple Creek, 1903-1904. Pikes Peak Library District, 2006. Feitz, Leland, A Quick History of Victor, Colorado's City of Mines. Little London Press, 1969. Jameson, Elizabeth, All That Glitters: Class, Conflict and Community in Cripple Creek. University of Illinois Press, 1998. Chris Garlock, Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO.