Mining Rights and Wrongs

The "Trial of the Century" took place in 1907 when the State of Idaho charged Big Bill Haywood, president of the Western Federation of Miners, with ordering the murder of former Gov. Frank Stuenenberg. Before the investigation and trial were over, Americans of every occupation became passionately involved on one side or the other. Newspapers from coast to coast ran lurid accounts as events evolved in Boise and in Caldwell, the scene of the crime.J. Anthony Lukas, regrettably now dead from suicide, wrote a great book about the trial, Big Trouble. In it, he took the pulse of American workers a century ago. He could have detected a similar heart beat had he written about workers in 1997.One hundred years ago, fear and anger stalked the land. The captains of industry were afraid the Reds were taking over, and the working people believed the big monopolies were eating them alive. Tough companies produced militant workers. The more heated the conflict, the more likely state or federal governments were to call out troops to put down strikes, to impose martial law and to ignore constitutional rights.Hostility was in the air, and it was class hostility-workers versus capitalists. Railroad workers had shut down all major rail traffic in 1877, protesting repeated reductions in wages. In Pittsburgh, strikers began burning railroad cars. Pittsburgh's militia refused to fire on its neighbors, and the governor called out the Philadelphia militia. Martial law and mass arrests followed, of writs of habeas corpus were denied and the strike was finally broken.Two years earlier, the Molly McGuires in the anthracite coal towns of Pennsylvania and West Virginia had waged a war of terrorism against the mine owners. Ten Mollies were hanged in 1875 after Pinkerton detective James McFarland wormed his way into the Mollies' confidence and then delivered fatal evidence in their trials. McFarland became famous internationally-known as the "devil incarnate" to miners everywhere. He was to play a centerpiece role in the Idaho murder trial of Big Bill Haywood.In 1892, steelworkers in Pittsburgh, striking Carnegie Steel at the giant Homestead Works, had engaged in a shoot-out with a Pinkerton team sent to protect scabs. Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who had recognized the union, was taking an extended vacation at his castle in Scotland. He turned Henry Clay Frick, Carnegie's general manager and a coal baron himself, loose on the unionists at Homestead. Frick forced a strike about union recognition and wage cuts. Again, the militia moved in to rescue the company and to break the strike. The steel workers did not reorganize for 40 years.In the West, ore miners were up in arms (literally). Big Bill Haywood's Western Federation of Miners was under siege in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho. By 1899, most mines were organized, but Bunker Hill, one of the largest, was a stubborn hold out. In April 1899, 1,000 irate miners commandeered a train, loaded it with explosives, ran it into company property and blew up key facilities.Idaho Gov. Frank Stuenenberg called for federal troops to quell the rebellion. President McKinley sent in the US Army's 24th Regiment to round up strikers, dissidents and suspicious strangers.The 24th was a regiment of black soldiers commanded by white officers. The 24th had won high distinction in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, but black soldiers were not welcomed on the mainland. Miners accused McKinley of deliberately fomenting racial tension by sending the 24th to Coeur D'Alene.One snowy December night before Christmas 1905, somebody rigged a bomb at the front gate of former governor Stuenenberg's home. He had walked through the snow from downtown Caldwell. When he opened the gate, the bomb threw him 10 feet. He died a few minutes later after neighbors and family members had carried him inside. His murder set off one of the most class-driven controversies in US history.Friends of the assassinated former governor included everybody of political substance in Idaho and the surrounding states. In Caldwell, city officials immediately blamed the miners' union, labeling the murder revenge, precipitated by Stuenenberg's call six years earlier for US troops to put down the miners in Coeur D'Alene.Immediately after the governor's death, a posse formed to block all roads and to question all strangers in town that night. Several suspects were taken into custody and later released. One stranger, miner Harry Orchard, staying in the city's best hotel, became the chief suspect and was jailed.Orchard, known in the mining region by several names, denied any complicity in the murder, and there was no concrete evidence implicating him.Ore miners of the West were a hard-bitten lot. Most had come west seeking their fortunes in gold and silver rushes but ended up drifting from mine to mine, often under assumed names. They developed experience using a relatively new explosive, dynamite. They used their rifles and pistols to settle disputes. They drank hard liquor, gambled in the camps and mining towns, and supported a robust prostitution business. Mine owners, often absentee owners, relinquished management of the mines to equally tough characters.Soon after Orchard landed in the Caldwell jail, detective James McFarland came to visit him. They talked privately for several days. McFarland spelled out his version of the murder. Bill Haywood, he said, and his fellow union executives had directed Orchard to blow up the governor. He explained that a hostile jury would hang anybody the state brought to trial. He told Orchard a confession would save his life, that he probably would get off lightly since the real criminal was Haywood. Orchard confessed. McFarland in effect dictated the confession.Haywood was headquartered in Denver. McFarland had to get Haywood and two colleagues to Boise, Idaho, some 700 miles away. The Pinkerton detective was afraid news of Haywood's arrest and extradition would lead to a full blown rebellion of WFM miners, so he went to the governor of Colorado with a plan. He would kidnap the WFM officials and transport them in a sealed train to Boise. Go for it, the governor said.The kidnapping was successful, and Haywood spent the next 18 months in jail awaiting trial. The area was crawling with private detectives, some hired by the mine owners, some by the railroad, some by the state. Clarence Darrow hired his own detectives to spy on the prosecution. In one of the many surprises of the trial, Darrow called a witness who had worked for the Pinkertons for several years. He told about the spies, how they worked in all major industries to root out union members, how they went about breaking strikes, and how they worked closely with corporation heads to rig the law in state legislatures and the US Congress itself. It was sensational testimony that fired up the mining communities. Telegraph wires were humming.Eugene Debs, a socialist who had founded the American Railroad Union, spoke and published widely in support of Haywood and WFM. Debs preached a single sermon: the means of production belongs in the hands of the working people, not corporate monopolies. Debs would later run for US president several times, once gathering more than 900,000 votes while locked up in federal prison for sedition.Haywood's trial, dragging on for weeks, drew close attention nationally and in Europe. Darrow, famous for trial strategies and courtroom performance, led the defense. The prosecution, headed by US Sen. William Borah, had the public support of President Theodore Roosevelt.In Boise, the jury's verdict came as an icy shock to Idaho power brokers and the Pinkertons. The union men were vindicated. Afterward, Haywood went on to help establish the Industrial Workers of the World and to lead a successful strike in the textile industry in Lawrence, Mass. The IWW eventually faded out after losing several subsequent strikes. Haywood was tried and convicted of sedition for opposing American participation in World War I. He was sentenced to 20 years, appealed and was released pending a new trial. He jumped bail in 1921 and fled to Russia, where he died in 1928. His name still echoes in the legends of the West, the big, tough guy who used a two-by-four to gavel to order the first IWW convention in Chicago.Did he order the murder of Frank Stuenenberg? Scholars say no. He was no killer; powerful speaker, yes; careless speaker, yes. Strong speech can stir strong emotions-and if misdirected, they can stir unintended action.Lukas wrote a great book, full of minute details of an epoch that changed America. The Sherman and Clayton Anti-Trust Acts helped for awhile, although unions were singled out as restraints to trade in several cases. Deb's socialist message changed the perception of the big corporate giants. Troops put down the strikers only to find other militant groups demanding the right to bargain about wages and working conditions.The labor struggles of 1900 contributed to favorable labor legislation and led to the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. But the fundamental nature of labor's predicament has changed little since 1900. Corporations are bigger than ever today, and they still encourage low-wage immigrants to work at subsistence wages.Multinationals straddle the planet, searching out the lowest possible labor costs. They gladly take advantage of child and prison labor overseas. They work closely with foreign governments in Latin America and Asia to keep workers from building effective unions. Their representatives sit in the parliaments, legislatures and city governments to fix the rules to suit the corporations. The state militias are still as close as the telephone.In 1898, working people were fed up with low wages, poor working conditions and hostile governments, both state and federal. In 1998, similar anger builds as working people struggle again with inadequate pay and insecure jobs. Today, as then, there is an equally obscene contrast in family income between the top and the bottom percentiles.In 1897, the WFM was under fire in the mining states of the West. Mine operators joined ranks to try to destroy the union. They had the help of state and federal officials. Now in 1998, the Teamsters union is under attack after winning a key strike for part-time workers. Growing public sentiment is on the side of organized labor now that the loss of union authority has become evident again.


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