Miners' Unions: A Comstock Case Study

Conflict between western hardrock miners and management has its roots in the Comstock. In May 1863, Comstock miners initiated efforts to form an association. The following year, the Storey County Miners' League became the first sustained attempt at unionization of miners in the American West. Organized during a local depression, the League called for a $4 minimum daily wage for underground work and demanded "closed shops," insisting companies hire only union members. Mine owners crushed the incipient movement on the Comstock by blacklisting union members and relying on territorial governor James Nye to use military force. According to historian Guy Rocha, the incident established a "heritage of conflict" that defined relations between management and hardrock workers for decades throughout the West.

The experiment inspired union advocates to change the situation as they reorganized and founded new unions throughout the Comstock in the mid to late 1860s. It is no coincidence that 1864 saw the formation of Irish militias, filled with pro-union miners. By controlling fire departments, pro-union volunteers could threaten to ignore burning structures owned by mines that opposed union demands. In addition, electing union members or pro-union candidates to office, particularly those related to law enforcement, would nullify future efforts to quash a miners' union. As Rocha points out, "beginning in 1868, and for more than a decade, the Storey County sheriff was either a president or past president of the Gold Hill or Virginia City miner's union." The union dominated other offices as well as the local militias. Among those who rose to prominence in this way was Irish immigrant William Woodburn, who became Storey County district attorney in 1870 and was subsequently elected to several terms in Congress.

After the initial experiment, Comstock miners organized so effectively that they were able to dictate terms without resorting to violence or strikes. A strike would stop pumps and result in flooding in the mines. Without the ability to call on militias or law enforcement, mine owners had little alternative to acceding to labor's demands. The union achieved its goal of a guaranteed $4 minimum for an underground, eight-hour shift, making Comstock miners some of the best paid industrial workers in the world. Fearing wages would be undercut, organized labor also reaffirmed an 1859 declaration prohibiting Chinese from underground work.

Many later historians looked at the Comstock's labor history, and seeing a lack of strikes or violence, concluded that the 1860s and 1870s represented a golden age of labor-management relations. They maintained labor could act civilly, without resorting to the violence that occurred in turn-of-the-century Goldfield, Nevada, Cripple Creek, Colorado, and other places. On the contrary, the Comstock labor movement initially faced military suppression. Miners reacted to the threat of armed opposition with a carefully crafted approach that seized control of the situation. If there was less violence on the Comstock, it was because the union was so effective.

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