Frank Little Tour: Butte Miners Union Hall
The BMU was an effective advocate for Butte miners in the late 1800s
The union hall, built in 1885, was blown up in 1914 during violence among competing union factions.
Along with the “Richest Hill on Earth,” Butte also garnered the label of the “Gibraltar of Unionism.” Butte was indeed a fortress of solidarity. But as it turned out, that fortress could be blown up, just as much as the hard granite encasing Butte’s rich copper deposits.
In the late 1800s, Butte was a preeminent pro-labor town. The Butte Miners Union (BMU) was one of the largest local unions in the United States. The union’s first meeting hall, built here in 1881, collapsed. But by 1885, the union had raised funds to construct another building. This new, two-story, brick building stood strong for decades, right alongside the BMU.
The BMU’s strength, coupled with warring Copper Kings, gave miners a strong hand in late-nineteenth century Butte. Mine owners didn’t question the BMU’s legitimacy, and the union secured high wages for its miners.
Miners elsewhere in the West were not so lucky, and they turned to the BMU for help. In 1893, after a series of violent strikes in the Idaho silver mines, miners across the West met in Butte at the Miners Union Hall to create the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), an organization that could coordinate strike support across the West. The BMU became Local #1 of the WFM.
In the early 1900s, striking miners faced intense violence from state authorities and mining companies’ hired guns. This violence prompted some WFM organizers to create an even broader federation of workers in 1905: the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Unlike other labor federations, the IWW sought to organize all workers, regardless of occupation, skill level, race, gender, or nationality. Moreover, the ultimate goal of the IWW was the abolition of capitalism. It was a radical vision that attracted committed, but idealistic, activists like Frank Little, who at the time was a WFM organizer working in Arizona.
Meanwhile in Butte, the Anaconda Company had consolidated mine ownership, thereby undermining the BMU’s power. Some miners found hope in the emerging radicalism of the IWW. But the BMU’s leadership was more conservative. In 1912, the Company instituted the “rustling card” system that allowed the Company to blacklist radical mine workers. BMU’s leadership capitulated. Internal strife grew in the union, reaching a breaking point two years later.
On June 13, 1914, radical and dissatisfied BMU members attacked union leaders during the Miners Union Day parade. A riot of competing union factions broke out. Ten days later, an angry crowd gathered outside the Miners Union Hall where the BMU leadership was meeting. Anger led to violence. Two men were shot and killed. Later that night a dynamite blast ripped through the hall, reducing the walls to rubble.
After more clashes and bombings in the summer, the governor declared martial law and sent in the National Guard. With the BMU and its meeting hall in ruins, the Anaconda Company announced it would no longer recognize a miners’ union. The once mighty BMU had fallen.