On a winter day in 1907,
thousands of people lined the sidewalks of Goldfield, Nevada to watch 3,000
union members march in a labor parade. The crowds cheered as radical labor
leader Vincent St. John gave a speech denouncing the capitalist class. It
was a time when the unions controlled the town, ordering all mines, restaurants
and saloons closed for the great event.
many labor activists, Goldfield was the last union stronghold, the place where
the Industrial Workers of the World, the "One Big Union" would create a worker's
commonwealth. But mine owners were also watching that day, and they had their
own vision of what Goldfield would look like. In just a few months, only one
dream would remain alive.
In 1902 gold was discovered
in the hills near Tonopah, Nevada. Soon a few tents dotted the barren hills
among the Joshua trees, and the boomtown of Goldfield was born. In 1903 only
36 people lived in the new town. By 1908 Goldfield was Nevada's largest city,
with over 25,000 inhabitants. Along with the influx of miners and businessmen,
came the labor unions. The Western Federation of Miners, the Industrial Workers
of the World and the American Federation of Labor all vied for power in the
During the early years,
the unions were able to control wages and working hours. But in November,
1906, the Goldfield Consolidated Mines Company was incorporated by owners
George Wingfield and United States Senator George Nixon, signaling the beginning
of monopoly control in Goldfield, and the start of an adversarial relationship
between mine owners and the unions.
But the unions were also
consolidating. The relatively conservative WFM and the radical IWW joined
forces to create a new amalgamated union. The new alliance focused on unionizing
all workers in the town, not just miners. But internal dissent threatened
the new union. The more conservative members wanted to bargain within the
existing business system. The moderate members wanted to alter the political
and industrial system through the democratic process, while the most radical
members wanted to dismantle the system and create a new world order. Heated
debates often arose between workers. The enormity of the rift became apparent
one night as shots rang out in the streets of Goldfield. Vincent St. John
and "Paddy" Mullaney had been arguing heatedly. Mullaney, a conservative miner,
had little regard for St. John's radical I.W.W. ideology. Mullaney drew his
gun and shot St. John three times in the arm, crippling him for life.
More important, however,
were the external factors threatening the survival of the radical union. A
financial panic hit the country in the fall of 1907. Bank failures led to
the Consolidated Mines Company's decision to pay the miners in scrip, without
any guarantees of future monetary redemption. The miners decided to strike.
Production was at a standstill. The siege began with the mine owners bent
upon total eradication of the WFM and IWW. Supporting their efforts were most
businessmen, American Federation of Labor unions, and the newspapers. The
townspeople sympathetic to the miner's union deterred by hard times and the
closing of the mines, were reluctant to openly support the strike.
The mine owners wasted
little time. They sent a coded telegram to Governor Sparks. Sparks then wired
President Roosevelt saying that "domestic violence and unlawful combinations
and conspiracies" existed in Goldfield. Roosevelt immediately sent three companies
of Infantry, catching the miners by surprise. With the military in place,
mine operators then reduced wages and established a card system, illegal by
Nevada law, requiring workers to swear that they were not union members. Union
miners refused to go back to work. George Wingfield and other operators retaliated
by recruiting "scab" labor from surrounding states. The tactic proved successful
during the Depression, and the WFM/IWW local was devastated.
Later, an investigating
committee would find that the troops were called in without warrant. But the
damage had been done. The dreams of a town where all workers would be part
of one big union were shattered. Union control in Goldfield had been broken.
St. John and other leaders left town. But the IWW was not completely dead.
Many members went underground, and waited for the day when they could reestablish
a foothold in the town of Goldfield.