Idaho’s conservatism is rivaled only by Deep South states. But like Alabama or Mississippi, Idaho also has a history of spirited political organization and demonstration by and for those in its lowest classes. In fact, Idaho miners not only put the state’s labor movement on the map, but played a key role in the nation’s labor movement 130 years ago.
The story starts in the Coeur d’Alene mining district in Shoshone County. To this day, three mines there export more silver than all the other mines in the U.S., combined.
When companies began moving into the area in 1885, they employed miners by the thousands, and cheaply. Working underground, miners and car drivers (“car men”) made $3.50 in a 10- hour day — equal to about $11.70 an hour in 2023. When an economic depression began in the early 1890s, wages were the first thing to go.
The miners’ primary bartering power was in their union, and they began a strike in the spring of 1892. Breaking with recent tradition, all mine workers struck together rather than dividing workers into “skilled” union members and “unskilled labor,” nonunion workers.
The strike also marked an important development for Irish Americans, who played key roles as union leaders during the push for labor rights in Idaho and across the western U.S.
Off of I-90 near Wallace, Hecla Mine was one of four mines with workers that created the Coeur d'Alene Miners' Union. (Mindat.org)
Amid the depression, the strike escalated. The Coeur d’Alene Miners’ Union, consisting of unions from four mines, openly intimidated “scabs,” or nonunion workers that mine owners brought in.
The Idaho miners’ efforts were in tandem with one of the most notorious strike busting maneuvers of American history, with one of the biggest names in business. In early July 1892, Andrew Carnegie’s public pro-labor reputation was ruined when he ordered armed Pinkertons to break a steelworker’s strike in Pennsylvania.
Days later, Coeur d’Alene union miners discovered that their union secretary was an undercover Pinkerton, and blew up a mill with dynamite, and killed several nonunion men in a brief battle. With limited violence, workers took over the four area mines for six days.
On July 12, mine owners sent away their nonunion workers, but won the assistance of Idaho Gov. Norman Willey, who declared martial law in Shoshone County and sent federal troops to the mines, with the support of President William Henry Harrison.
The troops succeeded in suppressing union activity, and arrested 600 miners, all of whom were eventually released without charges.
Some of those miners went on to hold legislative offices in Idaho, and several contributed to the organization of one of the most important and forceful labor unions in U.S. history: The Western Federation of Miners in Butte, Montana, which led the labor movement for decades.