In June of 1917, 168 workers died in the Speculator mine disaster in Butte, Montana—many from asphyxiation. That July, legendary Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union organizer Frank Little arrived in Butte to help organize a recognized union and lead a strike against the owner of the mine, Anaconda Copper Company. A month later, Little was found lynched above Butte’s train tracks with a note on his chest that said, “First and last warning.”
Little was buried later that month in Butte in a ceremony attended by more than 2,000 copper miners. His tombstone read, “Slain by Capitalist Interests for Organizing and Inspiring His Fellow Men.”
Over the years Little's tombstone fell into disrepair—until 2008, when Mike Boysza, then a member of the now-defunct of Butte Area Carpenters Local 112, and a number of local union activists decided to repair the tomb site. They wanted to create a permanent reminder for all trade unionists of the tough fights of the past.
“I think it is important to know where your struggles came from,” says Boysza. “The reason you get the wages you get, the reason you get the benefits you get, is because somebody else struggled.”
Such struggles are familiar in Butte. Since Little’s time, unions in the area have fought, sometimes through bloody means, for the right to organize and receive fair wages. In 1914, miners blew up the Western Federation of Miners union hall in Butte’s business district because they felt the union was working too closely with the Anaconda Copper Company. About 50 years later, according to Boysza, union construction workers reacted to the proposed building of a non-union hotel in the city by setting fire to the footing for the half-built structure.
“That is the kind of thing that you have to do to say ‘No, quit fucking with us,' ” Boysza explains. “We had a Super 8 that was coming to Butte and they had all the material and the ditches dug. [Union activists] pushed what they could into the ditch for the footing and burnt it all. This was in the 1970s. We didn’t get a Super 8 here [for] almost 20 years—and when they built a Super 8, it was built union.”
In fact, while Montana is not thought of as a union hotbed by most outsiders, until recently, almost all of the commercial construction in the city was done by union workers—a distinction that even major union towns like New York City can no longer claim.
In the last few years, however, the organizing power exemplified by Butte’s history has been slipping for local unions. Butte's Continental Pit mine, which closed in 2000 after transferring ownership from the Anaconda Copper Company to Montana Resources, reopened in 2004, but this time without its workers being represented by their previous union, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Outside competition and fractured leadership have also begun to threaten the rights of local construction workers like Boysza. According to Boysza, under their old contract, wages for carpenters in Butte typically started $22.50 an hour. Then, after the regional council of his union forced his local to merge with a statewide union of all Montana carpenters, the council changed the union contract last year to be consistent with the entire state’s. Boysza says this reduced the starting wages of Butte carpenters by more than four dollars.
That move didn’t make any sense to Boysza. “They said they lowered the wages so we could be competitive with the non-union [carpenters], but there are no union carpenters here that are out of work,” he says. “I thought it was unnecessary."
And at a time when carpenters in Butte are being forced to take wage cuts, instead of placing resources and decision-making power into the hands of the local rank-and-file workers, the regional union has instead made the union and its voting process less accessible to Butte carpenters. Rank-and-file Butte carpenters can no longer make decisions about the day-to-day functioning of their union at their old hall in Butte; instead, they have to make the two-hour drive to Great Falls.
“They have informational meetings here now,” Boysza explains, referring to the historic Carpenters’ Union Hall built in 1906. Boysza’s local union was forced to go to court earlier this year to prevent the regional council, the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters, from selling the building and forcing several local unions into the street. “But if you want to go to a union meeting you have to go to Great Falls ... It’s 160 miles away!”
Boysza’s sentiment echoes those of other workers who have come together on the Summer of Solidarity tour, which aims to connect union members across America. They, like Boysza, claim that labor leaders who run unions at the regional and national levels have lost touch with local unions and their history. Boysza says that in giving concessions so easily and losing touch with instigating rank-and-file militancy, leaders have forgotten the efforts and legacy of union organizers like Frank Little.
“It’s these guys from Washington. They don’t have a clue what the labor strife was to get to where we are at today,” says Boysza as we drive near the railroad tracks where Little was dragged behind a car shortly before he was hanged.
Meanwhile, as Boysza’s union wrestles among its own ranks, more non-union construction projects have begun to creep into the Butte area. Thirty years after union workers reportedly set fire to a half-built Super 8 to protest its construction, the first non-union hotel in the city has opened its doors. This time, it's a Holiday Inn Express.
“They just opened it up a month ago,” says Boysza. He laughs. “When it was just a wood-framed structure, they should have burnt the fucker to the ground.”
This is the fifth in a series by In These Times staff writer Mike Elk, who is traveling for two weeks with the Summer of Solidarity tour. To help In These Times cover his travel expenses and to send more reporters to cover grassroots activism around the country, donate here.