Jeannette Rankin’s Fight to Make Mines Safe for Democracy

The city of Butte, Montana, sustained itself on the copper industry, and essentially operated as a company town./tiles/non-collection/9/9-ButteMine1-3c18151u.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress The city of Butte, Montana, sustained itself on the copper industry, and essentially operated as a company town.
On August 18, 1917, 15,000 people packed into a baseball park in the mining town of Butte, Montana, to listen as Representative Jeannette Rankin assailed the Anaconda Copper Mining Company for its role in an ongoing labor dispute. Two months earlier, on June 8, an inferno had engulfed the nearby Speculator Mine, one of Anaconda Copper’s largest operations in the region. In all, 168 miners died. In the aftermath, the surviving miners went on strike, and Rankin traveled to her home state to offer her full-throated support for the walk out. “There is no question here about the stand of America’s first Congresswoman on Butte’s labor problems,” the Washington Times reported. “Miss Jeannette Rankin is a friend of the striking miners.”

Rankin harshly criticized the Anaconda Company and its owner, John D. Ryan, while persistently defending the copper miners’ right to protest and the need for improved safety in their dangerous, chaotic workplace hundreds of feet below ground. Rankin’s speech in Butte came only 11 days after her first address on the floor of the United States House of Representatives during which she denounced the mining company, called for better working conditions, and implored the federal government to seize control of the mines to end this seemingly intractable conflict.

In just over four months in office, Rankin had become a national—and international—sensation. In April, her vote against the U.S. declaration of war on Germany made headlines around the world. She was a symbol of the woman suffrage movement in the United States. And in July, she led a successful campaign for reduced hours and better working conditions for federal employees in Washington, DC.

The strike in Butte focused Rankin’s attention on her At-Large congressional district. But the events back home didn’t happen in a vacuum, and Rankin recognized that America’s wartime production needs could serve as the best defense for the rights of the miners. To win the Great War and “make the world safe for democracy,” as President Woodrow Wilson intended, America needed to keep up with the booming demand for copper—increasingly difficult now that Butte’s miners were on strike. Rankin’s solution—which would have profound implications for her political future—called on the government to intervene at home and bring the struggle for democracy abroad to the workplace.

John D. Ryan created the Montana Power Company and operated the Anaconda Copper Mining Company./tiles/non-collection/9/9-JohnRyan-26035u.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress John D. Ryan created the Montana Power Company and operated the Anaconda Copper Mining Company.

The “Gibraltar of Unionism” Under Siege

In the 1870s, Butte began a transformation that took it from a boom town to an industrialized metropolis responsible for one third of America’s annual copper production. Perched atop a plateau 6,000 feet above sea level, Butte was known as the “Gibraltar of Unionism,” where powerful unions coexisted with corporate interests. By 1914, however, the Anaconda Copper Mining Company had consolidated control over most of the mines in town and devised a plan to rid the so-called “richest hill on earth” of unions.

To work in the Anaconda mines, employees had to attain a “rustling card” verifying their identity and employment credentials. The company insisted that this system was designed to ensure an orderly hiring process; however, a miner’s rustling card could be revoked at any time. Many workers were convinced it was a way for management to bar union activists from the mines. At the same time, the system had a chilling effect on miners’ willingness to speak up about dangerous working conditions. When combined with faster production schedules, this led to a decline in workplace safety which culminated in the June 1917 fire.

Soon after the strike began, the miners formed the Metal Mine Workers’ Union in Butte. In July, the union offered to halt the strike if President Wilson appointed Rankin as federal mediator to negotiate a settlement between the workers and the Anaconda Company—an offer the company rejected.

The Great Hill of Butte, pictured above, is sometimes referred to as "the richest hill on Earth" for the precious metal reserves of copper, silver, and zinc buried in the mines below./tiles/non-collection/9/9-GreatHillButte-3c13599u.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress The Great Hill of Butte, pictured above, is sometimes referred to as "the richest hill on Earth" for the precious metal reserves of copper, silver, and zinc buried in the mines below.
Throughout the summer of 1917, Rankin persisted, attacking the rustling card system as a form of “blackmail” that left the company with unchecked power in the workplace. Rankin’s constituents appealed for help combatting the powerful Anaconda Company and asked for a federal investigation into the causes of the fire. The Congresswoman received letters from miners’ wives who “fear every time their husbands go to work they never will return.” She also called for higher wages for the miners, as it was “impossible properly to support a family in Butte on the wages that are being paid.”

More than wages and worker protections, Rankin also considered this a battle to safeguard the right to protest for workers and their organizations. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), for instance, was reviled by most of America’s leading politicians, but had established a foothold in the Butte mines, where it coexisted with an eclectic mix of unions and ethnic associations. On August 1, however, Frank Little, an IWW organizer who had arrived in Butte in July, was lynched by a mob intent on sending a message to other labor leaders. Rankin denounced this act of vigilante violence, calling it symptomatic of the growing “lawlessness” in the region.

Ten days later on August 17, as the industrial conflict intensified, federal troops arrived in Butte to guard the mines. Rankin’s proposed solution to this crisis involved a very different use of federal power. She had vowed to uphold the rights of workers and the rule of law by using the power of the federal government to restore justice in Butte. To do so, she introduced H.J. Res. 142 on August 7, granting the President the power to take control of copper and other metal mines in the United States.

“An Adjustment Will Have to Be Made”

One month later, on September 18, 1917, Rankin made her case for H.J. Res. 142 as the sole witness at a hearing held by the House Committee on Mines and Mining.

For Rankin, the federal government’s decision to send soldiers to Butte underscored the significance of copper production to the war effort. And she judiciously framed her proposal to protect the miners’ rights and nationalize the copper mines as essential to winning Wilson’s “war for democracy.”

Citing unsafe working conditions at the mines and stifling of political dissent, Rankin called for a federal takeover of the mines./tiles/non-collection/9/9-ButteSmelters-3c13597u.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Citing unsafe working conditions at the mines and stifling of political dissent, Rankin called for a federal takeover of the mines.
Rankin’s testimony focused on the abuses of the rustling card system. Calling it a “blacklist,” she railed against the Anaconda Company’s use of the practice to suppress political dissent. She also provided statistics to demonstrate how this system led to a rise in industrial accidents.

The unrivaled power of the company only complicated things as state and local leaders had been unwilling or unable to resolve the dispute. Rankin informed the committee that the Anaconda Company had “controlled the governor for over 20 years,” and exercised a similar hold on local officials and the courts. As she would say two days after the hearing, “If capital refuses to respect the just demands of labor in the present crisis an adjustment will have to be made” to restore “an equitable balance of power.”

A federal takeover of the mines, she argued, would end discriminatory hiring practices, improve worker safety, and allow production to continue unimpeded. “If the company can not produce the copper that we need, certainly the Government should take over the mines and produce it.” Even the threat of federal intervention, Rankin said, could serve as a “precautionary measure” to avoid future standoffs and persuade mining companies across the country to improve wages and working conditions.

Finally, the committee asked Rankin to justify this extraordinary use of federal power. She was careful to emphasize that she did not object to the company making a “good profit for operating the mines.” But as inequality grew in her home state, she believed that the federal government had a duty to ensure that Montana’s natural resources helped improve standards of living for everyone. “I think that the mineral in those mines belongs to all the people instead of to a few,” she said.

Despite Rankin’s impassioned testimony, the House did not act on her resolution. The Metal Mine Workers’ Union was able to maintain the strike until the end of the year. But the company began hiring strikebreakers, and production returned to 70 percent of pre-strike levels by November. Facing defections from workers who felt the need to return to work to survive the winter, the miners’ union agreed to end the strike on December 28, 1917, without eliminating the rustling card. In a show of force meant to prevent additional labor standoffs, federal troops remained in the city until January 1921.

Jeannette Rankin, pictured here during her first year in office, took up the concerns of miners in her home state as one of her first major legislative issues./tiles/non-collection/9/9-Rankin-pn2015_03_0002ee.xml Image courtesy of the Papers of Jeannette Rankin, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University Jeannette Rankin, pictured here during her first year in office, took up the concerns of miners in her home state as one of her first major legislative issues.

“A Candidate of the People”

Rankin’s quest to make the mines “safe for democracy” became one of the defining issues of her campaign in 1918. Prior to the election, the Montana state legislature had created two distinct congressional districts to replace the state’s two At-Large seats in the House. Rankin, a Republican, suddenly found herself in a Democratic district, and decided instead to run for the Senate.

Throughout the 1918 campaign, Rankin faced opposition in the Montana press and from public officials presumed to have ties to powerful corporate interests. Her campaign was denied access to convention halls and public buildings for rallies. In Helena, the Independent Record ridiculed her Senate run as misplaced “ambition,” describing her as “young, inexperienced and without political sagacity.” Anti-Rankin articles even reached the trenches overseas—a Montana soldier stationed in France sent a local paper an article from London’s Daily Mail, which criticized Rankin’s supposed “sympathy with I.W.W. Unions.”

Newspapers such as the Montana Leader and the Butte Bulletin, however, officially endorsed Rankin because of her support for the miners’ cause—“a candidate of the people,” the Leader said. “She is with them because she is of them,” the paper declared, “the first representative of Montana who has never bowed the head to the will of copper.” Despite strong support among the working people of the state, Rankin lost the Republican Senate primary by 1,700 votes. She ran as a third-party candidate in the general election but came in last.

Regardless of the electoral consequences, Congresswoman Rankin viewed the cause of the Butte miners as yet another front in the fight for democracy in industry and government. On this and many other issues—such as war, maternity and infant care, and woman suffrage—Rankin refused to compromise her principles for political expediency.

Sources: Congressional Record, House, 65th Cong., 1st sess. (7 August 1917): 5896–5898, 5902; H.J. Res. 142, 65th Cong., 1st sess. (14 August 1917); Hearings Before the House Committee on Mines and Mining, Authorizing the President to Take Over Metalliferous Mines, 65th Cong., 1st sess. (18 September 1918); Chicago Tribune, 8 August 1917; Christian Science Monitor, 23 September 1918; The Independent Record (Helena, MT), 29 September 1918; Lincoln Star (Lincoln, NE), 18 August 1917; The Montana Leader (Great Falls, MT), 28 September 1918, 26 October 1918; The Producers News (Plentywood, MT), 4 October 1918; Washington Post, 21 September 1917, 19 August 1917; Washington Times, 19 August 1917; Jerry W. Calvert, The Gibraltar: Socialism and Labor in Butte, Montana 1895–1920 (Helena: Montana Historical Society Press, 1988); Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World, ed. Joseph A. McCartin (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000); David M. Emmons, The Butte Irish: Class and Ethnicity in an American Mining Town, 1875–1925 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989); Mary Murphy, Mining Cultures: Men, Women, and Leisure in Butte, 1914–1941 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997).

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