Peabodyism and Labor Day
September 5, 2010
The Colorado Labor Wars raged during 1903 and 1904. Centered in Cripple Creek and Telluride, the union battles stirred passions across the state, especially in Aspen.
During the Panic of 1893, mine owners took advantage of thousands of unemployed men by restoring a 10-hour workday for the pay of an 8-hour day. The Western Federation of Miners, the dominant labor union in Aspen, had fought hard for the 8-hour day and immediately went on strike across the state. During a confrontation in Cripple Creek, Gov. Davis H. Waite sided with the strikers. This position was a first for a governor, and it resulted in mine owners backing off.
Over the next decade, the Western Federation of Miners gained strength and attempted to unionize smelters and related businesses. They also switched their battles from armed conflict to the ballot box. They won a statewide referendum that extended the 8-hour work day to many workers.
Simultaneously, industrialists organized to banish unions. They elected Gov. James Peabody, an anti-union Republican. After taking office in 1902, Peabody and the legislature ignored the 8-hour workday referendum. The larger mining companies began firing union employees.
When the Colorado Reduction and Refining Company fired their union workers, WFM leaders called a sympathy strike of Cripple Creek miners. Mine owners hired ex-cons and Pinkerton guards to intimidate union workers and break the strike. The workers retaliated with some well-placed dynamite explosions. After an altercation, owners declared the situation out of control and asked Peabody to send troops.
Peabody ordered the State Militia to Cripple Creek under the command of General Sherman Bell, who announced, “I came here to do up this damned anarchist Federation of Miners.” The union members of Cripple Creek, more than just those of miners’ unions, were rounded up, beaten, detained without cause, and deported from town. Many retreated to Aspen, where they won sympathy for their cause.
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A months-long labor war ensued. Because Aspen’s mine owners and workers had already arrived at a satisfactory equilibrium, its citizens remained on the sidelines. Even so, the governor’s policies, known as “Peabodyism,” captured Aspen’s attention.
Aspen newspaper editor Charles Dailey excoriated Peabody daily with headlines about “Peadodyism.” Dailey translated the cost of Peabody’s troops for Aspenites: one in 16 local tax dollars, equivalent to the cost of running Aspen’s schools for six months. “When you are called upon to pay the $1,000,000 deficit which Peabodyism has cost the state, you will see Peabodyism in another light. It touches everybody, there are not interests so conflicting that they do not come together on this common infamy of Peadodyism.”
Peabody, who referred to miners as assassins and anarchists, visited Aspen during this period. His arrival was sarcastically editorialized: “We had expected to see the governor with a bunch of revolvers sticking out from under his coat-tails and perhaps a dead miner or two hanging from a window as a warning.”
Subsequently, a dynamite bomb that was sanctioned secretly by the union leaders killed over a dozen strikebreakers. The explosion created a backlash against the unions and reinforced feelings of class warfare. Anti-immigrant sentiment separated manual workers from the rest of society. The strikes collapsed, and the power of the Western Federation of Miners diminished almost to irrelevancy.
Colorado enacted a Labor Day holiday in 1887. The national celebration was signed into law in 1894 by President Grover Cleveland. The national holiday was the result of Cleveland’s wanting to make amends with labor after he had sent 12,000 troops to quash the Pullman strike. Thirteen union workers had been killed and nearly 60 had been wounded. Labor wars have been scrubbed from our history books, so few realize that workers’ rights, such as the 8-hour workday, were won through bitter bloodshed. The sacrifices of those brave workers are worth remembering on Labor Day.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while a teacher for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.