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Thursday, October 1, 1998

Big Trouble

A Revealing Look at an Episode of Labor-Union Violence

David Kendrick is program director for the National Institute for Labor Relations Research, a charitable organization providing research and analysis on the social and economic inequities of compulsory unionism.

Labor-union violence directed at business owners, independent-minded workers, and political leaders who believe in the rule of law has a long, sorry history. Big Trouble is a revealing look at one episode.

The focus of Pulitzer Prize-winner J. Anthony Lukas’s Big Trouble is the death of former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg, killed by a bomb as he opened the gate to his home on December 30, 1905. Although the author is in the thrall of the false idea that labor is pitted in a struggle against “capital,” he honestly reports the facts of the story. An intriguing story it is.

Within days of Steunenberg’s murder, detectives closed in on Thomas Hogan, in whose hotel room they found traces of bomb-making material. Investigators discovered that he had been active with the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) in Idaho, using the name Harry Orchard. Under the skilled interrogation of the Pinkertons’ most famous detective, James McParland, Orchard confessed to the Steunenberg murder and pointed to the chief conspirators, WFM President Charles Moyer, adviser George Pettibone, and the WFM’s bombastic secretary-treasury, “Big Bill” Haywood. Their apparent motivation stemmed from their violent confrontation with Governor Steunenberg in 1899.

The battle had begun in 1892, when union militants called a strike, then rode through the mining district warning managers to dismiss non-union labor or see their valuable machinery blown sky-high. Soldiers soon restored order, but out of this initial loss the WFM was born. Seven years later, the WFM hierarchy rejected a wage increase and struck the Bunker Hill & Sullivan company’s mines, demanding recognition as the only representative of all the miners. Frank Steunenberg was the governor, and because he had been elected on the Populist-Democrat ticket, the union leaders presumed he would be sympathetic to them.

Some 150 union militants, many of them armed, turned workers away from the mines with dire threats, while another group seized the tramway carrying ore from mine to mill. Hundreds more unionists commandeered a train in nearby Canyon Creek, drove it to Bunker Hill, and blew up a huge concentrator costing about $250,000.

Convinced that the local sheriff was colluding with the WFM (a conclusion endorsed by Lukas), Steunenberg finally asked President William McKinley to send federal troops to restore order. For this, Steunenberg earned the hatred of his former allies in organized labor. Indeed, after his death, union official and Socialist party leader Eugene Debs argued that Steunenberg had “simply reaped what he sowed.”

The WFM’s headquarters were in Denver. The union’s penchant for threats, assaults, and murders perpetrated against non-union miners, combined with its political domination of the local mining areas, was so pervasive that, according to Lukas, juries couldn’t be found that would convict a union man of any serious offense. Eventually, the three union officials were extradited to Idaho in a midnight raid and put on trial for Steunenberg’s murder. They then turned to Clarence Darrow, who had gained national fame as a defense lawyer by his appeal to “larger” issues while skimming over his clients’ actual guilt or innocence of the specific charges.

Defending Haywood, the first of the troika to be tried, Darrow employed the same tactic. “I don’t care how many wrongs they [unions] have committed—I don’t care how often they fail, how many brutalities they are guilty of. I know their cause is just.” To the jury of Idaho farmers “removed from the men who work in industrial affairs,” Darrow proclaimed, “had it not been for the trade unions of the world . . . you today would be serfs instead of free men.”

Whether moved by Darrow’s oratory, or fearful of retaliation by the WFM, the jury acquitted Haywood. Afterward, the cases against Moyer and Pettibone fell apart. Not for the first time, nor the last, the argument that it is permissible to use vicious means in the pursuit of supposedly virtuous ends triumphed.

Knowledge that they can—in this case literally—get away with murder has been a factor in the self-interest calculations of union organizers and bosses throughout much of our history. This meticulous book gives us a close look at the ugly phenomenon of union violence and the readiness with which many intellectuals excuse it.