by Arthur Miller
Deep within the mountains of the panhandle
of Idaho lies a valley that white people named Silver. This valley
is the heart of what became known as the Coeur d'Alene Mining
District. The Bunker Hill Mining complex, situated from the west
end of the town of Kellogg and through the town of Smelterville,
includes a silver, lead and zinc mine, a smelter, a zinc plant
and a rail yard.
Bunker Hill has had a turbulent history spanning
over 100 years. Though Bunker Hill is now closed down (hopefully
for good), the final story cannot be written, for the effects
will linger on for generations to come. Many histories are written
in such a way that they seem distant in time and place, but the
story of Bunker Hill has a personal aspect for me because I once
Back in 1972, I wandered into the town of
Kellogg with my stake, built while picking fruit in Oregon. I
made my way down to the main drag where I found the employment
office for the Bunker Hill Mining Company. The place was old and
run down, and gave you a feeling of stepping back in time. Once
inside they had me fill out a few papers, and without reading
them, and no questions asked, I was told that I would begin work
the following day. Because of my youth I was assigned to the cellroom
of the zinc plant where I was to be a zinc stripper.
After being handed a few papers and being
told to report for the graveyard shift the next day, I decided
to scope out the town and find a place to camp until I made enough
to pay some landlord for a flop. From the get go I could tell
that there was something different about the people, something
that I had never seen before. I guess you could say there was
a haunting feel about them--a sense of tragedy, a hurting look
in their eyes, something that you can't quite put into words.
I knew the reason for what I saw. Five miles to the east of town
91 miners had died in the Sunshine Mine only a short time before.
The date of that great fire, May 2, 1972 will always live on in
the memory of those who live in the Silver Valley.
The Sunshine mine was a maze of over 180
miles of tunnels reaching a mile below the surface. Old tunnels
in the worked-out areas of the mine were not sealed off and were
full of dried-out timber. Like the other hard rock mines in the
area, the Sunshine Mine was what is called a "hot mine."
Down in the hellish tunnels the temperature would exceed 100 degrees
and the air was very dry. The timber would dry out and any source
of ignition or sometimes even spontaneous combustion will set
the timber burning.
Once the fire gets going, smoke and carbon
monoxide gas rapidly fill the mine's air stream and ventilation
system. Once the smoke and gas reaches the miner's, there is only
a minute or two before they lose consciousness. The fire of 1972
started at the 3,700 foot level, trapping the miners below and
forcing those above to flee for their lives. Though the law calls
for two ways out of a mine, there was only one. The miners rode
an elevator down to their job sites, and this hoist was operated
by workers from above.
Some of the hoist operators died at their
posts trying to get their fellow workers out. Once the operators
were overcome by smoke and gas there was no way out for the miners
below. One operator later testified that "The men were choking,
down on their knees." When the last hoist came up, "all
the miners in it were lying on the floor--either dead or unconscious."
He collapsed but was saved by a fellow miner. Nine days later
the last of the 91 dead miners were found. On that same day came
news of five more miners' bodies found in another mine fire in
Farmington, West Virginia, where 78 miners had died and it had
taken three years to find the last bodies.
Figures from the Federal Bureau of Mines
show that before the fire, the Sunshine Mine had a injury rate
five times the average for metal mines, and that the fatality
rate was twice as high. Mining inspectors found 35 violations
just two months before the fire. And that was in the areas they
could inspect, the worked-out areas were too cluttered with old
timber and other debris to be inspected. There had never been
any fire drills in the mine, no fire escape plan, and the portable
respirators were old, rusty and mostly unusable (and the miners
had no training on how to use them).
Seven days after the tragedy, Irwin P. Underweiser,
Chairman of the Board of the Sunshine Mining Company, spoke the
following words to an Associated Press business editor. "In
spite of the shutdown, we may make a profit on the closure. Insurance
will cover cost of a shutdown of up to six months, although we
don't anticipate such a lengthy closure. Also keep in mind that
the Sunshine Mine is our nation's largest single silver producer.
I wouldn't be surprised if the closure might put a crimp on the
silver supply, forcing prices to go up in the ten percent neighborhood."
And people wonder why I think the bosses are the scum of the earth.
A few months later the Sunshine Mine was up and running again
and it is still in operation today.
After I found a place to camp, I made my way over to the mine. Along the way I was picked up by an old-timer who had lost his only son in that hole. He told me that he often drove up to the mine just to think about his son and try to understand why all those miners had died. He showed me where the families had stood their 24-hour vigil for nine days.
Right behind that area still stood a sign
that read, "This is the first day of the rest of your life.
Live it safely." Not far away was the old exhaust stack that
billowed out smoke from the fire over the weeks it took before
it was put out.
He told me of being a "gypo" miner
for over 36 years before mine dust had destroyed so much of his
lung tissue that he had to retire. He said the mine owners just
didn't give a damn about the miner, it was only the ore they cared
about. I asked him how the other miners in the area reacted. In
a voice trembling in both grief and anger, he said, "A little
bit of every miner died that day. But every miner knows that they
bear a death sentence just waiting to be carried out. If they
are not killed down in the mine, then the mine dust will get them
He did say that a mine east of there, the
Lucky Friday Mine, had a wildcat strike 20 days after the fire
when the owners refused to allow a union safety inspection team
permission to accompany a Bureau of Mines safety inspection team
in a tour of the mine."
The next day I made my way up past the mine
and smelter to a little box canyon where the zinc plant lay hidden
from sight. As I walked up the canyon I noticed that the hills
around it were barren of all plant life. At the front gate stood
a sign that said the plant had gone 30 days without lost time
due to accidents. I was later told that a few years back, when
that 30 days was accumulated, they stopped updating the sign.
The zinc plant was an old, dilapidated place with rotting walls
and floors, in which one had to step with some care so as not
to step into a hole. The place had a sulfuric smell to it, with
a few other unidentifiable aromas mixed in so that one's nose
would never grow accustomed to the stench.
The cellroom was where the zinc from the
mine was poured into large vats of sulfuric acid and was then
charged with 15,000 volts of electricity. The zinc strippers were
all young, nobody over the age of 30 was allowed to work in there.
We all wore rubber boots and rubber gloves, and our clothes were
patched together with rubber patches. The zinc crystallized on
plates which we had to climb up onto the vats and pull up with
a hook that looked like a longshoremen's hook with the point cut
off. We placed the plates on a cart and then we stripped the zinc
off in another area. There were 40 plates to a cart load, and
we had to do eight cart loads in a shift. That meant that if you
wanted a break or lunch you had to bust ass. If you missed your
quota twice you were fired.
From time to time you would hear a popping
sound, like a firecracker going off, from bad electrical connections.
Once, when I was there, a whole bank of plates started popping
and smoking, as if a full room of fireworks was going off at the
same time. As I ran I could see other workers running in every
direction through the dense smoke and sparks. Two workers were
injured and carried off, then back to work we went to make our
It goes without saying that our working conditions
were atrocious, and our pay was low. The parasitic union that
held the contracts, ruled by the iron law of "union jurisdiction",
was worse than worthless. While I was there, rank-and-file zinc
trippers held a number of meetings with the idea of forming their
own union. There was always much talk of their resentment and
distrust of the union, the United Steel Workers of America.
There was no love for this union that was
forced upon them and cared not for the workers of the district.
Though the thought of this little group of young zinc strippers
taking on the sell-out piecard I.W. Abel and the right wing USWA
warmed my Wobbly heart, I knew there was no chance of success.
At the first meeting I sat there not saying a word. For I had
learned from past experience that a true labor organizer first
listens before they open their trap. At the second meeting I spoke
just once, and that was to say that the only way we could restore
true unionism was to reach out to our fellow workers throughout
Though nothing came of all this, other than
a banding together of a number of young rebels to vent their frustration,
it was interesting to see history making a full circle. For the
union movement began with small groups of workers coming together
against incredible odds.
Back in 1882, placer gold deposits were found
along the banks of the Eagle and Prichard creeks. At this time,
the U.S. government was forcing a treaty upon the Coeur d'Alene
Indian Nation. The Coeur d'Alenes signed the treaty that forced
them to live on a reservation, and the government agreed not to
wipe them out. The treaty was sent to Congress, but they did not
ratify it because the news of the finding of gold reached them.
So the government forced the Coeur d'Alenes to give up all land
in the Silver Valley.
The Northern Pacific Railroad exploited the
situation by issuing their infamous "Circular No. 6"
which made wild claims of gold in the valley and triggered a gold
rush. Mining towns appeared almost overnight, but little gold
was found. The Northern Pacific made a killing transporting gold-crazed
prospectors and supplies to the district. Though dreams of gold
faded, it was the discovery of silver that made the valley the
major metal production district in Idaho. Some gold was mined
in the area later along with lead, zinc, copper and other metals.
In 1884, a prospector by the name of Noah
S. Kellogg came into the district. For many years he had been
a prospector in such places as the Boise Basin in southern Idaho,
the fields of northern Montana, the Kootenay district of British
Columbia, and in the Cascade mountains. In 1885, Kellogg obtained
a grubstake and a jackass from two businessmen to prospect for
gold in new areas of the valley. When his grubstake was exhausted
he returned unsuccessful and gave back the jackass. He formed
a second partnership and went looking once again. Somehow the
jackass had gotten loose and Kellogg and his new partner came
across it. As the legend goes, the jackass, when found, was standing
on a mineral outcropping of galena (lead sulfide) on a hill above
Milo Creek. The story has it that the jackass was gazing across
the canyon at another outcropping of galena. This was the discovery
of what became the Bunker Hill & Sullivan mines.
The first partners sued and a judge ruled
that "from the evidence of the witness, this Court is of
the opinion that the Bunker Hill Mine was discovered by the jackass,
Phil O'Rourke and N.S. Kellogg." Since the jackass belonged
to Kellogg's first partners, they got half the mine. So through
the years the story has been told of the jackass that discovered
Bunker Hill, owned Bunker Hill, and operated Bunker Hill. Any
time the miners were up against it with the boss, they would say
"there's that jackass again." There was an old dance
hall song about the jackass that went: "When you talk about
the Coeur d'Alenes, and all their wealth untold, don't fail to
mention Kellogg's jack, who did the wealth unfold." In the
town of Kellogg a sign was erected that stated: "Kellogg,
the town discovered by a jackass and still inhabited by its descendants!"
That old burro is held in a place of honor in these parts; there
is a Jackass Mountain, Jackass Creek, Jackass Flats, Jackass Point,
and Jackass Ski Bowl. One old miner said to me, "Did you
know that the president came from Kellogg?" I said, "Really?"
And he said, "Yeah, there's a jackass in the White House."
As more and more mines opened up, miners
throughout the west began to pour into the district. And with
them they brought their union experiences. The first western miners'
unions were started in 1867 in Virginia City, Nevada, and Leadville,
Colorado. The following year miners in Butte, Montana set up a
union. Small independent unions spread throughout the mining camps
of the west due to the fact that the mine owners gave no concern
for the safety of the miners who were dying in these mines, and
their pay was low. In a number of mining camps the miners were
not paid in money, rather they were issued "scrip" that
could only be used in company stores. So you had a situation in
many camps where the miner was exploited in the mines, little
if any expense was given to safety, the wages were low, rent was
paid to the owners for living space, and scrip was given to be
used in company-owned stores. The mine owners were making great
profits, and all the miners could do was to organize and try to
One of the things that is consistent throughout
the hardrock mining industry was the injury and deaths of the
miners. The most common injuries came from falling objects. The
chambers of the underground mine always contained loose rock.
It takes little to cause this loose rock to come falling down
upon the miner. Even with the safest of support timbers being
used this is still a problem. But in many mines, taking the time
for safety meant less profit for the bosses. One of the most dangerous
parts of the mine is the open shafts because objects there can
fall a long distance. Even a small object falling down from the
top of the shaft can cause serious injury or death. There is one
case where a rat fell two thousand feet down a shaft and struck
a miner killing him. As more and more machines were added to the
mines and operated within the shafts, the danger increased. In
one mine falling objects caused more than 50 percent of all injuries
and fatalities. Falling was also a problem for the miners. Rather
than the bosses providing proper scaffolding across shafts and
ore chutes, the miners had to use mine timbers as bridges. These
were not anchored down and there were no hand rails, thus the
slightest slip or misjudgment would send the miner plunging into
the depths. The handling and storing of explosives, as well as
drilling, were other causes of injury and death
Even common sense was not all that common in the bosses pursuit of fast profit. At one mine the dynamite was stored in the blacksmith shop of all places, and was detonated by a spark touching off the blasting caps, blowing the place up and killing the workers inside. The most common accidents from drilling and loading holes came from: 1. Sparks igniting the charge before the blaster was ready. 2. Premature explosions due to misjudging how fast a fuse burned. One of the causes for this was that fuses were not made in a standardized manner. 3. Overloading a hole. (Remember that the miner was forced to work quickly and for very long hours and, by making the mistake of overloading a hole, would bring the ceiling down upon him. 4. Misfired holes: the blaster would set 12 charges at a time and if there were not 12 successful detonations, that meant misfired holes. Some times the charge did not misfire but had a slow burning fuse (again lack of uniform quality) and when the blaster would check on it the tardy charge would go off. Reloading a hot hole was also very dangerous. Sometimes in haste a loaded hole would be missed and in the dark the pick or shovel of a miner would hit the missing loaded hole and set it off. 5. The drilling of the holes often would send bits of rock or steel snapping back striking the miner, often putting out eyes.
Cages that were used to lower the miners
down the shaft, = buckets, mine cars, giraffes and electric trains
were another source of injuries and deaths. Like all things in
a mine, the equipment was the cheapest that the boss could get
away with, additional safety equipment was not used, the equipment
that they did have was not maintained as it should have been,
equipment was pushed passed its limits, and the great speed at
which the workers were forced to work caused mistakes. Because
of these things many a miner was injured or died.
Gas was another common source of danger.
As the blasters would blast out new holes, from time to time
they would hit pockets of gas. If the gas did not explode (causing
a far larger explosion than the blaster counted on), it would
fill up that part of the mine killing all workers in the area.
Silicosis, or as the miners called it, "the
con," is a lung disease, like Asbestosis or Black and Brown
Lung disease. It comes from massive air-borne exposure to silica,
which is the world's most abundant mineral. In mining operations,
such as blasting and drilling, great clouds of dust are created
and within that dust is silica. In the old days the bosses made
no effort to keep the dust down. Once a miner got "dusted"
as they called catching "the con," the miner did not
last long. It starts out with a shortness of breath and slowly
the miner suffocates to death. There is no real treatment for
silicosis, other than to stop working in the mines at the first
symptoms. But since most miners were trapped in their field of
work, they would keep working until they could not carry on any
longer. Then most of them would slowly die a long and penniless
death. In later years, as the result of a bitter struggle for
safety, water hoses were connected to the jack-legs (drilling
machines) that would cut down on the dust. Though this did prolong
the lives of the miners, it did not eliminate "the con" all together.
Rock bursts are a source of many deaths and
injuries. Rock bursts are caused when the ground is blasted loose
in one area of the mine, causing stresses to build up in the surrounding
rock. When the rock can no longer withstand the stress it bursts
out in a shower of rock and dust. Sometimes the burst is so great
that the whole mine shakes like an earthquake. There have been
some big rock bursts that were so great that they have shown up
on regional earthquake monitoring equipment. Rock bursts can spilt
or crumble even the best timbering supports. Miners can be buried
or hit by flying rock. Those not in the direct area will be hit
by an air blast, which they unaffectionately call "a visit
from Mr. Air Blast."
No miners ever doubted the inhuman greed
of the mine owners. They knew that if they were injured, sick
or killed, some other poor soul would take their place.
The early miners' unions had a lot of community
support, not only because the miners made up the majority in these
communities, but also because the mine owners callously endangered
the communities themselves for the sake of profits. The best example
of this was in Butte where the city passed an ordinance prohibiting
the open roasting of copper ore. This process had covered the
town with noxious sulfurous fumes. In December of 1891 the Boston
and Montana Company disregarded this ordinance and began roasting
its ore in the open. Within 48 hours there were 15 deaths and
many within the community were sick and confined to their beds.
In Silver Valley, the first miners' union
was organized in 1887, , but little about this union is known
for its members and activities were all secret. Organizing at
Bunker Hill was hard, and those who were thought to be sympathetic
to unions, or who raised their voice about anything, were fired.
It was not until the winter of 1887-88 that the union was able
to lead its first strike at Bunker Hill. On New Year's Day of
1891 a central union organization for the Coeur d'Alene District
was set up called the Central Executive Committee of the Miners'
Union of the Coeur d'Alenes. Throughout 1891 and 1892 Miners'
union halls were built in every mining town in the district.
The second strike at Bunker Hill was over
the bosses' trickery in a vote on health care. The company had
agreed to hold the vote, but when the miners looked at the ballot
they found it only had the company supported options on it and
left off the union supported Miners' Hospital. The strike not
only won the Miners' Hospital, it also raised miners' pay to that
of other union mines in the district.
Later that year the mine owners and the railroad
began to fight with each other because the railroad had raised
their shipping rates. That winter the Mine Owners' Association
shut down most of the mines to try to force a reduction of the
rates. A settlement was reached in March, but before the owners
would let the miners go back to work they had to agree to a reduction
in wages. Thus, the first district wide lock-out/strike came to
The owners brought in scabs to work the mines,
leading to furious battles between union miners on one side and
scabs, deputy sheriffs, gun thugs and the despised Pinkertons
on the other side. The owners went to the state court to get an
injunction against the union, and the governor ordered the miners
to "disperse all unlawful assemblages and to cease interference
with the mine owners." Miners fought back any way they could,
for this battle was not over just wages and the ideas of unionism
-- if the union was broken the effect of that would be counted
in dead and crippled miners. Gun battles were fought, mills were
dynamited, people died on both sides of this class war.
The mine owners tried to bring in scabs from
Missouri and Michigan by train, but armed union miners met the
train load of scabs and forced them to turn back. On July 11,
armed union miners confronted scabs and gun thugs at the heavily
barricaded Frisco mine. After a fire fight the union miners loaded
an ore car full of dynamite and sent it down the incline toward
the mine, but it blew up short of its goal. Then they tried again
and blew up the four-story wooden structure in front of the mine.
After that the scabs and gun thugs surrendered under a white flag.
Subsequently, fire fighters broke out at other mines and a short
time later all the scabs were run out of the district.
Miners took possession of a number of mines,
including Bunker Hill. Over 1,500 Federal and state troops were
brought in on the side of the mine owners on July 14th. Hundreds
of miners were imprisoned in bull pens without formal charges
or trials. This allowed the mines to reopen with scab miners.
Though the mine owners had their scabs and
an overwhelming armed force, they lacked one thing--real miners.
The scabs were nothing more than incompetent class traitors, and
in time they drifted away from the hard work in the mines. The
owners were then forced to bring back the union miners and the
union was reestablished in all the mines.
The Coeur d'Alene district struggle, along
with other struggles of western miners, showed the need for stronger
organization. At a convention in Butte of independent miners'
unions, a new federation was created on May 15, 1892. It was named
the Western Federation of Miners (WFM). The WFM fought a number
of bitter miners' strikes in the next few years, including one
in the Coeur d'Alene District in 1899.
This strike turned out to be as bloody as
the last one. There was an intense reign of terror against the
miners and their families. Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg, who
had been elected with WFM support the year before, called in troops
to put down the strike. Once again hundreds of miners were placed
in bullpens, some for over a year. Several miners were sent to
the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. Out of anger several
hundred union miners seized a train in the town of Burke, loaded
it with dynamite, and aimed it at the Bunker Hill mill, remodeling
its decor into a smoldering scap heap of twisted metal and splintered
A few years later, in 1905, Steunenberg was
killed by a bomb. A petty criminal named Harry Orchard, who had
been a paid spy for the Mine Owners' Association, confessed to
the killing. Though it later came out that he had his own economic
reasons for the bombing, he said he was hired by three WFM leaders
-- Big Bill Haywood, George Pettibone, and Charles Moyer. All
three were illegally kidnapped and brought to Idaho. Haywood was
the first to go on trial. After a very dramatic trial he was found
not guilty. Later Pettibone was acquitted and then the charges
were dropped against Moyer.
It did not take the WFM long to realize that
they needed to be a part of a labor federation beyond their industry,
so they joined the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1896.
The AFL turned out not to be what they were looking for, and they
withdrew from it the following year. The AFL was biased against
any worker who was not what they viewed as a "skilled"
worker. Their views on workers and their trade union structure
was based on the old craft guild system which divided workers
on the job and throughout industry. Also, the AFL lacked worker
solidarity and gave the WFM no support in their strikes. What
the WFM wanted was a federation of industrial unions, and the
year after discarding the AFL as a waste of time, they created
the Western Labor Union. Seeing that their organization had to
extend further than just the west, they changed its name in 1902
to the American Labor Union.
Still this was not enough--the WFM and other
unions wanted a labor organization that was not just a federation
of affiliates, but an industrial organization that would organize
the working class to its greatest possible extent, for they had
learned that the labor struggle was not a battle with individual
bosses, but rather a class conflict between the employing class
and the working class.
A small handful of unionists held a meeting
in November of 1904 to talk about the direction that the labor
movement needed to go. They decided to call a secret conference
for January of 1905 of veteran unionists to "discuss ways
and means of uniting the working people of America." This
conference was attended by representatives from the WFM, ALU,
United Metal Workers, the Brewery Workers, United Mine Workers,
the International Musical Union, the Bakers Union, the Switchmen's
Union and the Socialist Trade & Labor Alliance. Out of that
meeting they drew up an Industrial Union Manifesto, which called
for a new type of labor movement that would unite and organize
all working people into an effective organization to do battle
with the employing class. With the Manifesto was a call for an
IndustrialUnion Congress to be convened in Chicago on June 27th.
At that congress it was decided to create a new revolutionary
organization of industrial unions. At first they were only thinking
about a national organization, but with the input of some Canadian
unionists it was decided that this organization would be international.
This new organization became the Industrial Workers of the World
The IWW was the next logical step in the
struggle of working people. An organization built out of the direct
experiences of the working class, with the purpose of doing away
with the exploitation of the working class by using the two greatest
weapons the working class had. First, the power of production,
and second, universal solidarity. And with these two weapons the
IWW sought to take industrial control away from the parasites
and place it in the hands of those who do the useful work in society:
the workers, and to put an end to the age old conflict between
the employers and the workers.
These ideas were seen as a danger not only
to the employing class, but also to those who sought the power
of the working class for their own selfish reasons. The so-called
labor politicians that wanted working people to delegate their
power to them with the unkempt promise that they would act in
their interest, and the union "piecard" leaders who
feared worker control would mean the loss of their power and their
ability to fleece the working people. Both of these types of scoundrels
did all they could to try to destroy the IWW. After three years
the treacherous piecard Charles Moyer, through underhanded manipulation,
was able to withdraw the WFM from the IWW, which they had a major
part in creating. Eventually Moyer was expelled from the miners'
union for corruption. Though the IWW was able to go on and produce
a massive labor struggle, the fact that the IWW did not become
what it could have been was a direct result of so-called labor
'leaders' who sold-out the cause of working people for their own
personal power and greed. Maybe one day working folks will learn
who their true enemies are (all of them) and rebuild the IWW;
the hope of such a thing happening is still alive today.
In 1916 the WFM changed its name to the International
Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, or the Mine, Mill Workers,
as they were called. In the depression years there was considerable
growth in the Mine, Mill Workers and in 1936 they were one of
the eight founding unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations
(CIO). After the Second World War, Mine Mill Workers fell victim
to the post-war, anti-labor and anti-communist hysteria. Like
a number of other unions (including the IWW), they resisted the
Taft-Hartly Act. They found themselves labeled subversive by the
Subversive Activities Control Board. A number of their leaders
were indicted, but they were cleared by the U.S. Supreme Court
in 1956. Later, fourteen more Mine, Mill Workers were indicted
for conspiracy and were finally cleared again by the U.S. Supreme
Court in 1968. Throughout the '50s and early '60s numerous Mine,
Mill members found themselves arrested on state charges, including
(in 1959) union vice-president Asbury Howard , who was jailed,
beaten and sentenced to the chain gang for the crime of urging
blacks to register to vote in Alabama.
The opportunistic, reactionary piecards in
the CIO saw their chance to drive out of their organization the
more radical elements in the post-war madness. On Feb. 15, 1950,
the Mine, Mill Workers were expelled from the CIO along with the
Fur & Leather Workers Union, the United Electrical, Radio
and Machine Workers of America and the International Longshoremen's
and Warehousemen's Union. This clearly showed that the ideas of
the IWW, of creating a labor organization outside of the conservative,
piecard controlled labor organizations, was correct. For what
use is there in "boring from within" when at any given
opportunity the reactionaries will stab you in the back?
The CIO then handed all Mine, Mill Workers
jurisdiction over to the United Steel Workers. The Steel Workers
had been violently raiding Mine, Mill Workers since the moment
they resisted Taft-Hartley. Even with all this going on, Mine,
Mill Workers were able to pull off some of the largest post war
strikes in the country. But after a while they were worn down
by attacks from every direction. On Jan. 16, 1967, the United
Steel Workers took over the Mine, Mill Workers, and the International
Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers was no more, except for
one local in Sudbury, Canada that refused to change its name.
Thus the legacy of the WFM died a very inglorious death. One can
only speculate as to what a major difference there would have
been to miners and the labor movement, had Moyer not sold out
and forced the WFM out of the IWW.
After the brutal repression of the 1899 strike, the Coeur d'Alene District went through a number of years without any unions. This was aided by blacklists and a proclamation issued by the Idaho state government which forced miners to get a permit from the state in order to work. To get a permit a miner had to renounce membership in any organization (the union) that was involved in the 1899 struggle. Also, any miner who was involved in that strike was refused a permit to work. In the '20s and '30s the Mine Mill Workers made slow inroads back into the district. The first important strike came about on August 2, 1937 at the Sunshine mine. With 216 miners picketing the mine some of the other mines (including Bunker Hill) that were still non-union told their workers to quit work for the day and go to the Sunshine mine to put on a counter demonstration against the strike. Though they all took the day off with pay, only a small handful joined the counter demonstration. The press carried wild tales of violence, a tipped over buss set on fire, burning cars blocking the main highway and many injuries. The fact is that none of this had happened. It was only a campaign by the press to try to turn people against the strikers. The company fired all the strikers and hired scabs to take their place. Since the firing of workers involved in a legal strike was against the law, the fired workers did get back pay after a lengthy of court battle in which the other mine owners helped with Sunshine's legal expense. The union miners were blackballed and could not get jobs in the other mines.
It was not until 1942 that unionism returned
to Bunker Hill in a contract with the Mine, Mill Workers. By 1946
most of the district was again under union contact. But unfortunately
the unity of the district was broken by a right wing element.
In the negotiations of 1947 one of the three locals broke away
from the other two and signed their own contract, which was for
less than the master contract signed in time by the other two
locals. When the 1949 negotiations were taking place the same
local broke away again and renewed the previous contract. The
difference this time was that the other locals went out on strike.
The right wing element had also infiltrated one of the other locals
and forced an early settlement at Bunker Hill. This break in unity
forced a settlement for far less than was being struggled for
in the other mines. There was another strike in 1955 with about
the same disunity and a settlement for less than they could have
gotten. After this the locals went their separate ways and there
were no more district wide Mine Mill strikes.
In the 1959 into 1960 negotiations at Bunker
Hill, the company took a hard line against the union and broke
off all talks. On May 5, 1960 the workers at Bunker Hill went
out on strike.
This strike was to be different than in the
past, for the reactionary and business communities mobilized against
the union workers like never seen before in the district. The
first important part in this happened in the schools. The school
kids were taught about the so-called Communist infiltration in
the U.S. Included in that was the claim of Communist control of
some labor unions, including the Mine Mill Workers. To back this
up they pointed to the expulsion of Mine Mill Workers from the
CIO ten years earlier. With the help of some teachers, the Chamber
of Commerce, the American Legion and the Shoshone County Anti-Communists
Association, a large number of high school kids organized the
"I Am An American Youth Movement," and held a large
anti-Communist march and rally in Kellogg. The anti-Communist
hysteria grew to the point that union miners found their own kids
turning against them. Later even a group of miner's wives organized
an anti-Communist group. The anti-Communists issued a rather interesting
list of words used by "Communist" that included working
class, ruling class, capitalist, tyranny, class struggle, demonstration,
character assassination, stool pigeon, coexistence, scabs, big
money interests, freedom loving people, democratic action, democratic
majority, world peace, and the workers. They stated that "by
their words ye shall know them". And asked, "How many
have you heard locally?
The striking workers stood strong through
the summer and then the reactionaries tried something different.
A petition for decertification was started up and those that signed
on were called Blue Carders. Later it was revealed that a new
"American" union, the Northwest Metal Workers, was
behind this with the help of the local media that printed their
lies and decertification forms in their papers. The Blue Carders
got enough signatures for a NLRB decertification election. By
the time the election was held in December many of the workers
were broken down by the anti-Communists campaign (it was said
that only Communists would vote for Mine Mill Workers), some of
their kids and wives turning against them and formed the "Back
to Work by Christmas Committee" of the Northwest Metal Workers.
This committee had such emotional pleas printed in the local paper
such as a little girl looking up at her father saying "Will
you be back to work by Christmas, daddy?" And "Please,
God! for Mommy's sake let daddy go back to work by Christmas."
Also, the schools in the Kellogg area stopped the school lunch
program, saying that it was helping the strikers by feeding their
kids. The company union, the Northwest Metal Workers, won the
election by 51 votes.
Thus closed out the years of the Mine Mill
Workers at Bunker Hill. The Metal Workers quickly gave the Bunker
Hill bosses the contract that they wanted. A few years later the
United Steel Workers took over the Bunker Hill contract along
with all the other Mine Mill Worker's contracts in the district.
And that is how I came to hold a card in the United Steel Workers
a few years later.
This story does not end here, for in 1973
a fire badly damaged the baghouse, where smelter emissions were
being released into the air. Rather than close down the smelter
and repair the damage, the jackasses by-passed the baghouse and
the built-up lead rained downed upon the surrounding towns. The
families, and most tragically the children, were poisoned with
The family of miner Bill Yoss, who had worked
underground for 25 years at Bunker Hill, was tested by doctors
from the Center for Disease Control. His daughter, Arlene, was
found to have more than four times the threshold then considered
dangerous. The lead had settled in her bones, and her legs grew
twisted. Only hot soaking baths would ease her continuous pain.
Her mother was told, after the tests on Arlene and her two other
children, that she had "three walking dead babies."
In 1975 Bill Yoss visited an attorney in Spokane to see what could
be done. While he was away he was fired. The Yoss family filed
suit against Bunker Hill. The information gathered for the suit
told a story of corporate crime almost beyond comparison. Bunker
Hill settled with the Yoss family and the families of 35 other
children in 1981. All records and information gathered were sealed
by the court, and it was not until 1990 that the records were
opened and the story of the poisoning of the people of the Silver
Valley became known.
Within the unsealed documents was found a
two-page memo in which the vice president of Gulf Resources and
Chemical Corp. (the company that owned Bunker Hill at that time)
calculated an estimation on how much Gulf would have to pay if
it continued to expose children to lead emissions rather than
shut down the smelter and repair the baghouse. His estimate came
to $6 to $7 million for poisoning 500 children. He also examined
the possibility of discrediting the doctors who warned of the
dangers of lead poisoning. At the time, prices for lead ore were
high, so Gulf decided that the profits were far greater than the
"costs" of poisoning children. That year Gulf raked
in $25.9 million from lead ore. Some of the costs to the workers
and community included:
1) The lead pollution was so bad that the
State of Idaho was measuring it by tons per square mile. A reading
in Kellogg showed in excess of 30 tons of lead per square mile
in the year after the fire. Smelterville was put at 25 tons per
square mile. "I had pictures I took at 2 PM," Bill Yoss
said. "it was so dark you had to have your headlights on."
The residents of these communities were exposed to mega-doses
of lead greater than any other community anywhere else in the
world throughout history.
2) The hazardous threshold of lead, back
then, was 1,000 parts per million. Sediments along the riverbank
were measured at 40,000 to 50,000 parts per million. And by 1987,
when they were finally measured, 75 percent of the yards in Kellogg
and 81 percent of the yards in Smelterville exceeded safe levels.
A study of workers who had worker at the
smelter between 1940 and 1965, found that deaths from kidney disease
were four times higher than expected based on U.S. death rates.
Deaths from kidney cancer were nearly double, and deaths from
strokes were one-and-a-half times higher than expected. Since
the fire, 56% of Bunker Hill workers have come down with kidney
disease, including myself. It was not until the 1990s that this
information was made public. Kidney disease takes a while to hit
you after exposure. Many workers, like myself, moved on to other
jobs and thus cannot prove that their illness was caused by exposure
to lead at Bunker Hill. They cannot even prove that it is job
related. Thus, the figure of 56% has to be a low figure. They
came up with that figure by tracking workers through their Social
Security numbers and records, medical claims and the National
Death Index. How many workers like me that are not included in
that 56% no one will ever know. Maybe I will be included when
I die. Like many other workers, working with the pain of kidney
disease is hard. I had to quit my last job because of it. I have
no medical coverage, no ongoing medical treatment; I keep myself
going with roots, herbal teas, lots of cranberry juice and pain
killers that I have to go up to Canada to get. Even as I write
these words, I am struggling with pain to do so. Even the workers
who stayed at Bunker Hill lost their medical insurance because
Gulf went bankrupt.
4) Over 5,000 people have been exposed to
the lead fallout. In 1974 the Center for Disease Control tested
children for blood lead levels and found that all the children
living in Smelterville had unsafe levels, as did 99 percent of
children in Kellogg and 93 percent of children in Pinehurst. This
came to nearly 600 children known to have been poisoned by corporate
greed at that time, as documented by the government. No one knows
how many other children in the area were poisoned. The government
left it at that and did nothing until 1980, six years later, when
they found that 75 percent of the pre-school children (not even
having been born yet at the time of the great exposure) were poisoned.
No follow-up studies were done to see if this was a continuing
trend, to determine the long-lasting health effects on the children
known to be poisoned, and no testing was done on the adults. Again
this information was not released until years later, and nothing
was done to stop the continuing poisoning of children. It was
not until 1994 that another test was done on children, and it
found one-fifth of the children had blood-lead levels greater
than the harmful level.
Are there words to really tell you how I
feel about all this? Even saying that this was premeditated mass
murder seems not to be sufficient. To knowingly cause deaths of
workers, to knowingly cause the great suffering of little children
with their twisted bodies, and to knowingly allow this to continue
year after year; there are just no words in any language strong
enough for such a crime. No matter how many years pass, this crime
haunts my very being; it sickens me. With the mixed emotions of
sorrow for the victims and immense rage for the profiteers and
the government, I will carry this with me to my dying day.
Through a conspiracy by the federal government, the state of Idaho, the courts and Gulf, the people of the area did not know about how badly they had been poisoned until 16 years later. The only action that was taken was by the Public Health Service which went into the schools and would
put on puppet shows to teach children how
to play (among the effects of lead poisoning is reduced mental
In 1985 Bunker Hill became the second largest
Superfund site in the country, covering an area of 21 square miles.
The following is but a small sampling of what was found at the
1) Trees, grass and other vegetation did
not grow in much of the area because of toxic metals in the soil,
and because of high soil acidity caused by sulfur dioxide emissions.
2) The smelter contains at least 36,500 tons
of toxic heavy metals including lead, zinc, cadmium, mercury,
cobalt, copper, beryllium, arsenic, asbestos, antimony, selenium
and PCBs. If all the buildings were to be demolished the hazardous
debris from that alone would fill 22,500 dump trucks.
3) The Central Impoundment Area, a level
dike of smelter waste piled over 70 feet high and extended for
a mile, contains 20 million tons of highly toxic mine tailings.
When the wind blows, "fugitive dust" blows into the
surrounding towns. Until recently, the town of Kellogg, not knowing
of the toxins in the waste, would crush slag from these piles
and spread it on icy streets.
4) The yards, playgrounds, schools and even
the rugs inside of homes were found to contain lead and other
5) The South Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River
and many other streams were found to be repositories for lead,
cadmium and zinc. Fish that found their way into these waters
were killed. An estimated 72 million tons of mine tailings remain
in these waters, and an estimated ton of heavy metals are washed
down the river every day. The EPA says that cleaning up the mess
in these waterways is beyond the Superfund capabilities.
6) The problem is yet to end, for heavy metals
are still coming out of the portals of the mines.
I wish I could take pity on you, dear reader,
and tell you that this corporate crime was confined to the Silver
Valley, but it is not. The Coeur d'Alene River feeds into the
Coeur d'Alene Lake, which is full of toxic sediment, and from
there it goes down the Spokane River which feeds into the Columbia
River. The toxic sediment collects behind dams and washes all
the way down the Columbia River to the ocean. Adding to this problem
has been clear cut logging, road building and commercial development.
All this adds to runoff from rain and melting snow which picks
up the toxins from the ground and washes it into the rivers. This
also increases the amount of flooding in the area. In years of
great flooding, toxic sediment is dispersed throughout the flooded
The federal government and the state of
Idaho take the attitude that once the toxins are washed away over
a long time, that new clean sediments will cover over the toxic
sediment in the waterways and flood grounds, sealing in the heavy
Who will pay for the clean-up, and what happened
to the corporate criminals? Keeping the crime a secret allowed
Gulf to sell Bunker Hill and take their assets to New Zealand
where they cannot be touched. They then filed for bankruptcy in
the U.S. This gets them out of paying for the clean-up or other
law suits by poisoned people, and leaves Bunker Hill workers without
their pensions and medical benefits. The new owners were able
to profit from the cover-up of the truth and the slow action by
the EPA, and ran the mine for a while; they then closed it down
and sold off contaminated equipment and rail ties. They then diversified
their assets to the point that there was no company left.
This story of the Silver Valley comes to
an end where the history began, with the Coeur d'Alene Indian
Nation. They are suing eight mining companies still left in the
area, the Union Pacific Railroad (because of the uncovered rail
cars that went through their land and the toxic material that
blew off them) and the state of Idaho to force a clean-up of the
waterways, flood grounds and land along the rail line. The Coeur
d'Alene Nation's land is downstream from this dreadful mess. This
is the first such suit by a Native Nation.
A mine owners' association has recently "fixed"
the blame for the closing of Bunker Hill on "environmental
extremists, the Coeur d'Alene Indians, and disgruntled miners
who exaggerated the harmful effects of (toxic) materials from
mining." And to show just how sick some people can get, there
are those who want to create a Bunker Hill National Park to honor
Bunker Hill's great history.
The mine owners, the politicians, the U.S.
government, the state government of Idaho and the pie-card leaders
of the United Steel Workers were all partners in the crime that
took place and the long cover-up of their misdeeds. If a poor
person steals a loaf of bread to eat, that "criminal"
is hunted down as a threat to humankind. If a rich person causes
the deaths of workers, poisons children, fouls Mother Earth, they
are allowed to live their lives in the luxury gained by their
crimes. When I speak of class struggle, it is not some ideological
philosophy, but rather a struggle for survival and the hope that
someday we can make the worst criminals in history pay for their
crimes against us.
The lessons to be learned from the legacy
of Bunker Hill are many, a book could be written on that alone.
But the heart of the matter is very simple: we, the workers, the
oppressed and exploited people, cannot find any justice or ethical
values from any bosses, politicians, judges or so-called labor
leaders. We can only find such things among ourselves. And we,
organized as a great power, are the only ones who can put an end
to this historical human tragedy called capitalism. Our power
should be delegated to no one, for we can trust no one but ourselves.
After researching this report, I pulled out
my old Steel Workers card and looked at it. It seemed not a thing
of pride and honor, but a thing of shame--a card of union betrayal.
I have always been a card carrying union man. And I intend to
continue to be one until my body is placed into the ground of
Mother Earth. But I also know how the Steel Workers got control
of Bunker Hill, and how the pie cards sought to cover-up a great
crime. I then burned my card in honor of the Coeur d'Alene Nation,
in honor of the long miner's struggle, in honor of the workers
who died because of corporate greed, in honor of the 91 miners
who died in the Sunshine Mine, in honor of the poisoned children,
and in honor of Mother Earth.