SHERIDAN — Many national holidays have historical roots that are far removed from Sheridan’s geography. Jesus lived and died in the Middle East, the American Revolution was fought primarily east of Appalachia and most other holidays have a heritage anchored in old European tradition.
While other holidays and the values they impart are wholly relevant to the way Wyoming society operates, Labor Day, the day of the American worker, is a day that was fought and won just as much in Sheridan as any other place in the nation. The railroad and mining foundation of the community brings with it an unsung, and often unpleasant past. Today, the early struggles of America’s, and Sheridan’s, workers has become a proud chapter of American heritage.
Most residents of Sheridan today couldn’t imagine sending their 11-year-old sons to work extended hours in a poorly ventilated underground coal mine, where they would hack away at the face of a coal seam with hand picks. But for many settlers of Sheridan, long hours of dangerous work was their reality and their only means of providing for their families.
From the time satellite mining camps were established around Sheridan, including Carneyville, Acme, Monarch and several Deitz mines in the late 1890s, workers organized strikes as a means of collective bargaining for better wages and benefits. The champion causes of the labor movement were originally negotiated at individual locations before they became a national effort.
Author David A. Wolff describes in his book, “Industrializing the Rockies: Growth, Competition and Turmoil in the Coalfields of Colorado and Wyoming,” that coal corporations had transformed the mining towns into feudal kingdoms where well-meaning miners would work themselves into inescapable debt due to rigged work circumstances and the use of non-monetary pay.
While workers fought to establish an eight-hour workday as early as 1890, workers were frequently paid in scrip or company store credit. The companies often kept larger than necessary workforces so they would be able to accommodate unexpected, larger orders of coal, but during times of regular operation, many workers were relegated to part-time work that did not enable a miner to earn enough to support his family. When the miner could not pay his rent in the company house or afford groceries for the week, the company extended a line of credit to the miner. This practice kept many miners in debt, but the companies benefitted by having extra employees on hand.
In 1919, tensions between striking miners and coal corporations had become so severe that federal soldiers were called to enter the towns of Carneyville, and Monarch and arrest “agitators.” Soldiers also rounded the workers to the towns’ pool halls at gunpoint and forced a union election to end the strike. The event is described today as the unauthorized use of military force against civilians. The Secretary of War at the time called the incident “inconceivable,” as it was a clear abuse of federal power.
Multiple labor disputes continued in Sheridan County’s old mining towns up until their eventual extinction. In much more recent history, the 224-worker strike at Decker Coal Mine in 1987 left the community on edge for eight months, and the legal aftermath went on for years afterward.
Loose clippings available in the Wyoming room of the Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library tell a collective story of workers fighting for better wages and working conditions amidst a stream of legal disputes and even individual harassment. Picketers delayed a train and were later sued by the company. Wives of striking miners reported threatening phone calls and harassment. Local law enforcement officials raided a union member’s home and confiscated a video tape. Strikers traveled to Omaha, Neb., to picket company officials’ homes over the Christmas holiday.
The ugly nature of labor strikes and the scars it leaves on a community have caused some people to want to distance themselves from union organized labor.
Managing Director Justin Wilson at union facts.org said collective bargaining is no longer relevant to today’s workplace.
“The unions have, in many ways, been too successful,” he said. “Their success has led to their slow extinction.”
“We now have state and federal oversight serving in functions of what unions used to do in the ‘40s, ‘50s or even ‘60s,” he said, naming the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as examples of federal institutions that take the place of labor unions.
Wilson said federal controls now in place make for a more appropriate environment for an individual to negotiate better pay and working conditions based on the merit of their work.
“No one has found an economic system that satisfies the wants and needs of everyone,” he said. “But from what I see, most people in the younger generation want to capitalize on their ability to work hard and climb up.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports only 11.3 percent of Americans belonged to a labor union in 2012, which is the lowest level of union membership since 1916.
However, Sheridan Chapter of Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen President John Maronick said he views his union as strong and important as ever.
“Without unions, corporate America would work us seven days a week for 14 or 15 hours a day,” he said.
“Organized labor protects workers and looks out for their health and welfare,” Maronick said. “It’s our duty to provide our members with a safe work environment and good wages.”
Maronick said his is one of the few remaining industries where union membership is required for employment, and his division has around 90 members.
He said the “closed-shop” policy keeps jobs from being outsourced and allows for collective bargaining and sharing of ideas on a local, regional and national level. He said most union jobs today are in workplaces where safety must remain a top priority.
Other unions with local chapters include the United Mine Workers of America, American Nurses Association, American Postal Workers Union and the United Transportation Union.
“There’s power in numbers,” he said. “If I were to summarize what makes unionization so effective, I would say it’s our ability to network and communicate.
Maronick said that whether or not individuals belong to or support a workers’ union, everyone has them to thank for today’s working conditions.
“Even a non-union worker benefits from what we do,” Maronick said. “If you enjoy your Labor Day weekend, thank a union worker.”