MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Organisations




Western Federation of Miners

The Western Federation of Miners (WFM) was a radical labor union that gained a reputation for militancy in the mines of the western United States and British Columbia. Its efforts to organize both hard rock miners and smelter workers brought it into sharp conflicts – and often pitched battles – with both employers and governmental authorities. One of the most dramatic of these struggles occurred in the Cripple Creek district in 1903-04, and has been called the Colorado Labor Wars. The WFM also played a key role in the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905, but left that organization several years later.

The WFM sought to join with other advocates of industrial unionism and socialism to found a national union federation, the Industrial Workers of the World, in 1905.

The WFM had adopted a socialist program in 1901. "Big Bill" Haywood, who joined the union as a silver miner in Idaho, put the union's objections to capitalism in the simplest terms: he took the side of workers against the mine owners who "did not find the gold, they did not mine the gold, they did not mill the gold, but by some weird alchemy all the gold belonged to them!"

Haywood was the first chairman of the IWW; he defined its work as "socialism with its working clothes on". But factional differences the following year between the "revolutionists" and "reformists" within the IWW, which also divided the leadership of the WFM, led to the departure of the WFM from the IWW in 1907. The WFM rejoined the AFL in 1911.

The WFM changed its name to the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (more familiarly referred to as Mine Mill) in 1916. After a period of decline it revived in the early days of the New Deal and helped found the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1935. The Mine Mill union was expelled from the CIO in 1950 during the post-war red scare for refusing to shed its communist leadership. After spending years fighting off efforts by the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) to raid its membership, Mine Mill and the USWA merged in 1967.