Labor Strike

Workers in the Smelter

Workers inside the smelter, image by Frank Balster around 1905. Catalog number: 06.48.20

  • Workers at the A.S. & R. Smelter in Durango unionized in 1898, becoming part of the Western Federation of Miners, local number 58. The union pressured the Colorado Legislature to pass a law in 1899 establishing an eight-hour work day.
  • On June 1, 1899 the smelter posted notices that workers would get their eight-hour days, but that their wages would be reduced from $1.41 to $1.32 a day. They had typically worked 10 or 12-hour days, at a higher wage. The policy applied to 7 plants in the smelter trust; two in Denver, two in Pueblo, two in Leadville and the Durango smelter.
  • Workers were given two weeks to agree. On June 2 at 2:00 the day shift walked off the job and marched to the courthouse, where they invited citizens to hear their story.
  • The Durango Democrat supported the workers, noting that “The smelter man cannot live in Durango on the scale of wages offered by employers…men cannot toil without meat…even a soup bone is a luxury.”
  • The Democrat decried the smelter trust’s efforts to increase profits on the backs of its workers, rather than taking on railroad rates, bank and telegraph charges.
  • Following the lead of the Durango smelter workers, all 2,000 smelter workers in the state also walked out, which eventually affected some 3,000 miners and an untold number of teamsters.
  • On July 3 arbitration was denied by former Governor James Grant (1883-85). The State Federation of Labor said the union must be recognized.
  • The Colorado Supreme Court declared the eight-hour day unconstitutional and the strike was terminated on August 13. Work resumed with 10 and 12-hour days, albeit with newly hired workers also known as "scabs." Strike leaders and union organizers were not rehired and many workers had moved away to find jobs elsewhere.
  • On August 14 a group of armed men burst into the south Durango cabin of 4 smelter workers. One of the workers was a newly arrived 35 year-old Austrian immigrant, Louis Kaneck. Mr. Kaneck had worked as a laborer and had just been hired at the smelter after the strike. The masked men were heard to say “There is where the d--- scabs are.” The men were rousted outside and told to leave the country. Kaneck was shot. Five men were arrested after the incident.
  • Before succumbing to his injuries, Kanek told his story to Mr. Endleman of the Mint Saloon, who served as an interpreter.
  • On August 18 the coroner’s jury determined a mob of 15-20 armed men were involved. They found that one of those arrested had been present, but no determination was made as to who had fired the fatal shot.

Clerical workers during the strike

Clerical workers fill in at the smelter. Catalog number:

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