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And the West is History: Smelter Clerks as Strike Breakers – 1899

In a classic case of unintended consequences, at the urging of labor unions the Colorado Legislature passed a law to help workers by mandating a maximum eight-hour work day in 1889. The “Smelter Trust” made up of a number of companies that owned smelters throughout Colorado had to abide by the law, but in collusion reduced the wages earned proportionally with the decrease in work hours. The law was due to go in effect on June 15. On June 1, the Durango smelter announced the plan to their employees, giving them two weeks to accept the new wage schedule. The laborers didn’t need two weeks, they went on strike the next day. The strike spread throughout the state and had a major ripple effect as miners, freighters and ancillary professions were involved. Locally, more than 600 men were out of a job, and statewide more than 5,000 workers were idled because of the strike. Eventually, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled the eight-hour day unconstitutional and the strike ended on August 13. It was not a win for labor however, as many union organizers were not rehired. Also, many workers had moved away to find jobs elsewhere. This photo taken during the strike shows a group of Durango smelter clerical workers transferred from their office positions to work as laborers. Not all appear pleased with the situation. – Ed Horvat for Animas Museum, edhorvat@animasmuseum.org (Catalog Number: from the La Plata County Historical Society Photo Collections)