The Hidden History of Butte’s Working Class

I read with great interest the recent article entitled “Something About Butte” in CounterPunch by Jeffrey St. Clair (Jan 4/5, 2003). St. Clair provided fascinating background history on Butte’s labor relations and commentary on the significant environmental challenges Butte and the EPA face as a result of a century of mineral extraction. Because Butte exemplifies the results of extensive and blatant corporate environmental exploitation, St. Clair’s essay is timely and welcome. Its early radical labor history, discussed by St. Clair, is also significant both in terms of labor activism in the United States and heavy-handed corporate and state responses to organized labor. Given the anti-union sentiment in the corporate-controlled media and in United States culture in general, a further comment on Butte’s labor history, particularly in the period between 1936 and 1980, merits our attention. During those years, the working people of Butte maintained “closed-shop” conditions in a majority of wage-paying jobs in the private sector of the city. Closed shop conditions meant that only union members were employed in wage-paying occupations ranging from miners and trades in Butte mines to bartenders, bus drivers and grocery store clerks. The closed shop situation was made possible by a community-wide culture of solidarity built upon a shared conception of competition, unanimous rejection of scabbing, and a more encompassing set of cultural values. If Butte serves as a case study of corporate environmental and labor exploitation, it is equally informative as a case study of working class cultural responses to corporate power and capitalism.

The ideology of capitalism (meritocracy, equality of opportunity, individualism, etc.) with its interpretive frameworks (seeing the world as a limited-sum game, etc.) produces a conception of competition that shapes and sustains economic practice and labor relations. Hegemonic capitalist ideology organizes the dominant understanding of competition both within classes and between them. In terms of competition within classes, the ideology highlights, on the one hand, competition in the marketplace, claiming it gives rise to high quality goods at consumer-friendly prices as owners compete with one another for market share. On the other hand, capitalist ideology renders competition among workers as a matter-of-fact part of American life and depicts competition as a “noble” American practice closely associated with the virtue of hard work. One who does not strive to “win” or strive to be “better” (measured against someone else), is unmotivated or a “loser.” The ideology of capitalism also encourages workers to seek satisfaction from how well they do their job, not necessarily from how much they get paid, and to treasure the intrinsic rewards of work. Competition, it seems, embodies all that is noble and good in the human heart-at least the “American” heart. The structure of capitalism forces workers to sell their labor for wages, minimizes surplus accumulation among workers, and discourages alternative economic means such as communal or state ownership of the means of production and distribution. These structural factors, combined with the ideology, encourage competition among workers in practice, or in everyday action.

Competition between classes is virtually eliminated conceptually in capitalist ideology when the attention is directed toward avowed cooperation between the classes and tension deflected onto the capricious nature of “the market” or the “economy.” The abolition a conception of class conflict portrays an economic condition where owners and their employees are working together and all would be right in the world, at least economically, if it were not for the unpredictability of the economy and those few rouge owners/managers like those guys at Enron or Montana Power.

This ideological construction of competition has not gone unchallenged in all places throughout U.S. industrial history. Alternative conceptions of competition have shaped perceptions and the practice of competition among working people in places like Butte. An alternative perspective focuses on the competition between class interests, or class conflict, rather than competition within classes. Actual capitalist practice, not capitalist ideology, has, in reality, followed the alternative conception for quite some time as the history of the industrial revolution since the second half of the eighteenth century attests. Owners, in practice, relentlessly attend to the competition between the owner/capitalist class and the working class resulting from conflicting material interests. And, they have persistently taken measures to reduce competition within their class. While owners and corporations have indeed competed for market share and economic viability, one primary pattern has been toward consolidation and collusion within the dominant class, and within the marketplace-not to mention with the federal government. This pattern of collusion in capitalist practice has, over time, reduced competition within the class. Fewer entities compete with each other as larger corporations emerge. Workers, however, have waxed and waned on how they perceive and respond in practice to class conflict or competition between classes. Today, most Americans, following capitalist ideology rather than capitalist practice, perceive and respond to only the competition within classes. However, when actual labor practice among the working class reflects the alternative ideology, labor solidarity emerges. Thus, the ideology supporting labor solidarity mirrors the competition propagated by the capital class in actual practice rather than the capitalist ideology of open and fair competition.

Labor solidarity can, to a point, respond to the power of capital by providing a unified front through which to negotiate and counter the threat and the degree of capitalist exploitation. Capitalist ideology and practice implemented by a dominant class, however, pose a constant threat to labor solidarity. When labor solidarity fails to become a shared cultural value, capital can discourage labor organizing effectively. More importantly, if some form of solidarity exists, capital can more easily induce workers to break ranks. As a result, workers seek personal economic gain at the expense of other workers and compete among themselves (meaning within their own class), particularly during a strike when workers “replace” other workers. The terms “replacement worker” and “scab” refer to the same behavior, but they are premised on contrasting ideologies resulting in dramatically differing cultural meanings and behaviors. A replacement worker denotes a hard-working individual who will work in the place of another person who “chooses” not to. The connotations of a replacement worker are consistent with the work ethic of capitalist ideology of competition. The conception of the “scab” originates in a culture of labor solidarity. In a speech given to the Oakland Socialist Party Local on April 5, 1903, Jack London offered a “technical definition” of a scab as, “one who gives more value for the same price than another.” London also stated that the “sentimental connotation of ‘scab’ is as terrific as that of ‘traitor’ or ‘Judas.'” In cultural practice, the presence of the scab disseminates the alternative ideology of competition consistent with labor solidarity. In Butte, from the late 1930s to 1980 the scab was alive and well as a conception with deeply felt connotations, meanings and associated cultural practice.

“If you were a scab, you were just no goodsociety wouldn’t accept them anymorepeople wouldn’t even speak to one of those scabsA scab, as far as Butte was concerned, was just the rottenest thing in the world.” (Butte elder, 1996)

A variety of forces led to the eventual emergence of closed shop conditions in Butte mines in the mid thirties under the organization of The Butte Miners’ Union. The Butte Miners’ union did not ultimately threaten capitalist extraction, accumulation and exploitation, but it did offer an acceptable adaptation, through labor solidarity, to the conditions of capitalism in Butte and the realities of immigrant lives. Butte’s working population heavily relied on the conception of the scab as a central organizing image to sustain its solidarity. In the predominantly Catholic and surprisingly tolerant community of Butte, the one “mortal” sin one could commit was the sin of scabbing.

It was not that Butte did not indulge in competition. Butte fostered competition through sport (community baseball, football, and bowling, boxing), bar fighting, neighborhood and ethnic rivalries, in its high schools and grade schools. And men engaged in competition in the mines. As part of the demonstration of masculinity and the construction of identity, contract miners competed amongst each other. They sought to secure reputations built on their mastery over the ore. Craftsmen also competed with each other for recognition as the top in their trade. But miners and craftsmen simply did not allow competition among individual workers for jobs, wages, and security. They collectively bargained for wages and job descriptions while relying on structures of seniority and kinship networks for job acquisition.

The lives of Butte’s workers point to a central issue in contemporary capitalist labor relations-the reconceptualization of the corporate hegemonic ideology of competition. In Butte, the notion of competition was shaped through the ideology of solidarity. Such a cultural worldview turned attention to competition between the classes, like the workers and the Company. This contrasts with the ideology of capitalism that pits worker against worker. Scabbing in Butte resulted in a final and often brutal “social death” for those who committed such an act. The social death was facilitated by a shared community understanding of the scab and competition. For a social sanction to reach beyond a stigma in the workplace to the level of social death, a community-wide support of labor solidarity must be achieved along with an adherence to a shared conception of competition.

A further look into the culture of Butte helps explain the community-wide support that existed in the era of solidarity. Butte’s population formed various ethnic-based neighborhoods each with its full compliment of modest residential dwellings, churches, bars, grocery stores, and other small businesses. Many of those neighborhoods were built up around a mine. These included the enclaves of Meaderville, McQueen, East Butte, Finntown, Chinatown, Dublin Gulch, Centerville, Parrot Flats, the Boulevard, and others. The residents of these ethnic-based neighborhoods maintained strong cultural traditions, languages and identities much like many large cities in the United States. Butte also had a large uptown business center, dominated by the Hennessey Building that housed the ACM, and it had its elite neighborhood called the West End.

The institutional vice harbored in Butte through much of the 20th century included a semi-public red-light district, wide-open casino style gambling, and round-the-clock drinking establishments that catered to three daily shifts of miners. It is widely remembered by Butte elders that the christening of a new major drinking hole centered around breaking out the lock on the front door. Butte’s bars were also notorious for fighting. This vice formed an intricate part of Butte’s character even as the community supported its Catholic parishes and numerous other denominational churches. Numerous people I interviewed affirmed that vice “was part of life.” In Butte’s Catholic-framed moral code, vice was venial. Aside from the institutionalized vice, the working people of Butte were extremely tolerant of a myriad of individual behaviors not consistent with prevailing images of acceptable behavior in the broader American culture or the mandates of the Catholic Church (or Protestant sects). These included excessive fighting, gambling, and drinking, homosexuality, adultery and abortion. Anyone looking for hand-to-hand conflict could easily find someone to meet at “knuckle junction” in a Butte bar, but the bar was equally a place where one could avoid fighting with the proper attitude. Abortion was readily, if covertly, available for those interested. Also of interest for what it says about the community, one “gay” Butte elder commented that Butte was “the best place in the world to be gay.”

While not everyone condoned this vice and “deviance,” most report that behavior of this sort was best left as a matter between the individual and God. The wider public was not in a position to judge. The working people of Butte, however, did not extend the tolerance and acceptance displayed toward these and other forms of venial vice and behaviors to scabbing. Publicly professed support of labor organizing was mandatory even if private sentiments diverged. Anyone who openly challenged the basis of labor organization was chastised and scabbing was brutally punished–no matter what the personal circumstances. Butte’s working people tended very devoutly to the economic realm of their existence. They held labor organizing to be the foundation of their economic life; a threat to that organization was unacceptable. Unlike their Catholicism which allowed absolution even for mortal sins, there was no confessional, no “Hail Marys,’ no absolution, no forgetting, and no relief for the sin of scabbing.

Because of the shared attitudes toward scabbing, the consequences of scabbing were ubiquitous. A person who worked in the place of a union employee did not simply have to vie with contestation at the site of work or with picketers, but also was forced to contend with the entire community. As the identification of a scab quickly spread through social networks, he and his family were despised and harassed. Even the children of a scab could not escape the taunting and beatings at school. Butte’s miners employed behaviors learned willingly in their bars to the situation of scabbing. When asked about people who crossed a picket line in the mines, one Butte elder responded:

They’d chastise you. Beat the tar out of you probably. Yeah, it was a rough and ready town. A scab couldn’t get by here in Butte at all. They used to have a some of that in the mines, you used to hear about the scabs. They’d chase them out. They may make three or four shifts and they’d nab on to them and they’d take them out to the Flat or to the Nine Mile and beat the hell out of them”

The solidarity mandate did not only apply to men or the mining trades-it was near-universal in wage-paying jobs in Butte. The Company employed various tactics to break labor solidarity, including demanding salaried workers to work during strikes. One man in Butte told a story about his father who, after working his way through the ranks, became a foreman. Asked to “stay behind the fence”-to scab, in the 1946 strike, the man refused. After only a half a shift, at lunch that first day back, the head foreman of the mine called the father into his office. The foreman said, “I have to let you go because the fellahs [the other bosses who stayed behind the fence] don’t feel right working around you. You were asked to stay, and what did you tell me? You said you had too many relatives and friends, that you couldn’t possibly see your way to stay. Maybe now its up to your friends and relatives to get you a job.” From that point on, the father was “blackballed” by the company and never worked for the company again except for a short stint years later as a low level worker on the surface of one of the mines. Although the father endured a company-imposed exclusion from the only trade he knew, his family retained their good name in the community–because he did not scab.

For those who did stay behind the fence, the community responded. The following conversation between two Butte men in 1996 is revealing:

Man A: A lot of guys, boy, they just don’t ever forgive [the behavior of scabbing]. Man B: Nope, I know this guy, he was a boss and he scabbed. He said, “You know what? The biggest mistake I ever made in my life was staying behind that fence. You know what? You can go up to the M&M [a landmark Butte miner’s bar], you can go to any bar in Butte, no one bothers you. I walk into the M&M and the first thing I got to do is fight or get my ass kicked all over the city of Butte. I can’t go anywhere.” He had to go out of town to do his drinking. All the way up to West Yellowstone. And he says, “You know what?” He says, “I get up there and I have somebody from Butte say, ‘why there’s that scabby bastard!'” He says, “I got to get out of there also.” He says, “Jesus Christ, even my old friends won’t talk to mehalf of my family won’t even talk to me.”

Stories of community sanctions abound among the elder population in Butte. These are folks who adhered to a culture of labor solidarity. Their stories include descriptions of the sacking of homes of scabs and other sanctions including a common recollection of an effigy of a scab hung by a rope over a streetlamp pole in East Butte. One Butte elder recalled, “I remember this dummy that they hung on the arc light, and they told [[the scab’s wife] ‘if we see him, this is what we’re going to do to him.'”

Butte elders recant numerous stories about how workers managed their peers who did not devote care and energy to their job. They did their work or threatened, ridiculed or coddled them. But they were seldom given up to management, for that constituted the sacrifice of a degree of control over labor, and they were only infrequently chastised or excluded. They were never treated with the brutality that met the scab. Scabbing was a behavior of a different order, an offense alone with the magnitude to constitute a “mortal” sin in the realm of Caesar and one met with the harshest penalty Butte had to offer.

The cultural lynch pins that held Butte’s labor solidarity together were twofold. First, the community shared a clear conception of class conflict. They knew that Company interests conflicted with those of the workers. They also knew that they depended on the Company for subsistence, but the Company also depended on them for labor. If they could control the labor end of the relationship, through circumscribing the community, they could preserve a measure of power. They also knew, from experience as much as ideology, that the Company would take every advantage available to further its interests. They did not expect any more or less from the Company. The community understood it was imperative to keep focus on this adversarial yet cooperative relationship. The cultural conception of this relationship, the way people made sense of it on the streets, took the form of a love-hate attitude toward the Company. They hated the Company for the ends and goals it stood for. Because it its predatory nature, the Company posed a continual threat to their livelihood; it required ceaseless vigilance. But the community loved the Company because it represented the economic source of their livelihood.

Second, while the people of Butte tended diligently to economic matters, they directed their primary attention toward ends involving existential matters and meaning creation based on a non-materialist system of values. The labor solidarity, signified by the scab, was only one vital part of the overall philosophical cultural system. The working class culture of Butte aimed to infuse individual life with significance and a degree of happiness. In doing so, it made the brutality of life, part of which could be traced to capitalist exploitation, endurable. Butte’s people, and their culture, generated meaning in the larger existential realm of life through constructing celebration, observing existential time, and cultivating individual significance. This ultimately enabled the economic sacrifice necessary for the cultural of solidarity. The creation and maintenance of a shared philosophical cultural program was Butte’s biggest coup of Butte’s workers. This was no small accomplishment in a world largely dictated by capitalist corporate culture and hegemony. This philosophical stance made Butte, in the final analysis, the “Richest Hill on Earth.” Butte’s riches were not found in the extraction of ore and environmental destruction. Its riches lie in its people and the culture they created.

Butte was not a working-class paradise. Common patterns of racial and gender exclusion existed, the workers did not challenge the fundamental inequalities of capitalism, they did not effectively confront environmental issues, and, in the end, they lost its control over the labor market. But, during the years between 1934 and 1980, the working people of Butte generated a culture with a fundamentally different notion of competition among workers.

The larger significance of Butte’s labor and cultural history is that it challenged the emerging American modernist capitalist hegemony on a broad scale. The cultural system challenged hegemonic culture beyond the workplace. It offered an alternative way of life that recognized and adapted to the unique challenges facing labor in an era of industrial capitalism. It also acknowledged and addressed the importance of non-material or existential conditions in the era of modernity. The local working class culture addressed life in its totality. Subsistence needs were considered a high priority. This was the case in Butte, Montana between the years of 1936 and at least through 1975.

The contemporary labor movement’s focus has shifted from protecting its boundaries in efforts to assert some control of the labor market to increasing membership in its organizations. Arguments have emerged urging unions to ally with community organizations, forming coalitions that can collectively work for working-class interests. In Butte, the premise of cooperation within the working class, galvanized through community culture, ultimately provided the foundation for a creative and powerful alternative to capitalist hegemony. This cultural alternative, comprised of ideology and practice, facilitated collaboration between union and community. It helped forge resistant adaptation to capitalist exploitation. Because the case of Butte demonstrates an ideologically sound, community-wide, culture-based coalition between community and unions, it suggests the effectiveness of developing such coalitions on cultural grounds. The extent to which the cultural form shapes individual lives or the lives of members of a class depends on the degree to which a “community” practices the form, the degree to which individual members adopt it, and the nature of the community in question. When, as is often the case today, the cultural depiction of scab, with its associated meanings and values, is limited to union membership and a few peripheral sympathizers and not diffused throughout an entire interactive labor community or physical community, its capacity to galvanize labor solidarity is likely not to extend far beyond the corporate gates. I experienced such a situation visiting the picket lines, as a sympathizer, during the United Parcel Service strike of 1997 in the Pacific Northwest. However, when the cultural formation of scab permeates the daily life of a community and its associated interdependent labor market, it forms a component of a collective culture. Such a worldview has a vast capacity to galvanize labor solidarity supported by an established ideological position.

As St. Clair points out, the contemporary “town fathers” may “have a plan to recharge Butte’s flatlined fortunes” by turning Butte “into a tourist haven, a kind of toxic wonderland” (3), but its working-class “fathers” would like to recharge its cultural fortunes-the soul of the “Richest Hill on Earth.” This is why a generation of people in Butte resist the characterization by environmentalists, and the Company, in a strange way, of Butte as an environmental wasteland. ARCO plays the role of victim as much as those concerned about the environmental destruction. But ARCO was not a victim. They inherited the Anaconda properties in a merger, a merger concocted in the search for ever-expanding profits. The elder generation of Butte knows this. What enrages them is the lack of acknowledgement of what they did accomplish under the most trying circumstances and with minimal outside support. Many environmentalists have little awareness of this accomplishment. The Company, ARCO or any other U.S. or multinational corporation, would just as soon keep it that way. Few capitalists would like the American public to hear of the hidden history of “Gibraltar of unionism.” They would prefer to write the story in another way, excluding labor’s successful contestation. They will settle for the lesser of two evils (in their mind): a focus on the environmental destruction coupled with their promise to “do better” rather than give impetus to a collective awareness of historically constructed cultural alternatives to capitalist hegemony.

Could we replicate Butte? Probably not. Would we want to? There are many reasons to not aspire to replicating Butte, not the least of which is the environmental destruction and workplace death resulting from mining. But, could a counter-hegemonic culture of labor solidarity be resurrected from the slag heaps of Butte that addresses the broader range of issues salient to contemporary cultural reformers? I don’t have the answer. Nevertheless, Butte offers a model of working class power, however limited. I’m convinced a counter-hegemonic culture COULD be created in a U.S. post-industrial and industrializing global context. But, change has to be rooted in culture, in a counter-hegemonic movement, and it has to be community or system-wide.

The efforts of the people of Butte were ultimately not successful, and this is due to the power of corporate America, not simply the power of Anaconda or ARCO. Had the rest of the working population in this country followed the example of Butte, corporate power would be, or would have been, dramatically reshaped. Butte was a Gibraltar as long as it had any influence at all-an influence always mostly limited to the local community. Once the mines closed, caused by external forces and behavior on the part of corporate America and the American public, its sphere of influence disappeared. The model of cultural labor solidarity, facilitated by other local cultural values (e.g. a non-materialist/non-consumption-based sense of meaning and purpose, communal relations/obligations, duty, sacrifice, a non-hegemonic sense of competition, etc.) evidenced from 1936 to 1980 in Butte, if coupled with national public support and enhanced by the contemporary awareness of environmental issues, diversity, etc., could go a long ways toward informing people about alternatives and possibilities for reconfiguring the world.

Environmentally speaking, Butte is a mess. Butte may appear a “wasteland” to the naked eye today, much as it did to outsiders throughout its dirty but complex mining existence. However, limiting our understanding of Butte to the imagery of a wasteland, because how this image eliminates from our collective consciousness the powerful labor history and labor organization of over four decades of the 20th century, would make the Company and its contemporary corporate brethren very pleased.

JOHN MIHELICH is an Assistant Professor at the University of Idaho with three generations of family in Butte. John would like to acknowledge Dale Graden, Professor of history at the University of Idaho, for the encouragement to contribute this essay and for its title.