Lessons From the Tomb of Frank Little

Mike Elk

Frank Little, who came to Butte in 1917, was brutally murdered for his efforts to organize mine workers against the Anaconda Copper Company.

In June of 1917, 168 work­ers died in the Spec­u­la­tor mine dis­as­ter in Butte, Mon­tana — many from asphyx­i­a­tion. That July, leg­endary Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World (IWW) union orga­niz­er Frank Lit­tle arrived in Butte to help orga­nize a rec­og­nized union and lead a strike against the own­er of the mine, Ana­con­da Cop­per Com­pa­ny. A month lat­er, Lit­tle was found lynched above Butte’s train tracks with a note on his chest that said, First and last warning.”

Lit­tle was buried lat­er that month in Butte in a cer­e­mo­ny attend­ed by more than 2,000 cop­per min­ers. His tomb­stone read, Slain by Cap­i­tal­ist Inter­ests for Orga­niz­ing and Inspir­ing His Fel­low Men.”

Over the years Lit­tle’s tomb­stone fell into dis­re­pair — until 2008, when Mike Boysza, then a mem­ber of the now-defunct of Butte Area Car­pen­ters Local 112, and a num­ber of local union activists decid­ed to repair the tomb site. They want­ed to cre­ate a per­ma­nent reminder for all trade union­ists of the tough fights of the past.

I think it is impor­tant to know where your strug­gles came from,” says Boysza. The rea­son you get the wages you get, the rea­son you get the ben­e­fits you get, is because some­body else struggled.”

Such strug­gles are famil­iar in Butte. Since Little’s time, unions in the area have fought, some­times through bloody means, for the right to orga­nize and receive fair wages. In 1914, min­ers blew up the West­ern Fed­er­a­tion of Min­ers union hall in Butte’s busi­ness dis­trict because they felt the union was work­ing too close­ly with the Ana­con­da Cop­per Com­pa­ny. About 50 years lat­er, accord­ing to Boysza, union con­struc­tion work­ers react­ed to the pro­posed build­ing of a non-union hotel in the city by set­ting fire to the foot­ing for the half-built structure.

That is the kind of thing that you have to do to say No, quit fuck­ing with us,’ ” Boysza explains. We had a Super 8 that was com­ing to Butte and they had all the mate­r­i­al and the ditch­es dug. [Union activists] pushed what they could into the ditch for the foot­ing and burnt it all. This was in the 1970s. We didn’t get a Super 8 here [for] almost 20 years — and when they built a Super 8, it was built union.”

In fact, while Mon­tana is not thought of as a union hotbed by most out­siders, until recent­ly, almost all of the com­mer­cial con­struc­tion in the city was done by union work­ers — a dis­tinc­tion that even major union towns like New York City can no longer claim.

In the last few years, how­ev­er, the orga­niz­ing pow­er exem­pli­fied by Butte’s his­to­ry has been slip­ping for local unions. But­te’s Con­ti­nen­tal Pit mine, which closed in 2000 after trans­fer­ring own­er­ship from the Ana­con­da Cop­per Com­pa­ny to Mon­tana Resources, reopened in 2004, but this time with­out its work­ers being rep­re­sent­ed by their pre­vi­ous union, the Unit­ed Mine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (UMWA). Out­side com­pe­ti­tion and frac­tured lead­er­ship have also begun to threat­en the rights of local con­struc­tion work­ers like Boysza. Accord­ing to Boysza, under their old con­tract, wages for car­pen­ters in Butte typ­i­cal­ly start­ed $22.50 an hour. Then, after the region­al coun­cil of his union forced his local to merge with a statewide union of all Mon­tana car­pen­ters, the coun­cil changed the union con­tract last year to be con­sis­tent with the entire state’s. Boysza says this reduced the start­ing wages of Butte car­pen­ters by more than four dollars.

That move didn’t make any sense to Boysza. They said they low­ered the wages so we could be com­pet­i­tive with the non-union [car­pen­ters], but there are no union car­pen­ters here that are out of work,” he says. I thought it was unnecessary.”

And at a time when car­pen­ters in Butte are being forced to take wage cuts, instead of plac­ing resources and deci­sion-mak­ing pow­er into the hands of the local rank-and-file work­ers, the region­al union has instead made the union and its vot­ing process less acces­si­ble to Butte car­pen­ters. Rank-and-file Butte car­pen­ters can no longer make deci­sions about the day-to-day func­tion­ing of their union at their old hall in Butte; instead, they have to make the two-hour dri­ve to Great Falls.

They have infor­ma­tion­al meet­ings here now,” Boysza explains, refer­ring to the his­toric Car­pen­ters’ Union Hall built in 1906. Boysza’s local union was forced to go to court ear­li­er this year to pre­vent the region­al coun­cil, the Pacif­ic North­west Region­al Coun­cil of Car­pen­ters, from sell­ing the build­ing and forc­ing sev­er­al local unions into the street. But if you want to go to a union meet­ing you have to go to Great Falls … It’s 160 miles away!”

Boysza’s sen­ti­ment echoes those of oth­er work­ers who have come togeth­er on the Sum­mer of Sol­i­dar­i­ty tour, which aims to con­nect union mem­bers across Amer­i­ca. They, like Boysza, claim that labor lead­ers who run unions at the region­al and nation­al lev­els have lost touch with local unions and their his­to­ry. Boysza says that in giv­ing con­ces­sions so eas­i­ly and los­ing touch with insti­gat­ing rank-and-file mil­i­tan­cy, lead­ers have for­got­ten the efforts and lega­cy of union orga­niz­ers like Frank Little.

It’s these guys from Wash­ing­ton. They don’t have a clue what the labor strife was to get to where we are at today,” says Boysza as we dri­ve near the rail­road tracks where Lit­tle was dragged behind a car short­ly before he was hanged.

Mean­while, as Boysza’s union wres­tles among its own ranks, more non-union con­struc­tion projects have begun to creep into the Butte area. Thir­ty years after union work­ers report­ed­ly set fire to a half-built Super 8 to protest its con­struc­tion, the first non-union hotel in the city has opened its doors. This time, it’s a Hol­i­day Inn Express.

They just opened it up a month ago,” says Boysza. He laughs. When it was just a wood-framed struc­ture, they should have burnt the fuck­er to the ground.”

This is the fifth in a series by In These Times staff writer Mike Elk, who is trav­el­ing for two weeks with the Sum­mer of Sol­i­dar­i­ty tour. To help In These Times cov­er his trav­el expens­es and to send more reporters to cov­er grass­roots activism around the coun­try, donate here.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Work­ing In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is cur­rent­ly a labor reporter at Politico.
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