9.2.2 Rocky Mountains (1900-1930): The Specter of Syndicalism

Free Speech and Labor Strife
Neelley v. Farr – Colorado, 1916 (158 P. 458); State v. Kahn – Montana 1919 (182 P. 107); State v. Dingman – Idaho, 1923 (219 P. 760)


  • The growth of mining, factories and maritime shipping in the western United States brought labor strife in its wake.  Unions aggressively attempted to recruit Rocky Mountain workers in these sectors, including most famously, and notoriously, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).  Unlike most unions, the “Wobblies” sought far-reaching social reform as well as material gain for workers, and they did not shy away from occasional violence.  Employers were equally aggressive in trying to keep unions out of their facilities. 
  • Strike-related violence was particularly acute in Colorado.  Mining companies, led by the Colorado Fuel & Iron Co. (CF&I), aggressively fought a series of strikes in the early 1900s.  These battles culminated in the Ludlow strike of 1914, which reduced a portion of southern Colorado to near anarchy and prompted the federal government to call out troops to maintain order.  In 1905, former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg, a friend of organized labor, was assassinated by a man who claimed to be an agent of the Western Federation of Miners but ultimately turned out to be an informant for a mining company. 
  • Rocky Mountain courts, like their counterparts elsewhere, in the West, enforced anti-syndicalism laws but did not allow indiscriminate use of the laws to attack all radicals.  In Neelley, Colorado’s supreme court sustained a challenge to a Huerfano County election allegedly rigged in favor of officials in the pay of CF&I.  A narrow majority of the justices concluded that CF&I had rigged the results and threw them out; the justices painted a vivid picture of CF&I’s successful efforts to control the county, and the strike, through bribery, isolation and intimidation.  Two justices believed the strikers, not CF&I, were the primary instigators of violence and fraud and viewed the majority’s decision as an overthrow of the democratic process. 
  • World War I triggered a series of laws aimed at German-American immigrants suspected of disloyalty.  Immediately after the war many states, fearful that the left wing of the labor movement would try to replicate the Russian Revolution in the United States, enacted anti-syndicalism laws.  Law enforcement officials freely applied the laws to left-wing unionists as well as political radicals.  The more temperate anti-sedition laws targeted only direct violence and incitement to violence, but a few states extended wartime restrictions of a broad variety of activities deemed disloyal. 
  • In Kahn, the leading World War I sedition case in the region, Montana’s supreme court indicated it would enforce the state’s 1918 sedition law vigorously:  it upheld the _-year sentence a ___ man received for denouncing the war as “a rich man’s war.”  Bad intent was not necessary for conviction, said the court:  any comment remotely calculated to produce resistance was criminal.  In Dingman, Idaho’s supreme court took a more moderate stance:  it held that IWW members could be convicted for supporting the union’s advocacy of violence, although it overturned Dingman’s conviction based on procedural errors at trial.  
Kansas-style industrial conciliation in the Rockies

People v. United Mine Workers of America – Colorado, 1921 (201 P. 54)

  • During the Progressive era Colorado’s supreme court, like sister courts in several other states (see §§ ___), gradually abandoned its initial hostility to reform legislation in favor of a more deferential approach.   The court completed its transition in the UMW case, where it upheld a 1915 law creating an industrial commission with power to arbitrate mining strikes and impose its decision on owners and employees alike.  The court recognized that its decision amounted to a reversal of the extreme deference it had shown to freedom of contract in its 1899 Morgan decision (§ __), but it bluntly admitted that times had changes and that the Morgan doctrine was not suited to modern times.  

“There can be no free, open, and fair election as contemplated by the Constitution where private industrial corporations so throttle public opinion, deny the free exercise of choice by sovereign electors, dictate and control all election officers, prohibit public discussion of public questions, and imperially command what citizens may and what citizens may not, peacefully and for lawful purposes, enter upon election or public territory.” – Justice _, in Neelley


“A large body of the so-called strikers still remained in the county in segregated camps engaged in intimidating those employed at the mines who had taken their places.  … [It[ is plain that anybody could enter each camp for any purpose whose mission was not one of intimidation.  What was wrong about this action of the coal companies?” – Justice _ Gabbert (dissenting), in Neelley   


“The purposes of the IWW are a part of the current history of the day, and of the times.  … [S]tandard dictionaries … as well as the courts, characterize ths organization as one advocating the doctrine of crime, sabotage violence, and unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing industrial and political reform.”  - Justice _, in Dingman
“A business by circumstance and in its nature may rise from a private to a public concern, … and since the decision of the Morgan case … the rapid development of the relations of the coal miners, the coal operators, and the public have produced a situation very different from that which then existed. … In modern life, heat means coal.” – Justice _, in UMW