Book Review: ‘Death of a Proud Union,’ by Art Norlen

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Author Art Norlen came to the Silver Valley at age nineteen in 1928, having already worked briefly in the Montana copper mines. Typically in those days, miners’ wages were three dollars per twelve-hour day. Organized strikes for higher wages were illegal until about 1933. Art worked as a miner, and when collective bargaining between employer and employees later became legal, he served as “shop steward” in local 18 of the Mine-Mill Union, representing Kellogg. (Local 9 covered Mullan, local 14 covered Wallace.)

Early chapters skip around various pre-World War II events, but the main focus is from 1950 onward, especially the Bunker Hill and Asarco strike of 1960. The war was not kind to the local mines. Steel and aluminum were produced elsewhere. Copper, and to less extent zinc, were in demand for the war effort; silver and gold were not. Labor unions’ goals could be seen as counter-productive, as could their earlier historical association in people’s minds with Russian communism. Post-war Russia was no longer an ally but a military foe in the “cold war.”

The author describes the Silver Valley as a one-industry community. Not strictly true: work was also provided by the lumber industry, by the motels, restaurants and gas stations of Route US-10 and its conversion to I-90, etc. but the mines were by far the main source of jobs.

The mining companies were by nature well-organized; they much preferred that their employees were not, at least when the subject of pay rates came up. Workers’ strikes were “un-American” according to some citizens, “communist” according to others. Reports in the news and elsewhere were often distorted.

The author reports the1960 strike in detail, including the union’s written rules for strikers’ behavior, and the varied reactions of Kellogg’s citizens.

High school students formed ‘Youth for Americanism’, their spokesperson (that year’s valedictorian) saying they were “not Anti-Union nor Anti-Labor, but ‘Anti-Communism.” Students of labor and management families attended the same high school, but the Bunker strike took away summer jobs some students depended on. They scheduled a loyalty parade and rally for May 26. A group called Shoshone County Anti-Communist Association immediately supported the Youth rally and published the Mine-Mill Union’s Preamble side by side with the Communist Manifesto, implying that the union was communist. Actually the two documents were similar only in saying workers need to stand up for their rights. The chairman of the Anti-communist association was one of Kellogg’s doctors, Dr. C. I. Gibbon, who had very strong feelings about the dangers of communism taking over the whole USA.

Your reviewer never met him, but Gibbon’s death, from natural causes in 1966, was the reason I was invited to come to Kellogg in 1967 to replace him in the Kellogg 6-doctor partnership. To my half-amused surprise, I was denied membership in one of the Valley’s churches because of my father’s association with the forty-million-member National Council of Churches USA, “obviously a communist front,” according to local rumors. (These were the years of U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy’s tirades that communists had infiltrated U.S. churches.) I did join the doctors’ group, but was not invited into the county’s politics, despite my wife’s and my occasional friendly social contacts with Dr. Gibbon’s widow.

The book’s author, on the other hand, not only faced similar accusations stemming from his labor union activities, but also witnessed his wife’s dismissal from her school teacher’s job in School District 391. (She went on for many years of teaching in Wallace’s school district.)

Groups for and against the strike expressed themselves. The Bunker Hill Mine brought in miners from other regions. Arguments, fist fights and threats broke out on the streets of Kellogg and at the picket lines. Union miners off-duty from the picket lines guarded the Union hall night and day. County officials ended the school children’s hot lunch program. Some storekeepers, now with fewer customers, joined the anti-strike groups. Art Norlen, now a shoe sales and repair shop owner, was approached by union leaders concerned about miner’s kids who couldn’t afford shoes as freezing winter weather approached. The union was running low on money. “If our clerks do all the fitting and selling, I’ll sell you the shoes wholesale plus ten per cent,” Art said. He was one of only a half dozen shop keepers and a few bartenders still on the side of the striking miners.

In the end, the old Mine-Mill Union was narrowly voted out, replaced by the “Northwest Metal Workers Union.” The strikers had been asking for a 22-1/2 cent per-hour increase in pay; they had been offered an increase of 4 cents per hour, increasing by 4 cents each year over a 3-year contract period. Mr. Norlen presents the details objectively.

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