Looking back at the history of labor unrest in Summit County

Men sit on stacked, cut logs piled in front of a wood- and log-frame mining structure at Ouray Mine in Breckenridge. Most of the men are dressed in collared work coats and hats. One man, possibly the mine owner or administration, wears a suit with a necktie. Miners and other workers seem to be involved in only two significant labor disputes in Summit County history.
Photo from Dr. Sandra F. Mather Archives / Breckenridge Heritage Alliance

FRISCO — Labor Day, which is the first Monday in September, became a holiday by law in several states, including Colorado, in 1887 according to the U.S. Department of Labor. While major labor strikes and uprisings occurred across the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s, there aren’t many cases of labor strikes in Summit County’s history. 

Local historian Bill Fountain joked via email that Summit County seemed to have happy workers when historical records only turned up two cases of historical labor unrest in Summit County: a wage dispute and walkout at the Country Boy Mine and unrest during the construction of Green Mountain Dam and camp.

Fountain and Sandra Mather — fellow local historian and author of over 20 books on the history of the county — are currently writing a book entitled “The History of the Country Boy Mine 1881-1994.” Fountain shared a piece of the book’s manuscript that discusses the wage dispute and walkout at the mine. The manuscript explains that the men at the mine “walked out” on May 21, 1944, over a wage dispute, although the Summit County Journal described pay at the mine as “top wages.” Prior to the walkout, the mine saw low absenteeism and turnover. 

“Before conditions can be straightened out some arrangements will have to be set to govern the wages at other mines in the district. Mr. Garview has been working with attorneys of the National War Labor Board in Denver the past several days trying to get the wage scale fixed for the mine,” stated a 1944 article by the Summit County Journal regarding the walk out. 

The manuscript reports that an executive from the legal department of the National War Labor Board traveled from Washington D.C. to Breckenridge to meet with officials and laborers on June 14. Then after the meeting, the wage scale was adjusted, affecting about 30 mines in the Breckenridge area and employees of the Country Boy Mine returned to work. Fountain speculated that the new wage scale might have been the first time mine workers earned hourly wages instead of set wages for each shift. Fountain also noted that the dispute didn’t seem to involve an official labor union. 

The Summit Historical Society published a document in 2007 detailing labor controversy surrounding Green Mountain Reservoir projects. The article explains that in 1938, private engineers, United States Reclamation Service staffers and others met in Denver as the first contract for the construction of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project was awarded to Warner Construction Co. of Chicago. The contract covered the building of the Green Mountain Dam and power plant located on the Blue River and Warner had until May 1943 to complete construction. 

“Labor controversy followed (Colorado-Big Thompson) during its first spring and summer of construction,” the article states. “On July 12, 1939, a strike was called by five American Federation of Labor (AFL) craft unions to support demands for collective bargaining recognition and a closed shop.”

However, the State Industrial Commission called the strike illegal because union officials did not give 30 days notice of their intention to strike in compliance with a Colorado statute. According to the article, Summit County then swirled with rumors of local unionists requesting 500 reinforcements from Denver’s American Federation of Labor. 

On Aug. 1, 1939, the article reported that an “anti-union caravan” headed toward the site. Two picket lines were broken by the end of the day. Colorado Gov. Ralph Carr called out a National Guard force on Aug. 4 and declared martial law in Grand and Summit counties. An agreement was reached on Aug. 22, which gave the union permission to sign a closed-shop agreement on Sept. 15. Green Mountain Dam construction was complete by November of 1943. 

Mather located one final detail involving labor unrest, which was the death of George Robinson at the Robinson mine in the upper Tenmile Canyon. She explained in an email that his 1880 death was a result of unrest among his workers.

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