Big Trouble

Article excerpt

Labor-union violence directed at business owners, independent-minded workers, and political leaders who believe in the rule of law has a long, sorry history. Big Trouble is a revealing look at one episode.

The focus of Pulitzer Prize-winner J. Anthony Lukas's Big Trouble is the death of former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg, killed by a bomb as he opened the gate to his home on December 30, 1905. Although the author is in the thrall of the false idea that labor is pitted in a struggle against "capital," he honestly reports the facts of the story. An intriguing story it is.

Within days of Steunenberg's murder, detectives closed in on Thomas Hogan, in whose hotel room they found traces of bombmaking material. Investigators discovered that he had been active with the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) in Idaho, using the name Harry Orchard. Under the skilled interrogation of the Pinkertons' most famous detective, James McParland, Orchard confessed to the Steunenberg murder and pointed to the chief conspirators, WFM President Charles Moyer, adviser George Pettibone, and the WFM's bombastic secretary-treasury, "Big Bill" Haywood. Their apparent motivation stemmed from their violent confrontation with Governor Steunenberg in 1899.

The battle had begun in 1892, when union militants called a strike, then rode through the mining district warning managers to dismiss non-union labor or see their valuable machinery blown sky-high. Soldiers soon restored order, but out of this initial loss the WFM was born. Seven years later, the WFM hierarchy rejected a wage increase and struck the Bunker Hill & Sullivan company's mines, demanding recognition as the only representative of all the miners. Frank Steunenberg was the governor, and because he had been elected on the Populist-Democrat ticket, the union leaders presumed he would be sympathetic to them.

Some 150 union militants, many of them armed, turned workers away from the mines with dire threats, while another group seized the tramway carrying ore from mine to mill. Hundreds more unionists commandeered a train in nearby Canyon Creek, drove it to Bunker Hill, and blew up a huge concentrator costing about $250,000.

Convinced that the local sheriff was colluding with the WFM (a conclusion endorsed by Lukas), Steunenberg finally asked President William McKinley to send federal troops to restore order. …