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Strikes and Martial Law, Part 1


On September 12, 1918, a Minot story read, “Shortage of labor threatens to greatly curtail the supply of lignite coal this fall and winter from mines near this point.” By January, the story read, “Lignite coal miners in the Burlington, Minot and Noonan districts threaten a strike on January 15 if they are not given a 20 percent raise. So far, the government has taken no action...”

By this date in 1919, the government was indeed taking action. Governor Lynn Frazier was preparing to declare martial law and seize the state’s lignite mines on behalf of the state.

World War I had been over for only a year, and the world was still reeling from the 1918 flu pandemic. The cost of living had almost doubled during the war; workers’ pre-war dollars were now worth only 45 cents. Industrialists that had gotten rich from the war now wanted to cut wages and take away gains made by organized labor. Countless numbers of American workers were on strike, and conservatives feared a revolution similar to the Bolsheviks’ takeover of Russia the previous year.

Inspired by Lenin’s revolution on behalf of the working class, U.S. workers increasingly broke away from the republicans and democrats; some looked to socialism, some tried to start a Labor Party. Unions had doubled their membership during the war; hundreds of thousands of jobs had been filled by recent immigrants who were willing to be aggressive and militant.

Robert Murray, author of Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, estimated that 4,000,000 workers – one-out-of-five American wage earners – went on strike that year. Out east, some 170,000 textile workers walked off their jobs, and 400,000 coal miners defied both Woodrow Wilson and a federal court injunction by walking out of the pits. In Boston, even the police went on strike.

In North Dakota, the Non-Partisan League was ahead of the game; fed up with Eastern railroads, banks and grain terminals, they had already gained control of the state’s government and were taking major steps to protect farmers and the working class from big business.

Now, with harvesting finished and winter approaching, a crisis was developing. On October 23rd, Fargo businessmen called an emergency meeting, because local builders would have to shut down operations if gravel wasn’t delivered – hundreds would lose their jobs. But, railroad cars used for shipping gravel were now being used for emergency coal deliveries.

Washington officials fumed that striking miners were going to drive up the price of coal from $2 per ton to $2.50. “Where will this striking frenzy stop?” demanded a New Jersey senator. “Unless a halt is called, we shall reach a state of anarchy...!”

Henry Drennan was president District 27 of the United Mine Workers, which included North Dakota lignite mines. In the early days of November, Drennan met with Governor Frazier to discuss the probability that lignite miners would be called on to join the strike. With winter advancing, it was essential to keep the mines open, so Frazier brought in the mine operators and urged them to accept the union’s new demands, which included a 60% wage increase. Talks broke down, and union lignite miners walked off the job, leading to an immediate fuel shortage.

On this day in 1919, Governor Frazier issued an ultimatum threatening to seize the mines if the operators didn’t concede. Tune in tomorrow to learn what happened the following day.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm