The International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (Mine Mill) represented an experiment in interracial unionism in the Birmingham District. This effort in independent unionism lasted approximately 15 years during the 1930s and 1940s. Despite its short life, the organization influenced subsequent desegregation efforts during the civil rights movement.
Mine Mill grew out of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), which adhered to the tenets of the nineteenth century Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Mine Mill rejected both the IWW’s belief in the “One Big Union” philosophy, which advocated organizing workers irrespective of occupation, and the approach of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) of Birmingham Coal Miners, 1937 organizing labor according to individual crafts, thus largely ignoring industrial labor. In Alabama, Mine Mill struggled through intimidation, firings, lack of recognition by companies, and two strikes between 1933 and 1938. In addition, there was an ongoing internal struggle for control in Mine Mill from 1938 to 1948.
Mine Mill was originally organized in the western states of Colorado, Utah, Idaho, and South Dakota. It was a left-leaning organization that was often popularly considered radical; some of its national leaders were affiliated with the Communist Party. As with other unions, Mine Mill’s organizational efforts were hurt by anti-unionism in the 1920s. After passage of New Deal labor legislation in the 1930s, unions’ abilities to organize were enhanced, and labor organizations, including Mine Mill, expanded efforts to unite workers.
In July 1933, Jim Lipscomb, a white former Alabama miner who had been blacklisted for his organizing efforts in the 1920s, returned to Bessemer to practice law and assist in launching the drive of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers in the Birmingham District. An initial mass meeting near the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company (TCI) mines received overwhelming support from the ore miners. The support came about because the Employee Representation Plans (ERPs)—unions organized with the approval of the company in an effort to minimize independent union organization—were company controlled, and the United Mine Workers Union was advancing the cause of workers in the coalfields. There were approximately 5,000 iron ore miners in the area, of whom 80 percent were black. They were employed by the Sloss-Sheffield Steel Company, Republic Steel, the Woodward Iron Company, and TCI, a division of United States Steel.
The Sloss-Sheffield Local 109 and the Republic Steel Raimund Local 121 were the first to be chartered on July 17 and July 25, 1933, respectively. The TCI locals in Ishkooda, Wenonah, and Muscoda were all chartered less than one month later. The black miners began defecting, en masse, from the ERPs and affiliating with Mine Mill. Some whites did as well, but they were confronted with the communist label and racial epithets. Some white workers remained with Mine Mill, but many whites yielded to the pressure and returned to the ERPs. Thus Mine Mill was overwhelmingly black and the ERPs were practically all white.
From its earliest days, members of Mine Mill were harassed on the job. Complaints from the union leaders included unjustified discharges of members, threats, intimidation and verbal abuse by the mine superintendent and foremen, increased work-load of union members, layoffs for minor and unjustified reasons, placing of men on less desirable jobs, refusal to reinstate discharged workers, and the company’s failure to bargain collectively. These complaints, among others, led to a strike in 1934, but the effort failed to substantially improve working conditions or the union’s relationship with the company.
A second strike occurred in 1936 because of mistreatment of union workers, less than desirable working conditions, a TCI-initiated “incentive plan,” and a lack of company recognition of the Sloss Furnace union. Workers filed affidavits with the U.S. Senate Committee on Education and Labor describing violent activities during the strikes. The two strikes and subsequent anti-union activities by the company nearly destroyed Mine Mill in Alabama. However, in 1938 the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled in the union’s favor, reinstating 160 miners who had been fired for their union involvement and participation in the strikes. The workers also received back pay amounting to an average of approximately $700.00, collectively more than $100,000. This victory led to Mine Mill being recognized by TCI as the workers’ bargaining agent.
Paradoxically, this victory led to strife within Mine Mill. White workers who had been members of the company unions now joined the predominantly black Mine Mill and sought to wrestle control away. The decade between 1938 and 1948 witnessed the internal struggle for control of Mine Mill in Alabama. In 1941, TCI built an Ore Conditioning Plant in Wenonah and staffed it with only white workers who established a Mine Mill local. Workers’ jobs replaced during this decade were usually refilled with white workers. This practice resulted in a ratio change between 1938 and 1949 from 80 percent black to 20 percent white to approximately even percentages.
A bitter campaign ensued between Mine Mill and the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) in preparation for an election to determine which organization would be recognized by the company as the official representative of the workers. The USWA attracted most of the white workers, and black workers remained staunch Mine Mill supporters. There were accusations of foul-play from both sides, but Mine Mill lost the election and its ability to represent the workers. To black workers, Mine Mill was much more than just another labor organization. For them, the union meant a coming of freedom, justice, and equity. The organization became a way of life that the workers cherished. With the loss of the election, many felt that their way of life had been dealt a critical setback.
The interracial experiment in industrial organization in Mine Mill ultimately succumbed to the debilitating effects of the Red Scare from within and outside of the union. The work of Mine Mill leaders Jim Lipscomb, Frank Allen, Eugene Calhoun, Alton Lawrence, Asbury Howard, and Phil Tindle, among others, sought equality and justice for black workers and warded off the demise of Mine Mill for 10 years. In 1949, Mine Mill lost the consent election to determine representation and never regained its former status.
Some viewed Mine Mill as a failed experiment. It was, however, successful in building a foundation for the development of a Bessemer branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Bessemer Voters League, and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights in Birmingham. Thus, organizing skills learned in Mine Mill were put to use in the ensuing civil rights struggles that aided the eventual overthrow of segregation in Alabama.
Cayton, Horace, and George Mitchell. Black Workers and the New Unions. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1939.
Hudson, Hosea. Black Worker in the Deep South: A Personal Record. New York: International Publishers, 1972.
Huntley, Horace. “Iron Ore Miners and Mine Mill in Alabama, 1933-1952.” Ph.D. diss., University of Pittsburgh, 1977.
Huntley, Horace, and David Montgomery, eds. Black Workers’ Struggle for Equality in Birmingham. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.
Kelley, Robin D.G. Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.
Painter, Nell Irvin. The Narrative of Hosea Hudson. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1979.
Taft, Philip. Organizing Dixie: Alabama Workers in the Industrial Era. Revised and edited by Gary M. Fink. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, c1981.