Dakota Datebook

Strikes and Martial Law, Part 2

Friday, November 12, 2004

Today we continue the story of a miners’ strike that ended with Governor Lynn Frazier declaring martial law on this date in 1919. It was a year of great upheaval. Across the country, the working class rebelled against corporate greed by walking off the job.

Across the country, 125,000 members of the United Mine Workers went on strike at midnight on October 31st. After talks between local union officials and mine owners failed, North Dakota miners joined the strike several days later.

The Non-Partisan League was in power and was taking major steps to protect farmers and the working class from corporate greed. In his capacity as Governor, Lynn Frazier tried repeatedly to resolve the issues dividing the miners’ union and the state’s mine owners, but it wasn’t working. The local operators had recently negotiated a new contract in which the miners had agreed to no walkouts. The miners now found themselves between a rock and a hard place. The union was asking them to strike for a 60% increase in their wages; but, the raise wouldn’t even go to them, it would go toward paying strike benefits in the eastern states. Meanwhile, winter was coming on, and their fellow citizens were facing a major crisis.

One week into the strike, a news story read, “The Valley City electric light plant, owned by the city, today discontinued service to pool halls, billiard halls, dance halls, churches, clubs and lodges, school buildings, bowling alleys, and signs and store show windows, as a means of conserving (coal), the available supply being sufficient to operate the plant only 10 days.”

Minot schools had only a one-week supply. The Mandan Electric Company had only 4 or 5 days worth. The price of coal shot up to an astronomical $5 a ton in Dickinson, and in Williston, workers crossed the picket line; city commissioners distributed the diggings as fairly as possible.

On the 11th of November, Governor Frazier issued an ultimatum to mine operators to grant the union’s demands by 6 o’clock that evening, or he would seize the mines to protect the state from catastrophe. It was a gutsy move; elsewhere, police and the military moved in to break down 300,000 steel workers who were winning their strike. Strikers, and those who supported them, were shot, beaten, arrested and driven out of town. Frazier’s threat to take the mines from their operators wouldn’t be popular here or in Washington.

The mine operators refused to concede, so shortly after midnight, Frazier declared martial law. Thirty-four mines were taken over, including the Washburn at Wilton; the Red Trail and the Little Missouri at Medora; the Dakota at Tasker; the Burlington City, Colton, Midway, Conan, Davis, Humnwell, Lloyd, Superior, and the Wallace at Burlington; the National, Clark, Crosby, Diamond, Farmer’s, Thompson, Hellon and Rich Coal Companies at Kenmare; the Sanberg, Houphe, and Larbaski at Noonan; and the Black Diamond, Star, Buyrn, Ellihorpt, Williston and Head Coal Companies at Williston.

Mine operators were asked to stay on and run the mines until an agreement could be reached. Frazier put Adjutant General Angus Fraser in charge, with the stipulation that no coal was to leave the state; and there could be no profiteering. Under martial law, men between 18 and 45 could be called into action to help carry out orders. Those who were called up were the striking miners, who were now able to dig coal as militiamen. A Fargo Forum article stated, “Informed of Governor Frazier’s action, the miners (at Burlington) declared that ‘is just what we wanted.’”

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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