Picket Signs and Ore Trains

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Teamsters stop BA&P train, Teamsters strike, 1962        Photo: Smithers.47.043.02

Most of the photographs in the C. Owen Smithers Collection are straight-forward. The subject of the photograph is clear. However, sometimes a series of photographs puzzles us. We felt that way about several photographs taken on North Excelsior Street. We just were not sure what we were seeing. Luckily, the note on the Smithers envelope read, “Teamsters, 1962.” When we searched Newspapers.com, the significance of the photographs became clear.

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Men applying for unemployment compensation, Teamsters strike, 1962      Photo: Smithers.47.042.03

In June, 1962, almost every union in Butte was renegotiating a contract with the Anaconda Company. On June 30th, the Teamsters contract expired. Negotiations were stalled. On Friday, July 13th, the Teamsters gave the Company an ultimatum. If a settlement was not reached before Monday, July 16th, union members would go out on strike. No agreement was reached, and picket lines were set up at 6:30 Monday morning.

At first, the picket lines were orderly. Because so many of the employees working in the Berkeley Pit were Teamsters, the Pit was idle, but underground mines were operating. Picketing Teamsters were not stopping workers from entering mine yards. Things were so peaceful, a horseshoe pit was set up across from the Berkeley Pit garage entrance to help Teamsters pass the time.

Then the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Engineers working for the Butte, Anaconda and Pacific Railway (BA&P), the train that hauled ore from the Butte mines to the Anaconda Reduction Works, voted to honor the Teamster picket line. That simple action caused the shutdown of the entire Anaconda Company operation! As soon as the ore bins at the underground mines were full, with no train cars to move the ore to Anaconda, the mines shut down production. With no ore being hauled to Anaconda, the Reduction Works had no ore to smelt. With nothing to refine, the Anaconda Company facilities in Great Falls shut down.

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Teamsters picketers, Anselmo Mine gate, September, 1967 Photo: Smithers.47.042.02

The strike continued for weeks and then months. The Anaconda Company went to court to try to stop the Teamsters strike from shutting down the BA&P. In the confusion caused by conflicting court rulings, the railroad unions mistakenly believed they had been ordered back to work. At that time, a gateway, located just off Excelsior Street near the entrance to the Anselmo Mine yard, controlled access of BA&P trains to the Butte Hill. The Teamsters had set up a picket line at that gate. When the first train approached the gate, Teamsters with picket signs stopped the train!

After a 4 ½ hour delay, the train was allowed to enter the Hill. Two hours later, the engine returned pulling 40 cars of ore. By that time, 300 to 400 people had gathered to observe. No one was hurt in the incident, but the newspaper reported that two picket signs were destroyed, one when a Teamster smashed his sign against the train as it moved toward Anaconda.

The strike continued until an agreement was reached on September 21st.  It had been a painful two months. Various facilities and operations were shut down for varying lengths of time. Numbers of workers affected by work stoppages rose and fell, at times reaching a high of approximately 6000. Another strike in 1959, had already taken a toll on the town, and citizens of Butte breathed a deep sigh of relief when this strike ended.

So, what the Smithers photographs depicted was Teamsters on Excelsior Street, armed only with picket signs, stopping a train. What we learned is that the BA&P truly was an “artery” for Anaconda Company operations. Stop the train, and the Company dies. I don’t think some of us ever really understood that.

-Harriet

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