The Vote on International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers
by Craig Wooten

The following is a clip of an interview done with an African-American miner named LC Culpepper who is 81 years old.  Mr. Culpepper Worked for TCI during the time of the election, and he was a supporter of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers.  Click on the following clip to hear Mr. Culpepper's perspective.

LC Culpepper- Mine Mill from Digital Community Studies on Vimeo.

Context

The union that represented the iron ore miners on Red Mountain since 1933 had been the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelters Workers.  This union was adored by many of the black workers, because they saw it as a chance to get better jobs.  There have also been claims that this was a union rooted in the Communist party.  Whatever the reason, T.C.I. wanted Mine Mill off of the mountain, and this became very evident with the election on April 21, 1949.

The election was between the United Steelworkers of America and the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelters Workers.  As the election grew closer, both sides campaigned and made their proposals.  The proposals were very similar, and in fact the United Steelworkers of America went farther than Mine Mill in some areas.  However, there were two areas that Mine Mill had in their proposal that the Steelworkers did not.  These were a “seniority clause” and a anti-discrimination clause”.  The seniority clause was what was most important to the black miners and it protected African-American miners from being fired without reason and helped them get better jobs.

The night before the election both sides were set to give two radio messages on WJLD out of Bessemer, Alabama.  The first set of messages went on as planned, but the second set of messages was when things got ugly.  The United Steelworkers of America went first, and then it was Mine Mill’s turn.  This is when chaos broke out.  As the United Steelworkers were leaving the broadcast, words were exchanged and a fight broke out.  The accounts on what really happened vary, but Maurice Travis, the national secretary treasurer for Mine Mill, was beaten severely.  The Birmingham Aged Herald reported that Mr. Travis was sent to the hospital and was close to loosing an eye.

The following day was Election Day, April 21, 1949.  There were five voting stations set up across Red Mountain, and with planes with banners flying around, it was a big event.  The election did not go as smoothly as many would have liked.  There are many accounts of the Ku Klux Klan and thugs intimidating voters.  The voters that were being intimidated were not the black miners, but instead it was the white miners.  Graham Dolan, the Education Director for Mine Mill, said, “Repeated reports of intimidation were phoned into our office during the day.  Every automobile carrying white workers was stopped and its occupants told by roving gangs of Steel hoodlums that if they did not vote for Steel they would be killed or beaten up.”  With all this being said, the election ended and the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers was defeated.  The final count was 2,696 to 2,233 in favor of the United Steelworkers of America.

Many miners felt that the election was unfair, and that TCI got the union that they wanted on Red Mountain.  This was backed up with evidence.  TCI hired 300-400 white men to work in the Iron Ore Conditioning Plant, and did not hire a single African-American.  Many black miners felt that this was done to outvote Mine Mill.  Many also felt that the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers was labeled communist in order to get them off of Red Mountain.  An example of this is in an article in The Birmingham News on April 22, 1949.  The article was run one day after the election, and in it is a quote from Nick Zonarich, a representative of he United Steelworkers of America.  Mr. Zonarich says, “This fight was has not been a fight between two labor unions.  This fight has been between the United Steelworkers of America and the Communist Party.  He later adds, “All credit should be given the iron ore workers in T.C.I. operations on Red Mountain for having recognized the Communist menace to the labor movement and working so vigorously to destroy it in their midst.”  The article also goes on to say that “a large portion of Mine & Mill membership is Negro”, and that “Steelworker leaders declare they had been misled.”

References:

"Iron Ore Miners and Mine Mill in Alabama:  1933-1952" by Horace Huntley (PhD diss., University of Pittsburgh, 1977).

The Birmingham News. April 20, 1949.

The Birmingham News. April 22, 1949.