From almost the beginning of the territory, Montana workers tried to organize themselves into unions to secure safer working conditions and better wages and to redress grievances. Where union locals grew, they built halls for meetings and social events. Their accommodations ranged from rented rooms to simple, modest halls to large, ornate buildings, reflecting the union’s size and status in the community.
Helena’s typographers organized Montana’s first union local in 1866, but most of Montana’s early union activity centered around railroad workers, miners, and smeltermen. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers built one of Montana’s first union halls in Forsyth in 1882. By 1909, Red Lodge Local No. 1771 of the United Mine Workers of America, a coal miners’ local, built their three-story labor temple, complete with a third-floor ballroom big enough to host its 1,000-plus members. The “Gibraltar of Unionism,” however, was Butte, whose rich copper deposits attracted thousands of miners and associated tradesmen.
Founded in 1878, the Butte Miners Union (BMU) grew into one of the largest local unions in the United States. In 1893, the BMU reorganized and became Local #1 of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM). The WFM, an industrial union, was open to laborers of all skill levels, in contrast to the craft unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. The WFM gave rise to the Industrial Workers of the World, a prominent, radical anti-capitalist union, which made strong inroads into northwest Montana’s timber industry before World War I. Factions within Butte unions brought controversy and sometimes violence. In 1914, a fight between radical and conservative unionists led to the dynamiting of the WFM Hall. However, many sites still mark labor’s historical importance to the mining city—from the Carpenter’s Union Hall to the Silver Bow Club, an elite club building that became the offices of the miner’s union after 1950.
Butte’s strong union ethos also led to the formation of the Butte Women’s Protective Union (WPU). A forerunner of service industry unions, the WPU successfully secured an eight-hour work day, overtime pay, vacation, and sick leave for its members. Later in the twentieth century, public sector employees, such as teachers and state workers, also became active unionists.
While many of Montana’s labor temples have new uses today, the buildings continue to represent over a century of effort to improve working conditions for a diverse array of Montanans.