Tuesday, 24 April 2012 00:03

Gallup Coal Strike and Communism in New Mexico

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Governorr Arthur Seligman ca 1932 Governorr Arthur Seligman ca 1932 Press photo used in 1933 New Years column. Newspaper unknown. Photograapher unknown. Personal collection

The Gallup Coal Strike and Communists in New Mexico


Arthur Scott


   My grandfather, Arthur Seligman, served as Governor from 1930 to 1933, when he died in Office. This was an extremely difficult time in United States history, the midst of The Great Depression. The percentage of those unemployed was in high double-digit numbers. State budgets had to be cut. President Roosevelt’s New Deal was in full swing providing some relief through the Federal public works programs such as the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) and The WPA (Works Progress Administration.) As far as I can determine, my grandfather was forced to mobilize e the National Guard and declare Military Law in various counties three times during his administration; once during demonstrations in Taos and Santa Fe against perceived discriminatory practices at the University of New Mexico, during the 1932 election, and during the 1933 coal strike at Gallup. Thiws is the story ofGallup.


   The coal strike and ensuing union-labor actions thrust New Mexico into the National spotlight.   During the 1930’s there were five major coal mining companies operating mines in the Gallup area; the Gallup American Coal Company, Mutual Coal Company, Diamond Coal Company, Southwestern Coal Company and Direct Line Coal Company. After the First World War, labor disputes were rampant in Colorado, Arizona, also in Madrid, New Mexico. Miners worked and lived in dismal conditions. There were about 1000 miners in Gallup most of them Hispanic from New Mexico, however also including a large group of Mexican immigrants. By the thirties there were two competing unions attempting to organize miners in Gallup, the UMW, United Mine Workers and the NMU, the Communist affiliated National Miners Union. The miners, overwhelmingly, rejected both the Companies’ own union and the largely Angelo UMW choosing instead the NMU.  “This union emphasized not only militant action but cross-racial and cross-ethnic organizing. In late August 1933, the miners walked out tto demand union recognition, peacefully shutting down all of the Gallup mines”

   The front page of the August 30, 1933 Albuquerque Journal stated:


CRISIS GROWS. Machine Gun Unit and Two Troops of Calvary Ordered by Governor to be in Readiness.  Situation out of hand, sheriff wires.”

And it goes on to say “Union officials ignore Labor Commissioner Davy, Gen. Wood sent by Governor for conference.”

  The newspaper said the about 900 of the 1000 miners in Gallup had gone on strike. Sheriff Roberts, in his message to the Governor said that “The condition is serious and beyond our control; without bloodshed, probable loss of life, and heavy property damage.” 

    On August 31, The Albuquerque Journal headline reads, “GALLUP STRIKE LEADERS ASK TROOP WITHDRAWAL; PLAN A MASS MARCH”

“Coal strike leaders declare they meant no harm or violence as troops move to field.” “PICKETS BARRED ON MINE PROPERTY” ”General Wood announces solidary will disperse all meetings including miners union.”

    On the same date the Middleton (New York) Times Herald reported the story on it’s front page:: “NATIONAL GUARD TROOPS CALLED AS MINERS STRIKE  Woman leads Marching Miners  Defying Sheriff’s Deputies in New Mexico...The central figure of the walkout was a vivacious young married  woman, recently graduated from the Brookwood Labor College of Katonah, N. Y. It was Mrs. Martha Roberts, twenty-one, who rallied 600 miners and eighty of their wives into a marching column that defied heavily armed sheriffs and deputies yesterday to push toward The Gallup American Cameron Mine and relieve pickets who had guarded the mine all night... (the mine owners) refuse to deal with the organization the Roberts represent because they claim it is controlled by Communists.”

    By September 1, The Albuquerque Journal was reporting that tthe miners held a meeting on the Arizona State line to avoid arrest by the National Guard and voted to continue pickets after Mrs. Roberts and her husband’s pleas to a crowd of 500 miners. Initially the miners wanted to stop the pickets. Additionally the miners sent a delegation of two men and three women to the Governor’s office requesting that Governor Seligman to rescind the martial law order and come to Gallup to meet with the miners. The Governor told the delegation that they should present their troubles and reasons for the strike to him in writing. He said he would try to come to Gallup soon. In response to the miner’s stating they need food for their families, Governor Seligman said the best way to provide food is “to stop the strike and return to work.”

   On September 2, the miners stopped the pickets and named a committee to escort Governor Seligman to Gallup. Seligman said he was awaiting the promised written complaint by union before deciding on journey. The Mayor of Gallup released a letter from the assistant National Recovery Administration stating that the National Miners Union has “a direct connection with Communist leaders of this country.” And, in contrast, that the United Mine Workers of America are a part of the American Federation of labor. 

    By September 5 the Journal was reporting that an official of the Federal U. S. National Recovery Administration predicted an early end to the strike. At the same time there was a looming court battle to determine the ownership of the portion of State Highway 666 that ran trough the Gallup American coal  company’s property. Strikers received support of food from farmers in Colorado, Wyoming, and Nevada. Sarah Deutsch said in a contribution to

 “Telling New Mexico-A New History,” Despite its animus toward the leftist NMU, the New Mexico Federation of Labor, pressured by its Spanish-speaking members, “came out in support of the NMU strikers.”

   In early October, General Osborne F. Woods, head of the troops at Gallup, arrested the entire leadership of the largely Mexican-heritage and immigrant NMU. He charged them with inciting insurrection against New Mexico. Two were Mexican nationals that were threatened with deportation. A large group of mostly women and children defied martial law and picketed at the place the Mexican nationals were held. My grandfather died in mid-October 1933. Lieutenant Governor A. W. Hockenhull assumed office and was determined to settle the strike as the cost of maintaining the National Guard troops mounted and violence increased. A negotiated settlement was reached in late November which included releasing the jailed union leaders. The NMU claimed victory.

   NMU activity, including organizing the community, running candidates in state elections, and participation in the workers dramatic group, the Club Artistico de Obreros continued for the next couple of years.

   In January 1935 the NMU called for a second strike and won a victory n spite of anti-Mexican and anti-Communist activities by the Elks, VFW and American Legion. By April 1935 violence erupted. A year earlier Gallup American mine sold  the surface rights of land of a place called Chihuahuaito to New Mexico state Senator Clarence Vogel. He proceeded with evictions after offering the land to the occupants at inflated prices. Neighbors and friends protested and three leaders were arrested. One was held over for a hearing. The Unemployed Council called for a protest at the hearing. In addition the Woman’s Auxiliary of the NMU notified its members of the hearing. Someone in the crowed maade a grab for one of the accused and McKinley county Depute Bogess threw a tear gas bomb to disperse the crowd. Two gunshots followed one killing Sherriff Mack Carmichael. Deputy Dee Roberts fired his weapon hitting and killing Ignacio Velarde and Solomon Esquibel. The crowd dispersed and the accused disappeared along with the guns of Velarde, Esquibel, and the deputy. 

      The new sheriff swore in one hundred special deputies drawing largely on the VFW and American Legion. . They questioned hundreds and arrested two hundred and finally accused fifty five of murder. District Judge Otero dismissed charges against forty five and held ten to face trial. The Governor began deporting the suspects until over one hundred were deported. When the ten came to trial, the jury acquitted seven and recommended clemency for the other three. On sentencing, Judge McGhee ranted about Communism and sentenced the three to 45-60 years apiece. The state Supreme Court overturned one and upheld two of the sentences and by 1937 there were no dues paying union members in Gallup. In 1939 Governor John E. Miles gave conditional pardons to the other two. By 1940 the entire Gallup mine fields were represented by the United Mine Workers.

   As with all historical research, some questions linger that I could not answer with my resources. First, why were the mine owners hiring Mexicans when jobs were scarce and many New Mexicans were in dire straits? Secondly, did my grandfather ever go to Gallup to meet with the miners? I am sure the answers can be found in the Seligman Papers at the State Archives and Records Center.




The Albuquerque Journal, August 31 to September 5, 1933, Albuquerque, New Mexico


The Middleton Times Herald, August 31, 1933. New York


Duetsch, Sarah; Labor, Land, and Protest since Statehood, in Telling New Mexico- A New History, 2009, Museum of New Mexico Press







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1 comment

  • Comment Link Allan MacGillivray III Wednesday, 25 April 2012 01:53 posted by Allan MacGillivray III

    In 1913-1914 in Ludlow Colorado near Trinidad, the most violent miner strike in America History occurred between management and labor and many strikers were killed by Colorado National GUard.
    Later in 1924 in Dawson N.M. near Raton, 122 miners were killed in a gas explotion in the Phelps-Dodge mine there. Many of the miners were burned beyond recognition. These and later mining events created fertile ground for the fledgeling labor union formation in New Mexico.

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