Us and them vs. all the rest

Ethnic diversity strengthened early Butte, Montana – and still can.

  • Copper miners, Butte, Montana, summer 1939.


During the first half of the 20th century, the mines in Butte, Mont., were the most dangerous in the world. The work was tough, and the immigrants who did the work were even tougher, a quality that served them well underground but wasn't always the right tool for the job aboveground. Heavy drinking was common. So was fighting. Butte was a combative place, less the happy-go-lucky melting pot of lore than an on-again, off-again free-for-all. Frequently the conflicts were driven by, or at least blamed on, wide-ranging ethnic differences. Yet the underlying fabric of the town remained mostly intact. Now that the nation is again debating immigration, it might be useful to consider what kept multi-ethnic Butte from coming apart at the seams.

Although at first many Butte mines were segregated by nationality, the copper industry grew so rapidly that manpower needs soon eclipsed occupational tribalism. The "No Smoking" signs underground appeared in at least 16 languages, Butticians like to boast. It's true. But more important was the knowledge that the gibberish-speaking guy working beside you held your fate in his hands, and vice versa. While your partner ran a drill, you watched out for falling slabs of granite. If you passed out after encountering a pocket of bad air, he carried you to safety. Your lives were entwined, at least until the shift whistle blew. And afterward, aboveground, you likely viewed that former wop or mick or bohunk in a more sympathetic light. Camaraderie, born of facing danger together and respect for a job well done, carried over into other realms of life.

Not always, certainly. But a second powerful force was in play -- the Anaconda Copper Mining Co. -- and it also helped to unify the town, especially in the mid-1930s, after FDR endorsed organized labor. Earlier in the century, the union movement in Butte had disintegrated, in large part over internal divisions that reflected interethnic hostility. Workers in the one-company town were determined not to make that mistake again. During the 1935 strike, people came together to demand better conditions. Newsboys even refused to deliver the Anaconda-owned daily. Butte's collective action, along with similar strikes in other industrial cities, eventually produced the 40-hour work week (seven 12-hour-days had been typical in Butte) and -- a luxury often taken for granted today -- the weekend. It was a landmark in American labor history.

If nothing else, the Butte experience further discredits the Western myth of the lone individual who makes his way entirely on his own, beholden to no one, past or present. Such an attitude would have doomed the miners. After decades of struggle, they realized that if they were going to stand up at all, they had to stand together. But their togetherness was pragmatic, conditional. They didn't join forces inspired by lofty moral sentiments about universal brotherhood but because it was the most promising way to survive. That's how common purpose was forged from disparate, frequently warring factions. That's how genuine community was created. Even at its most cohesive, Butte remained a contentious place. Differences didn't disappear; they were placed in service of something larger -- a particular way of life, located in a particular place.

Contrast this with what increasingly passes for community in the West, where, given sufficient resources, one can avoid, or at least control, encounters with people unlike ourselves. The most dramatic example is the gated community, which is little more than a private club, its members united in their desire to exclude others, except for the carefully constrained part-time roles of housekeeper, gardener, etc. But suburban enclaves yield a similar if less pronounced effect. So do towns dominated by a single subculture -- education, recreation, agriculture, extraction. And to the extent that community is a vehicle for exclusion, whether by design or default, demonizing difference becomes easier. In the absence of a robust social commons -- where we come together to negotiate and, yes, sometimes fight over our differences -- our words and actions can assume any shape that suits us, unchecked by the words and actions of those who disagree with us. Worse still, the very notion that it's possible to create an inclusive community is threatened.

Butte was able to bridge divisions because the town faced two threats -- constant peril underground and corporate colonialism above. No equivalent exists with modern immigration. But any long-term solution will nonetheless depend on exploiting what the various parties hold in common, not as individuals with intrinsic qualities but as people sharing a specific set of historical circumstances. The simplest way to describe those circumstances is in economic terms -- the lack of jobs in Mexico, the excess of certain kinds of them here. This is news to no one, which makes it all the more discouraging that official policy continues to stress border security and deportation. While the U.S. spends billions of dollars rebuilding nations far from home, our neighbor to the south -- our continental partner -- could use a hand. Constructing fences and arresting immigrants may feel good. But the real work remains to be done.

Butte native Edwin Dobb, a fourth-generation descendant of Irish and Cornish immigrants, teaches narrative writing at the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He lives in the Bay Area, where 30 percent of his neighbors are foreign-born.

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