The Fall of Skliris, “Czar of the Greeks”

Jeffrey D. Nichols
History Blazer, December 1996

The lure of jobs in the American West drew thousands of immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Many came from Greece, convinced by the promises of Leonidas G. Skliris, a Salt Lake City-based labor agent who became known as “the Czar of the Greeks.” The Greeks that settled in western cities formed ethnic enclaves, establishing Greek language newspapers and opening stores. The heart of “Greek Town” was the coffeehouse where the overwhelmingly male immigrant population socialized. Skliris, a native of Sparta, arrived in Salt Lake City in 1897, and set up his labor agency headquarters at 507 West 200 South, near the railroad yards in the heart of “Greek Town.” He established branch offices in Greek communities across the country to recruit labor for industries throughout the West. He became the labor agent for the Carbon County coal mines, Utah Copper, and the Western Pacific and Denver and Rio Grande Western railroads. In the early 1900s Skliris dispatched agents to Greece, but soon discovered that advertisements in Greek newspapers in the U.S. were equally effective. Immigrants newly arrived in America sought him out. Eventually, his network became so well established that he could supply most companies’ labor needs with a few well-placed telephone calls.

Labor recruiting proved lucrative. Adapting the Old World patronage system, the agent or padrone (from the Italian for “patron”) charged a fee, usually around $20, for finding a job for an individual. He also received a monthly fee, around $1 or $2, for each man that he supplied to his clients, who often deducted the fee from the employees’ monthly paychecks. Skliris’s agency also formed partnerships with company stores, which workers were required to patronize, and had close ties with steamship agents. These income sources allowed him to entertain lavishly in his rooms at the opulent new Hotel Utah.

Skliris’s clients used his services to solve their labor problems. The agency brought Greeks to Utah in 1903 to break a coal strike by a largely Italian work force. Skliris played adroitly on ethnic differences, bringing mainland Greeks to replace workers from the island of Crete during the 1912 Bingham strike. By then, however, resentment of his exploitative tactics had become widespread.

The largest single group of workers in the Utah Copper’s Bingham mines in 1912 were from Crete. They were joined by large number of Italians, Austrians, Japanese, Finns, and English, along with Bulgarians, Swedes, Irish, and German. The ethnically mixed workforce was largely the result of past labor disputes; when the mostly Italian workforce struck in 1903-4, for instance, they were replaced by Greek strike-breakers. Each ethnic group had its own network of stores and businesses. Fights and even shootings between and within various ethnic groups were not uncommon. Old Country feuds were sometimes renewed and strengthened in the pressure cooker of the mining town.

By 1912 many Greeks were heartily sick of the predations of labor agent Leonidas Skliris, who had recruited most of them in return for a variety of kickback schemes. Union organizers, especially those from the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) found fertile ground for new members at Bingham in the summer of 1912, but they discovered that the Greeks had an agenda that did not necessarily mesh with the union’s goals. The WFM’s local president, Charles W. Moyer, suggested that workers delay a strike while the union attempted to gain recognition from the company and a 50 cent an hour wage increase across the board. At a mass meeting on September 17 Moyer counseled patience, but the approximately 1,000 miners in attendance demanded a strike. The militance of the strikers badly frightened the surrounding community. Newspapers reported that the “foreigners” were heavily armed and had coerced and threatened workers who refused to honor the picket lines. By the time 25 deputy sheriffs arrived in Bingham, “heavily armed and ready for any emergency,” hundreds of armed strikers had taken to the hills above the mines and staked out defensive positions.

As cooler heads began to prevail, representatives of the Greeks met with Governor William Spry and demanded Skliris’s removal. Although the company and Skliris steadfastly denied the miners’ charges, the labor agent resigned within a week. Ultimately, he left Utah and reportedly moved to Mexico where he became part owner of a mine. The Greeks, jubilant over their victory, nevertheless continued the strike for better wages. The company was steadily infiltrating strikebreakers into town, including many mainland Greeks recruited by Skliris. Clashes in October between strikers, strikebreakers, guards, and police led to gunfire; two miners eventually died, and many more were arrested. On October 31 Daniel C. Jackling announced a 25-cent pay raise, claiming that it had been planned before the strike. The stubborn miners continued to hold out, but theirs was a losing cause. After six weeks of hardship, the strike gradually died; the mines reopened with large numbers of Mexican laborers. The WFM remained unrecognized, and no one was ever charged in the miners’ deaths.

Sources: Allan Kent Powell, “A History of Labor Union Activity in the Eastern Utah Coal Fields: 1900-1934” (Ph.D. diss., University of Utah, 1976); Helen Zeese Papanikolas, “Toil and Rage in a New Land: The Greek Immigrants in Utah,” Utah Historical Quarterly 38 (Spring 1970).