Monday, April 20, 2009

Moments in American Labor History: Ludlow Massacre

A new occasional series here will examine key moments in American labor history. Ten times a year, I will write about an event in American labor history on its anniversary. I've actually planned this since the start of the year, but this happens to be the earliest date of the ten.

On this date in 1914, the Ludlow Massacre took place. Throughout the early 1910s, the southern Colorado mine fields were on the verge of war. Workers lived in terrible conditions while the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company, owned by John D. Rockefeller Jr., made large profits. Betwen 1884 and 1912, 42,898 coal miners were killed by accidents in the mines, of which 1,708 died in Colorado, a number over twice the national average. When miners tried to take the mine owners to court, the owners bought local juries and the owners were found guilty in only 1 of 95 suits during these years.

While the radical Western Federation of Miners were active in the area, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) organized these particular workers. In order to break strikes and dampen further labor radicalism, CF&I hired workers from around the world, a common tactic designed to limit communication between workers (something that only made the mines even more dangerous) and play on long-standing race hatred to undermine organizing. Nonetheless, these largely central and southern European and Mexican miners worked together to fight for their rights by the 1910s.

In 1913, the miners went on strike over a variety of issues, ranging from better way to lesser hours to the enforcement of Colorado state laws in the camp, which among other things banned company scrip and allowed for safety regulations. The company refused to negoitate. The company kicked the miners out of their homes and they set up a tent town in a relatively flat area on the edge of the hills. CF&I called in Baldwin-Felts agents as strikebreakers. This notorious company was active throughout the early 20th century and brutalized workers across the country.

Despite rising violence, the strike held through the winter and into the spring. On April 20, 1914, local milita moved into position around the tent town. Fearing an attack, the miners opened fires with their few guns. A firefight raged throughout the day. The head of the strikers, Greek immigrant Louis Tikas, and two other men were captured by the militia and shot dead, though Tikas was likely killed before he was shot by a beating from a rifle.

Fearing an attack for a long time, miners dug pits for their wives and children to hide in. When the militia burned the tent town during the battle, 3 women and 11 children suffocated in one of these pits. In addition to these 15 innocent dead (and it is for them that the term "massacre" was used to describe the incident), as well as Tikas and the two other workers killed with him, 3 company guards and one militiamen were killed by the strikers in self-defense.

Godfrey Irwin, an engineer who witnessed the Ludlow Massacre described it as such:

Then came the killing of Louis Tikas, the Greek leader of the strikers. We saw the militiamen parley outside the tent city, and, a few minutes later, Tikas came out to meet them. We watched them talking. Suddenly an officer raised his rifle, gripping the barrel, and felled Tikas with the butt.

Tikas fell face downward. As he lay there we saw the militiamen fall back. Then they aimed their rifles and deliberately fired them into the unconscious man’s body. It was the first murder I had ever seen, for it was a murder and nothing less. Then the miners ran about in the tent colony and women and children scuttled for safety in the pits which afterward trapped them.

We watched from our rock shelter while the militia dragged up their machine guns and poured a murderous fire into the arroyo from a height by Water Tank Hill above the Ludlow depot. Then came the firing of the tents.

I am positive that by no possible chance could they have been set ablaze accidentally. The militiamen were thick about the northwest corner of the colony where the fire started and we could see distinctly from our lofty observation place what looked like a blazing torch waved in the midst of militia a few seconds before the general conflagration swept through the place. What followed everybody knows.

Sickened by what we had seen, we took a freight back into Trinidad. The town buzzed with indignation. To explain in large part the sympathies of even the best people in the section with the miners, it must be said that there is good evidence that many of the so-called ‘militiamen’ are only gunmen and thugs wearing the uniform to give them a show of authority. They are the toughest lot I ever saw.

No one can legally enlist in the Colorado state militia till he has been a year in the state, and many of the ‘militiamen’ admitted to me they had been drafted in by a Denver detective agency. Lieutenant Linderfelt boasted that he was ‘going to lick the miners or wipe them off the earth.’ In Trinidad the miners never gave any trouble. It was not till the militia came into town that the trouble began.

In the aftermath of the massacre, the workers went ballistic, burning and bombing mines throughout the southern Colorado mountains. At least 50 people died in the next week or so. Finally, President Woodrow Wilson sent in federal troops to calm the situation. Rockefeller, who probably didn't know or really care what was going in Colorado, was deeply embarrassed over the incident and the bad publicity that his company received when their doings went public. He turned to paternalistic labor relations as a result, which did not give workers any power, but did improve their lot a bit. The strike itself finally died in December 1914, with little concrete won. However, the sacrifice the workers and their families made did lead to the company paternalism, which I argue is better than nothing and for which the UMWA deserves credit.

The Ludlow Massacre became one of the most famous incidents of labor repression in the history of American unionism. Woody Guthrie wrote this powerful song about it:

It was early springtime when the strike was on,
They drove us miners out of doors,
Out from the houses that the Company owned,
We moved into tents up at old Ludlow.

I was worried bad about my children,
Soldiers guarding the railroad bridge,
Every once in a while a bullet would fly,
Kick up gravel under my feet.

We were so afraid you would kill our children,
We dug us a cave that was seven foot deep,
Carried our young ones and pregnant women
Down inside the cave to sleep.

That very night your soldiers waited,
Until all us miners were asleep,
You snuck around our little tent town,
Soaked our tents with your kerosene.

You struck a match and in the blaze that started,
You pulled the triggers of your gatling guns,
I made a run for the children but the fire wall stopped me.
Thirteen children died from your guns.

I carried my blanket to a wire fence corner,
Watched the fire till the blaze died down,
I helped some people drag their belongings,
While your bullets killed us all around.

I never will forget the look on the faces
Of the men and women that awful day,
When we stood around to preach their funerals,
And lay the corpses of the dead away.

We told the Colorado Governor to call the President,
Tell him to call off his National Guard,
But the National Guard belonged to the Governor,
So he didn't try so very hard.

Our women from Trinidad they hauled some potatoes,
Up to Walsenburg in a little cart,
They sold their potatoes and brought some guns back,
And they put a gun in every hand.

The state soldiers jumped us in a wire fence corners,
They did not know we had these guns,
And the Red-neck Miners mowed down these troopers,
You should have seen those poor boys run.

We took some cement and walled that cave up,
Where you killed these thirteen children inside,
I said, "God bless the Mine Workers' Union,"
And then I hung my head and cried.