Labor Day: for most, it’s a three-day weekend signaling the end of summer. But the fact that we have weekends at all — along with child-labor laws, workplace safety rules, minimum wage, and the eight-hour workday — is only thanks to the struggles of working-class men and women. Before the rise of unions, striking workers often faced not only firing, but getting beaten, arrested, or even murdered. Case in point: the Ludlow Massacre. It was called “one of the bleakest and blackest episodes of American labor history” and “the deadliest labor struggle in American history.” Yet, like most labor struggles, it’s virtually absent from the history books.
The Company Town
In the early 1900s, Colorado was booming, thanks to its gold and coal mines. Coal was especially valuable, as it was the fuel that powered the newly industrialized nation. Thus one company was booming more than any other: Colorado Fuel and Iron, or CF&I. It was the state’s largest employer and landowner, its coal used to power the steel mills in Pueblo, which in turn powered the rapid expansion of the railroads and American industry in general.
Originally owned by America’s first billionaire, John D. Rockefeller, Sr., CF&I was later given to his son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., as a birthday gift. As one of the wealthiest Americans of the time, Rockefeller exerted great control over Colorado’s government. “Oversight” was a cruel joke — the few regulations on the mining industry were rarely enforced. For example, despite a booming extraction industry, the state only employed three mine inspectors, and of the over 90 mine-related deaths in one county, the state coroner only attributed one to the fault of the mine owner.
Rockefeller ran his coal mines just as ruthlessly, starting with how he chose his laborers. He recruited immigrants from many different countries, mostly from Eastern Europe and Mexico, who spoke many different languages. This was not out of some benevolent belief in multiculturalism. Rockefeller wanted workers who would be unable to communicate with each other so that they couldn’t unionize.
The work itself was physically exhausting — miners had to clear trees and brush to get to new areas of the mines, then, shore up the shafts with scaffolding, lay railroad track, and set explosives to loosen the rock. None of this “dead work” was paid for — miners were only paid by the amount of coal they brought up. To make matters worse, the person weighing the coal would often refuse to pay for any coal they claimed had impurities in it.
It was also extremely dangerous work. In addition to the long-term effects of coal-dust inhalation, mule kicks, explosions, and cave-ins were common occurrences in most mines. But Colorado mines — most of which were owned by CF&I — had the highest fatality rate in the nation, twice the national average. In 1910 alone, some 400 people died in their mines.
But the company’s domination didn’t stop at the end of the work day; CF&I controlled every aspect of its workers’ lives. Workers were forced to live in company housing — flimsy wooden-frame shacks with little to no insulation. Rent — as well as the cost of the explosives and other equipment — was deducted directly from their paychecks.
Even though it was illegal, the miners and other workers were paid in company scrip — basically coupons that could only be spent at the company store, where goods were sold at wildly inflated prices. If a worker dared leave and shop at another store, they would be fired.
Only company-approved books were stocked in the library. Only company-approved movies were shown in the cinema. Even the children were schooled in company schools, using company-approved curriculum. And around this tightly controlled company town were tall fences patrolled by private company guards, so that workers had to have permission to go in and out.
Tensions Were Rising
Needless to say, CF&I’s workers weren’t exactly thrilled by these conditions. However, CF&I owned most local law enforcement just as they did the state government. When union organizers would come to a town to speak to the workers there, local sheriffs and their deputies — along with private goons paid for directly by CF&I and other mine owners — would run them out of town. Union organizers were the frequent target of threats, assaults, and arrests. So the union organizers learned to stay hidden.
Then in August of 1913, during a state labor convention in nearby Trinidad, a United Mine Workers of America organizer died in a shootout in the street. His murderers were members of the Baldwin-Felts gang, which specialized in crushing labor uprisings.
This ignited a wave of anger among Colorado’s miners. In one last-ditch attempt to avoid a strike, the union asked CF&I representatives to meet with them about their grievances, but the company refused to meet with them.
In mid-September, the UMWA put out the official notice that if their demands weren’t met, mine workers would walk off the job and strike on Sept. 23. Their demands were:
- Recognition of their union
2. A 10 percent pay increase
3. Eight-hour workdays for all mine workers
4. Payment for “dead work”
5. The right to elect the person who weighed the coal for payment
6. The right to trade in any store, live where they choose, and visit any doctor they choose
7. The enforcement of Colorado state mining safety laws and the elimination of armed guards around the company town.
Rockefeller, unsurprisingly, refused every demand.
So on Sept. 23, with freezing sleet and snow falling, some 8,000 Colorado mine workers — somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of the entire mine workforce — went on strike.
The strikers and their families were immediately evicted from their company housing, so they moved into tents provided by the UMWA. The encampments were clustered in several “colonies” in the nearby Sangre de Christo mountains. The largest tent colony, that of Ludlow, became home to some 1,200 men, women, and children. They chose as their spokesperson a Greek American, Louis Tikas, who, like most of the Greek workers, was a veteran of the Balkan Wars and was well trusted by nearly everyone. He had also led a walkout at a mine in Frederick.
While in Ludlow, the strikers — from 19 different nations, speaking 36 languages — worked together to keep their tent city functioning. The colony included a communal kitchen, nursery, and medical tent. They would sometimes organize baseball games to keep their spirits up.
One of the strikers, a young woman named Mary Thomas, later wrote in her memoir: “Looking back now on those bitter days, I can see a wonderful thing in them despite the terror, the disappointments, the deprivations. Our suffering with the extreme cold and hunger had brought us all together … We had become a ‘family’ of world citizens, petitioning for the right to make an honest living as free human beings.”
But everything was not peace and love. There was tension, and violence, from both sides. Strikers would intimidate and even attack workers brought in to cross the picket lines. Trains suspected of bringing in scabs were fired upon, as were deputies escorting scabs to the mines. In another town, an anti-union marshal was killed in a confrontation with strikers there.
CF&I forces, though, had the strikers outgunned and outmanned. They brought in an armored vehicle and set up machine guns pointing at the tent colonies. Anyone leaving the colony alone was attacked and beaten by CF&I forces. Occasionally, they would fire randomly into the area, just to terrorize the strikers. In Walsenberg, CF&I forces fired on a crowd of strikers, killing three. At the Forbes tent colony, CF&I goons strafed the place, killing one man and injuring another.
In October, on the urging of Rockefeller, Colorado Gov. Elias Ammons called up the National Guard (also called the militia) to “keep the peace.” At first, the strikers believed the miltia was there to protect them from CF&I’s hired goons, and welcomed them warmly. But they probably didn’t realize the militia was under the command of Capt. Philip Van Cise, who had previously been involved in breaking up a strike in Cripple Creek. It became clear that the militia wasn’t neutral in the matter when they raided the tent colonies and seized weapons, but didn’t disarm CF&I’s guards. In response, many strikers dug large pits beneath their tents both to hide weapons and as a place to take shelter from gunfire.
The strike went on for months, and the winter of 1913–14 was especially harsh. But the strikers didn’t back down. At one point, the famed Mother Jones, fresh out of jail for her “agitating” in the West Virginia coalfields, visited Ludlow to support the strike. She was ejected from company property several times and arrested twice, prompting women from the tent colonies and the town of Trinidad to march in the streets demanding her release. Police on horseback waded into the crowd of women, kicking and beating them.
Editorial writers across the country came to her defense, and to the defense of the marchers, shining a spotlight on the injustices in the Colorado coal mines.
Meanwhile, the militia members who had originally been sent to Ludlow had been rotated out with new recruits, these paid directly by Rockefeller. Many of these new recruits were former mine company guards, and they had no love for the strikers. Cise, on no one’s authority but his own, declared martial law over what he called the Military District of Colorado — the area around the coal mines. Without warrants, his men arrested, beat, and tortured anyone suspected of sympathizing with the strikers. When local prosecutors released these people from jail, Cise threatened to arrest them, too.
When spring came with no resolution, Rockefeller went to Congress, where he framed the standoff as “a national issue, whether workers shall be allowed to work under such conditions as they may choose.” In other words, he was making the case that union organizers were really just outside agitators, and the miners were perfectly happy with their working conditions.
But when the body of a scab was found outside the nearby Forbes tent colony, Cise ordered all the men of that colony arrested and the tents dismantled. The folks at Ludlow feared they would be next.
The morning of April 20
Sunday, April 19, was Greek Orthodox Easter. Amidst the celebrations, militia men rode their horses onto the strikers’ makeshift baseball diamond, disrupting the game. When they were jeered for doing so, they reportedly responded, “That’s all right, girlie — you have your big Sunday, but we will have our roast tomorrow.”
The next morning, the commander of the militia stationed at Ludlow called up Tikas to come to their camp to discuss a rumor that a man was being held prisoner in Ludlow. Tikas at first refused, stating there was no such man in Ludlow. After much badgering, he finally agreed to meet the militia at the nearby train depot.
Both sides came to the meeting heavily armed, and the militia set up machine guns along a rise overlooking the colony. To this day, it’s not proven who fired the first shot. Three explosions went off, signaling the militia to battle. Gunfire broke out and continued between the militia and the tents throughout the day. Armed strikers took up position on a nearby rise to draw the militia’s fire away from the colony. Women, carrying babies and leading children, desperately tried to escape as the militia strafed the colony with machine-gun fire. One survivor’s account states that militia sharpshooters would pick the women off as they fled. At one point, one militia man was shot in the neck — the first, and only, militia fatality that day. One passerby was shot dead, and an 11-year-old boy caught a stray bullet in the head as he sat inside his family’s tent, killing him as well.
Tikas, waving a white flag and trying to avert disaster, fled back to the camp. Meanwhile, more troops arrived from Trinidad.
Then, in the evening, the tents began to burn. Some survivors recall seeing militia men with kerosene and torches setting them on fire. The blaze, which started in the area closest to where the militia were, spread quickly, consuming the entire colony and everything within it.
Tikas and two other men were arrested and brought to the militia commander. The militia men later denied it, but the evidence is clear: Tikas was hit in the head with the butt of the commander’s rifle so hard it cracked his skull. He was then shot three times in the back, along with his two companions, and left on the ground where they fell, as the Ludlow tent colony burned to the ground.
The next morning, a woman named Mary Petrucci emerged from the smouldering ruins. She reeked of smoke and seemed disoriented. But she was able to lead searchers to the tent she had emerged from.
There, beneath the scorched ruins of a bedframe, they found a 350-square-foot pit dug into the ground. In it were the bodies of two women and 11 children — including Petrucci’s three children. They had taken cover from the gunfire and died of smoke inhalation.
Total deaths in the Ludlow Massacre vary; some place the number as high as 55, others as low as 25. Regardless of the actual number, it shocked the nation. Upon learning of the massacre, strikers throughout Colorado became enraged; union organizers urged their members to take up arms. For 10 days, as Alan Prendergast writes in his feature, “Bloody Ludlow,”
“They marched on the mines, dynamited the entrances, torched the equipment and shot suspected scabs, striking as far north as Cañon City. They took over parts of Trinidad and engaged the militia in an epic battle on the hogback above Walsenburg. It was one of the most violent insurrections since the Civil War, claiming the lives of at least six strikers and 24 mine employees, and it didn’t stop until President Woodrow Wilson sent in federal troops.”
The uprising was later called “The Ten Day War,” and is considered part of the wider Colorado Coalfield War.
After the uprising dispersed under the threat of federal force, hundreds of strikers were indicted, though in the end, they were acquitted or had their convictions overturned. Only a few militia men were court-martialed for their role in the massacre; only one man was convicted of any wrongdoing — the commander who murdered Tikas. For this, he only received a reprimand.
The UMWA ran out of money and finally called off the strike in December. The strikers had failed to get their demands, and many of them had been replaced by scabs.
Despite the failure of the strike and the uprising, the public’s sympathy lay with the miners. Under public pressure, in 1915, the Congressional Commission on Industrial Relations held hearings over the situation. They took testimony from representatives of the mine owners as well as the strikers and the UMWA. In the end, the commission recommended that mine workers be given the right to organize as a union, that there be restrictions placed on the use of private detectives by mine companies, and that the state had a responsibility for protecting workers’ rights.
Neither Pres. Wilson or Congress accepted the commission’s recommendations. Rockefeller, sensing increased public scorn, went on what could be called the first modern PR campaign to salvage his image. He traveled to Colorado and met with mine workers, where he agreed to a few toothless reforms, such as allowing its workers to join a company-controlled “union” and upgrading the roads and facilities in his company towns.
Even though it was objectively a failure for the workers, the Ludlow Massacre became a rallying cry for union organizers and labor activists for years afterwards. It would be decades before the rights the Ludlow strikers fought for — such as the right to join an independent union, an eight-hour workday, and child labor laws — were enshrined in law with the passing of the National Labor Relations and Wagner acts as part of FDR’s New Deal. These strong protections for unions paved the way for the longest period of prosperity in American history, the Long Boom of the post-WWII economy.
Though it has been mostly forgotten by the history books, the Ludlow Massacre inspired historians Howard Zinn and George McGovern to write about it. Musicians such as Woody Guthrie, Jason Boland, and others wrote songs about Ludlow.
Today the Ludlow Monument, originally built by the UMWA, stands at the site of what was the Ludlow colony. It is now officially a national historic landmark, commemorating “a pivotal event in American history,” when workers and their families fought — and died — so that they did not have to surrender their rights and freedom at the job site.
May they rest in power.
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