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The bloody roots of Labor Day II

The Ludlow Massacre

Child coal miners - drivers and mules. Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine (1874-1940) - Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Records of the National Child Labor Committee. -Photo: Public Domain

By Tami Stevenson

In the midst of all the barbecues and get-togethers with family and friends this Labor Day weekend, one would never suspect the struggles and lives lost to make working conditions in America what they are today. Our nation has come a long way in the last one hundred years.

Last year, the Suwannee Valley Times featured a story about the bloody roots of Labor Day, focusing on the Pullman railway sleeper car manufacturing strike in the early 1890’s in Pullman, Chicago, that historians say marked the beginning of fair labor laws in the United States.

This year, moving up in time in the struggle for better working conditions – to the Ludlow Massacre that happened on April 20, 1914, where women and children were even killed as a result of a coal mining strike. All of America mourned the loss. The tragedy garnered more attention for the coal miners cause and the working class in general. Even newspapers like the New York Times finally began writing articles in their favor because of the nationwide uproar.

Mining was dangerous and difficult work. Coal miners were at constant risk for explosion, suffocation, and collapsing mine walls. The Colorado Fuel & Iron Company was the largest (and most notorious) of three major mining companies in Colorado at the time. In 1912 the death rate in Colorado mines was seven deaths for every thousand miners compared to a national rate of only three deaths per thousand miners.
John D. Rockefeller, Jr. owned the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company and managed it from his offices in New York.

According to historical records, miners were generally paid according to tonnage of coal produced, while so-called “dead work”, such as shoring up unstable roofs, was mostly unpaid.
According to historian Thomas G. Andrews, the tonnage system drove many poor and ambitious miners to gamble with their lives by neglecting precautions and taking on risk, with consequences that were often fatal. Between 1884 and 1912, mining accidents claimed the lives of more than 1,700 in Colorado. In 1913 alone, “104 men would die in Colorado’s mines, and six in the mine workings on the surface, in accidents that widowed 51 and left 108 children fatherless.” Rockefeller was not a popular figure because of his harsh management tactics.

Many miners and their families resided in company towns, where all land, real estate, and amenities were owned by the mine operator, and were expressly designed to force loyalty and squelch dissension. Ownership of the towns provided companies considerable control over all aspects of workers’ lives, and they did not always use this power to augment public welfare. Historian Philip S. Foner has described company towns as “feudal domain[s], with the company acting as lord and master. ... The ‘law’ consisted of the company rules. Curfews were imposed. Company guards - brutal thugs armed with machine guns and rifles loaded with soft-point bullets - would not admit any ‘suspicious’ stranger into the camp and would not permit any miner to leave.” Miners who came into conflict with the company were liable to find themselves and their families promptly evicted from their homes, or dead.

Miners were frustrated by working conditions and began turning to unionism. Mines that were organized by unions, nationwide at the time, had 40 percent fewer fatalities, but Colorado mine owners were not warming up to the idea.

Despite attempts to suppress union activity, secret organizing by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) continued in the years leading up to 1913. Eventually, the union presented a list of demands on behalf of the Colorado miners but the major coal companies rejected them.

The UMWA called a strike in September of 1913. The Ludlow miners that went on strike were forced from their homes and lived in tents with their families outside of Ludlow in Las Animas County. The tents were furnished by the UMWA. They built wooden platforms underneath and each were given a cast iron stove.

According to reports, the guardsmen hired by the mining companies would often harass the striker’s camp by firing bullets into the tents and randomly wounding or killing people. So the miners dug under their tents for their families to hide when the “Death Special” came around. The Death Special was an armor-plated car armed with machine guns and other artillery.

On the morning of April 20, 1914, according to historical accounts in the Colorado Encyclopedia and Wikipedia , the day after the Orthodox Easter was celebrated by some in the tent colony, three guardsmen appeared at the camp ordering the release of a man they claimed was being held against his will. The camp leader, Louis Tikas, left to meet with a local militia commander at the train station in Ludlow village, a half mile from the colony. While this meeting was progressing, two companies of militia installed a machine gun on a ridge near the camp and took a position along a rail route about half a mile south of Ludlow. Anticipating trouble, Tikas ran back to the camp. The miners set out to flank the militia positions and a gunfight soon broke out. When two dynamite explosions alerted the Ludlow Tent Colony, the miners took up positions at the bottom of the hill. When the militia opened fire, hundreds of miners and their families ran for cover.

Ruins of the Ludlow Colony near Trinidad, Colorado, following an attack by the Colorado National Guard. Forms part of the George Grantham Bain Collection at the Library of Congress. -Photo: Public Domain

The fighting raged for the entire day. The militia was reinforced by non-uniformed mine guards later in the afternoon. Thankfully, at dusk, a passing freight train stopped on the tracks in front of the guards’ machine gun placements, allowing many of the miners and their families to escape to an outcrop of hills to the east called the “Black Hills.” By 7:00 p.m., the camp was in flames, and the militia descended on it and began to search and loot the camp. Tikas had remained in the camp the entire day and was still there when the fire started. Tikas and two other men were captured by the militia and were later found shot dead. Tikas had been shot in the back. Their bodies lay along the Colorado and Southern Railway tracks for three days in full view of passing trains. The militia officers refused to allow them to be moved until a local from a railway union demanded the bodies be taken away for burial.

During the battle, four women and eleven children had been hiding in a pit beneath one tent, where they were trapped when the tent above them was set on fire. Two of the women and all of the children suffocated. These deaths became a rallying cry for the United Mine Workers of America, who called the incident the “Ludlow Massacre.” Although, other accounts of the story say over 50 women and children suffocated that day in the holes dug under their tents, which implies the actual numbers are unclear.

As a result of the massacre, a call to arms by the UMWA was made and what is known as the Colorado Coalfield War ensued for ten days. They attacked multiple mines, driving off or killing guards and burning buildings. The fighting ended only when US President Woodrow Wilson sent in Federal troops. The troops, who reported directly to Washington, DC, disarmed both sides, displacing and often arresting the militia in the process. The Colorado Coalfield War had a death toll of 75 people.

The UMWA called off the strike in December of 1914 for lack of funds. None of their demands were met. However, because of negative media stories, Rockefeller hired the future Prime Minister of Canada (then a former Labor Minister), W. L. Mackenzie King, to design the so-called Rockefeller Plan, an employer representation plan that was designed to give miners just enough rights and privileges in order to avoid future tragedies.

In 1918 the UMWA erected a statue commemorating the Ludlow Massacre on the site of the tent colony. The union continues to commemorate the event each year to this day.

A number of songs have been written and recorded about the Ludlow Massacre by artists such as Woody Guthrie, Jason Boland, Handmouth Band and Andy Irvine.

In 2009 the US Department of the Interior declared the site a National Historic Landmark, one of only two such sites in the country related to American labor history. April 20, 2014, marked the hundredth anniversary of the massacre. Governor John Hickenlooper convened a Ludlow Centennial Commemoration Commission to plan commemoration events across the state. Commemorative activities included a speakers’ series, symposia, a play, museum exhibits, and a Sunday church service at the Ludlow site.

These unjust labor practices and disputes in America went on through much of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s until June 26, of 1940, when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act which limited the workweek to 40 hours (without further compensation).

This Labor Day let us all take a moment to reflect on the struggles that our forefathers faced to bring us the eight hour workday, child labor laws and safer working conditions.

Ludlow Massacre Monument, prior to being vandalized and subsequently restored. Taken on April 28, 2005 by Mark Walker. -Creative Commons Photo