Bill Knight – April 24
3:03 pm
Wed April 23, 2014

A Bloody Chapter in American Labor History

It’s neither unpatriotic nor an exaggeration to recall the Ludlow Massacre 100 years ago this week as that era’s 9-11, Pearl Harbor or Alamo.

The brutal, deadly attack on striking miners and their families saddened and outraged most Americans then. Now, when it’s remembered, it’s through the lens of detached history and old press accounts.

Credit Wikimedia

In an April 22, 1914, article headlined “45 dead, 20 hurt, score missing in strike war: Women and children roasted in pits of tent colony as flames destroy it,” the New York Times reported of the “14-hour battle which raged with uninterrupted fury yesterday between State troops and striking coal miners in the Ludlow district on the property of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, the Rockefeller holdings.”

The Ludlow Massacre was an attack by Colorado National Guard soldiers and Colorado Fuel & Iron Company guards on a settlement of more than 1,000 striking coal miners and their families on April 20, 1914. Rockefeller was denounced worldwide.

Writing in The Masses magazine in 1914, Max Eastman blasted the tycoons, saying, “I put the ravages of that black orgy of April – when a frail, fluttering tent city in the meadow … was riddled to shreds without a second’s warning, and then fired by coal-oil torches with the bullets still raining and the victims screaming in their shallow holes of refuge, or crawling away on their bellies through the fields – I put that crime, not upon its perpetrators, who are savage, but upon the gentlemen of noble leisure who hired them to this service.”

Bill Knight's April 24 radio commentary

The tragedy – company guards and militia battled striking workers and supporters most of that day – was the deadliest incident in the Southern Colorado Coal Strike called by the United Mine Workers (UMW).

Ludlow was a coal mine and camp in south-central Colorado where miners lived in substandard housing owned by the company, which ran stores that accepted only company “scrip,” an alternative currency. Colorado’s coal industry was dominated by a handful of operators, including Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel & Iron. With a death rate of about 7 per 1,000 employees – more than twice the national rate then – miners organized, presenting operators with seven demands: Recognize their union, abide by the eight-hour-day law, enforce mine-safety laws, let workers shop and live where they wanted, increase tonnage rates (giving miners about a 10 percent raise), pay miners for “dead work” (shoring up tunnels, etc.), and make weight-check men elected (to keep them honest). Many demands were for employers to follow the law.

But operators rejected the demands, the Mine Workers called a work stoppage, and strikers were forced from their company shacks and moved into tents built on land the union rented.

Colorado Gov. Elias Ammon called out the National Guard to “keep order.” The union enlisted as organizers the UMW’s John Lawson, Greek activist Louis Tikas and 77-year-old Mother Jones. The operators, for their part, used company thugs and the National Guard, and hired the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, notorious for strike-breaking in West Virginia.

Bill Knight

Strikers held on all winter. By April 19, 1914 – celebrated as Easter Sunday by Orthodox Greeks – celebrations included a baseball game near the tents. Then armed men from surrounding guard emplacements interrupted the game. A fist fight broke out, company guards were beaten, arrests were attempted without warrants, and the guards left.

But the next day, militiamen or guards started shooting into the camp. By evening, the attack on strikers was continuing and guards or militiamen poured oil on the tents and set them ablaze.

Tikas was in camp when the fire was started. He and two other men were seized by militiamen, who clubbed him with a rifle butt and kicked him in the face. Tikas and the two captive strikers were later found dead. Tikas had been shot in the back.

The next morning, the charred bodies of 11 children and 2 women were found in a pit beneath a tent, where they’d escaped from gunfire but were trapped when the tent was set on fire.

Eight months later, the Mine Workers exhausted its resources and called off the strike, in which up to 199 lives were lost. Historian Howard Zinn in “The Politics of History” said the Ludlow Massacre was “the culminating act of perhaps the most violent struggle between corporate power and laboring men in American history.”  

Contact Bill at Bill.Knight@hotmail.com; his twice-weekly columns are archived at billknightcolumn.blogspot.com

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.