Blood and struggle in Ludlow

100 years ago, coal miners rebelled against dangerous working conditions

At the turn of the 20th century, Colorado offered better protection for the donkeys and mules that worked in mines than for the miners themselves.

Mules and donkeys were mandated by law to spend a month each year out of the mines so they would not go blind. Miners, however, had few safety provisions, could not easily join unions and saw their wages steadily decreased. Coal mine explosions had killed dozens, but at Ludlow there would be a different kind of tragedy.

On April 20, 1914, the Colorado National Guard shot striking miners with machine guns, killing 17, and burned their tent camp to the ground. Eleven children and two women suffocated and died at Ludlow in the low hills in Las Animas County.

Health and safety issues were difficult in the gold and silver mines of Colorado’s high country, but in southern Colorado’s coalfields, tensions were even worse because of dangerous methane gas in coal shafts. Near Trinidad and Walsenburg waves of Greeks, Mexicans, Croatians, Hungarians and southern Italians dug coal under unsafe conditions and were crowded into company housing.

The United Mine Workers of America sought to improve living and working conditions for these newly arrived immigrants, but mine owners would not budge and eventually used their power with Colorado Gov. Elias Ammons to call out the Colorado National Guard.

This was “the most hard fought and violent labor struggle in American history,” says former U.S. Sen. George McGovern, whose doctoral dissertation was published as The Great Coalfield War. “It was a landmark in the battles of working men and women to achieve recognition of their right to collective bargaining with their employers and to win governmental and public support for that right.”

In the southern Colorado coalfields, “immigrant miners lived with their families in company houses, bought the necessities of life in company stores, sent their children to company schools and churches, and experienced the power and influence of company executives,” says McGovern.

The striking miners endured the freezing winter of 1913-14, deep snow and near starvation as union funds grew low to support them.

Nothing remains of the charred tent camp at Ludlow. A few old wooden buildings crumble near the former Colorado & Southern Railroad line. But dominating the Ludlow Tent Colony National Historic Landmark is a marble statue of a miner looking outward and a woman tightly holding a child to her chest.

On Jan. 31, 1910, a “ball of flame” blew out of the Primero mine where 77 men and adolescent boys worked. There were no child labor laws. By October, the Starkville mine exploded, killing 56. At the Delagua mine in November, 79 workers died.

Stingy owners limited interior mine sprinkling to dampen dangerously volatile coal dust. Safety regulations, such as they were, were not enforced, and immigrant miners did not always understand instruction in English. Mine owners specifically mixed immigrant groups on 12-hour work shifts so language acted as a barrier, diminishing the ability of miners to organize. If trouble arose, the powerful Colorado Fuel & Iron Co. of Pueblo, owned by John D. Rockefeller, controlled the mines as well as local politics and courts in Huerfano and Las Animas counties.

Rockefeller refused to give raises. He refused to improve safety conditions, but he enjoyed visiting his company towns in his tidy dark bowler hat and long overcoat. He would toss shiny new dimes to immigrant children playing in dusty streets.

“The coal mines of Las Animas County had long served as venues for toil, terror and solidarity; they also became sites of social memory,” writes Thomas G. Andrews in his book Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War. “And so in the wake of the Ludlow Massacre, which claimed the lives of seventeen workers in April 1914, battalions of striker-soldiers showed their opponents no quarter, killing more than thirty mine guards, strikebreakers, and state militiamen in ten days of fierce guerrilla warfare. Burning company towns and dynamiting mine tunnels, rebellious workers took aim at subterranean workplaces in which their relatives, countrymen and comrades had toiled, suffered, and all too frequently perished.”

President Woodrow Wilson would be forced to call out federal troops.

Out of the carnage came a deeper understanding of industrial relations and the need for worker-management compromises.

“Among the horrors of Ludlow, there was a glimmer of light: greater recognition that there is a unity of interest between labor and management,” says Rory Mullett, a Durango retiree whose career was in conflict resolution and human resources.

“Rockefeller got a black eye from publicity about the massacre and hired Canadian labor expert MacKenzie King to advise him,” Mullett says. King’s plan included “equal numbers of labor and management representatives to address health, sanitation, safety, recreation and education. It included a grievance procedure and a promise of nondiscrimination against union members.”

But, Mullett says, “some believe that Rockefeller was sincere; others believe that the plan was simply a means of avoiding union recognition.”

Colorado Fuel & Iron refused to recognize the miners’ union.

“The deadly strike prompted investigations and some reforms, but working conditions improved only after miners formed powerful unions and government took its regulatory role seriously.” Fort Lewis College labor historian John Baranski says. “The nation was drawn to the Ludlow Massacre because the tragedy symbolized the widespread violence employers committed against workers.”

The exhibit “Children of Ludlow: Life in a Battle Zone, 1913-1914” is open at the El Pueblo History Museum in Pueblo, and the Trinidad History Museum commemorates a Greek union organizer in the exhibit “An American Icon: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre.” He was killed during the strike.

History is about the past. Public history is about bringing lessons from the past into the present. A century after the Ludlow Massacre, Gov. John Hickenlooper has launched a Ludlow Centennial Commemoration Commission with multiple partners and specific goals including a focus on understanding “how this localized history impacted national and international labor relations and energy production, and continues to have modern-day relevance.”

You can visit the Ludlow site off Interstate 25 just north of Trinidad. Think about the sacrifices made a century ago so that we can enjoy an eight-hour work day, safe working conditions and labor laws that allow for grievance procedures, mediation and arbitration.

Real wages and buying power have steadily declined in America since the 1970s. The middle class continues to erode. As corporations and institutions squeeze employees over workplace issues and diminishing retirement benefits, a century after Ludlow, much remains to be done.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu.

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