The Ludlow Massacre
So 4/20 has come and gone for most of the world. For some, 4/20 marks events like Hitler’s birthday or the Columbine School Shootings. For others, it’s a day to refer to pot jokes and other drug culture hallmarks. Oh and George Takei was born today on 4/20 too. A lot of stuff really, but there is one event of note on 4/20 is that of the Ludlow Massacre which occurred in 1914.
The Ludlow Massacre was among the ‘big’ events in Labor history in the United States where class conflict came out into the open. The mining community in Ludlow, Colorado, was the target of a brutal crackdown by the national guard and company thugs where 19-25 individuals were killed. The strike which gripped Ludlow was planned and implemented despite attempts by the company to prevent unionization and strike action among its workers. The coal miners, much like their brothers in Appalachia and elsewhere, were exposed to terrible work conditions in the fields and lived in a state of servitude in feudal-like arrangements with the company (The latter was not all that uncommon- some companies had work towns where they essentially ran all the services and as such they could get away with paying workers in ‘company currency’ rather than real wages; Pullman was infamous for this). That year in 1913, a little over a hundred coal miners died from different mine-related causes, leaving behind broken families in the wake.
The workers demanded that the company- the Rockefeller owned Colorado Fuel and Iron (as well as two other companies)- recognize their right to unionize and collective bargaining, pay increases, an eight-hour work day, better safety conditions, enforcement of several laws unobserved by the companies, among other proposals. In September 1913 these demands were rejected by the company, leading to a strike that lasted well into the following spring. Those who went on strike were forced from their company-owned homes, but instead of bowing out decided to set up a tent city of sorts to continue their strike. The company brought in a private security group, the Baldwin–Felts Detective Agency (such groups were common in strike-breaking, the more infamous being the Pinkertons) to harass and bully the striking workers.
In the ensuing days the strikers came into conflict with scabs the company brought in to work in the mines, who were in turn protected by the company guards and the Baldwin-Felts thugs. The company had intended on trying to wait on the strike, and bully the strikers into surrendering by harassing them while they slept in their tents along with their families- often shooting at their campsite. The continued gun fire moved strikers to even make dugouts under their tents to take cover from gun fire pelleting their tents. The private agency even utilized a modified sedan chassis that resembled what we call an armored vehicle now. The strikers referred to this as the “Death Special” due to its mounted machine guns.
As the strike showed no sign of slowing, the Colorado state government, which was obviously under the thumb of the coal companies which made up a significant part of the state economy, accepted the requests for a national guard intervention into the strike. Indeed during these heated strike actions many companies would lean on the state governments to send the state militia to do their dirty work and break the strike.
Interestingly, the strikers had managed to outlast the state government, who found that they could no longer afford to keep the militia deployed. However, the state government gave carte blanche to the companies to form their own militia with national guard uniforms to keep up the repression of the strikers.
The fateful day came on April 20th when these company militias descended on the campsite, citing that a man (presumably a scab) was being held hostage. The leader of the encampment Louis Tikas, a Greek immigrant, met the militia commander. Little did Tikas know, the whole thing was a ruse for the militia to set up positions around the encampment, including a machine gun overlooking the camp. Like Tikas, a number of the strikers were Greek and were observing Easter as per Eastern Orthodox traditions. Tikas eventually realized what was happening and rushed back to the campsite to rally the strikers, who were moved to defend their families. A confrontation blew out as the militia moved on the campsite, facing resistance from the strikers. Families took cover in the dugouts under the tent, but fires set by the rampaging militiamen (bourgeois sources of course say it was accidental), trapping two women and 11 children to suffocate to death. The armaments of the militia overwhelmed the miners, but luckily a passing passenger train stopped in front of the machine gun to allow strikers to gather their families and flee from the campground. The militia rampaged through the campsite, murdering those who had not left including Louis Tikas who had stayed through the duration of the raid guiding the strikers to safety. The company thugs displayed the bodies for those killed alongside the railway for passing people to see, and refused to let them be buried for some time.
17 of the known victims of the Ludlow Massacre, listed on the monument erected in their memory. From wikipedia:
Louis Tikas, age: 30 years
James Fyler, age: 43 years
John Bartolotti, age: 45 years
Charlie Costa, age: 31 years
Fedelina Costas, age: 27 years
Onafrio Costa, age: 4 years
Frank Rubino, age: 23 years
Patria Valdez, age: 37 years
Eulala Valdez, age: 8 years
Mary Valdez, age: 7 years
Elvira Valdez, age: 3 months
Joe Petrucci, age: 4 ½ years
Lucy Petrucci, age: 2 ½ years
Frank Petrucci, age: 4 months
William Snyder Jr, age: 11 years
Rodgerlo Pedregone, age: 6 years
Cloriva Pedregone, age: 4 years
At the end of the day, 19-25 individuals had died. The event caused considerable outrage among other mining communities, leading to rioting and disputes with companies in solidarity with their comrades. The strikers, who had already taken up arms before to protect themselves from company militias and the hired guns, now rallied to fight against the massacre launched by the company.
The combat between the miners and the company thugs lasted for 10 days before the Federal government intervened and deployed the military to ‘resolve’ the crisis on orders of President Wilson- that is, support the companies from the strikers. The strikers were disarmed by the government, whose treatment was presumably reciprocated by the disarming of the company guards and militia. By the end of the “war”, the total dead stayed at the very least 50, mostly strikers and their families. The so-called Colorado Coalfield War’s death tolls vary, going from the low 60s to slightly over a hundred after it all ended. The strike continued until December of 1914 when it ran out of money in its strike coffers. Their demands were not recognized and nothing had changed. A government inquiry into the case led to Rockefeller himself appearing, testifying that he would have not done anything to prevent his thugs from attacking the strikers and their families even if he knew about it.
Labor unions and socialist groups covered the event extensively, and it would prove to be an event immortalized in history among workers groups. Mother Jones, the erstwhile reformer and social justice advocate, was very moved by the event which provided yet another example for her crusade against corporate exploitation of the working poor and child labor. Eugene Debs spoke out in support of the miners, and even defended their right to protect themselves from company thugs going so far as to raise money for them to procure weapons and ammunition to do so. John Reed, the famous radical journalist who had covered other coalfield disputes, the Mexican Revolution, and later the Russian Revolution, wrote a piece on the massacre. The last survivor of the event, who was only a young baby when the event occurred, passed away in 2007, but the event transcended beyond the people and into the fabric of class struggle itself.
Nationally it provoked an outrage and led to some labor reforms taking place later, outlawing child labor and establishing a nationwide 8-hour work day. The Colorado coal company attempted to diffuse the problems by recognizing a company union instead of one organized by the workers. Coal miners still faced difficulty for decades to come though- the Battle of Blair Mountain would take place some years later, and to this day coal mining is a hazardous job where the workers are exploited brutally by mine owners.
Workers everywhere still continue to struggle for their rights. Be it in Europe against austerity, in the United States against the continued dominance of business interests, or even students in Montreal fighting for their rights, the spirit of struggle lives on.