Issue 222 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published August/September 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review
'The Ludlow massacre provoked an armed insurrection throughout the coalfield with the UMWA openly arming its members and supporters'
The Colorado miners' strike of 1913-14 is one of the most important industrial conflicts in American working class history. It pitted some 11,000 miners and their families against one of the richest and most powerful men in the US, John D Rockefeller Jr of Standard Oil, owner of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CFI).
The CFI dominated the Colorado coalfield, owning 600 square miles of it and operating 39 mines, producing 6 million tons of coal annually. Rockefeller, a devout Christian, together with the other mine owners, imposed one of the harshest labour regimes in the country. Safety concerns were routinely ignored in the Colorado coalfield, which had the worst safety record in the US, which in turn had the worst in the world. In 1910 some 319 miners were killed in accidents, more than one in 50 of those employed.
The mine companies routinely rigged the scales at the pithead so they underweighed, lowering the miners' wages. One state official weighing 155 Ibs found that when he stood on the scales at the Eagleville mine, he added only 92 Ibs to the coal truck being weighed, at the Sopris mine only 70 Ibs and at the CF1 Starkville mine only 35 Ibs. Miners who demanded the checking of scales were fired.
Attempts to organise were confronted with a network of spies and informers and the often murderous brutality of the company guards. In 1903 a year long strike by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) had been defeated by the importation of strikebreakers, intimidation and murder. John Lawson, one of the strike leaders, had his home dynamited and was shot and wounded in an assassination attempt. A 70 year old striker, Joe Raiz, was brutally beaten and castrated, dying three days later. The union was defeated with its membership collapsing from 11,000 in 1903 to only 400 in 1905.
By 1912 the UMWA was recovering, covertly recruiting members and preparing for action. That year over 1,000 miners were sacked for being suspected union members, but the organisation still managed to recruit the overwhelming majority. At one mine a union man volunteered his services as a company spy, procuring the firing of potential scabs and helping to recruit others into the union. Discovery often meant a brutal beating at the hands of the company guards and sometimes death. In August 1913 union organiser Gerald Lippiati was shot dead in broad daylight on the streets of the town
of Trinidad by detectives from the notorious Baldwin Felts agency. He was the first fatality of the Colorado war.
The miners demanded union recognition, an eight hour day and 10 percent pay increase, the right to elect their checkweighmen to end company fraud, the withdrawal of the company guards, and the enforcement of Colorado's mining safety regulations which the companies had always refused to implement. On 17 September 1913 over 90 percent of the Colorado miners, over 11,000 men, walked out and were promptly evicted, together with their families, from company housing. The UMWA established eight tent colonies, the largest at Ludlow. The day after the strike began a particularly hated company guard, Bob Lee, who had raped a number of miners' wives, was shot dead.
The company guards routinely harassed the tent colonies, hoping to provoke incidents and bring about the intervention of the state militia, the Colorado National Guard. In October an armoured car, the 'Death Special', provided by Baldwin Felts, was used to machine gun the tent colonies at Ludlow and Forbes. The fighting that resulted was used by the governor, Elias Ammons, as an excuse to send in the National Guard.
Many of the National Guard companies were made up of company guards in uniform, subjecting the strikers and their families to a reign of terror. The National Guard attempted to disarm the strikers, regularly raided and searched the tent colonies, arrested and imprisoned union organisers without trial, escorted scabs into the mines, and either stood by or joined in when the tent colonies were attacked. Violence continued throughout the winter with fatalities on both sides.
By the spring of 1914 it was clear that a crisis was approaching, that the mine owners wanted the strike broken. An all out assault came on 20 April when National Guardsmen under the command of a former mine guard, Lieutenant Karl Linderfelt, a veteran of America's bloody counter-insurgency in the Philippines, attacked the Ludlow colony. They raked it with machine gun fire and then set fire to the tents, killing two women and 11 children. They captured a union organiser, Louis Tikas, and two strikers, who were then brutally beaten and shot.
The Ludlow massacre provoked an armed insurrection throughout the coalfield with the UMWA openly arming its members and supporters for war. Mines were attacked, company property destroyed, and scabs and company guards killed in a series of ferocious attacks. At Aguilar the company men retreated underground when the strikers attacked: they dynamited the shaft, trapping 35 scabs inside. At Forbes, after a fierce gun battle, the strikers overran the mine, killing nine guards and burning buildings and equipment.
On 28 April President Woodrow Wilson ordered federal troops into the coalfield. He had stood by while the strikers were on the receiving end, but now that company property was at risk US troops became involved. By the time the army arrived over 70 people were known to have been killed in the conflict.
The massacre provoked widespread protest throughout the US with demonstrations in many cities. Thousands of people demonstrated outside the State House in Denver, Colorado, and eventually occupied it. In New York Rockefeller's offices and home were picketed. But while there were demonstrations and protests, what was needed was industrial action.
The UMWA leadership responded to strike demands by asserting that 'we can better aid our gallant brothers in Colorado by remaining at work'. The bureaucracy put its faith in President Wilson, looking to him to secure a settlement, rather than to the rank and file and militant action. The opportunity to inflict a decisive defeat on the mine owners, not only in Colorado but throughout the US, was thrown away. Putting faith in the capitalist state to curb the power of the capitalist class was a disaster and the strike went down to defeat.
The strikers were starved back to work by November with thousands victimised and hundreds imprisoned. Union organisation was completely smashed and Rockefeller emerged victorious, and the bravery and determination of the miners was thrown away by a union bureaucracy which chose to put its trust in the state.