The Ludlow Massacre at the Mercury Cafe
|Ludlow: the poetic and literal truth
Mining has always been dangerous work. The danger of the mine was coupled with the risk of striking for better/safer working conditions, which frequently entailed facing the machine guns of the state.
Colorado has a particularly rich history of labor struggles by miners —
Announcing a free event:
Ludlow: the poetic and literal truths
Tuesday, August 21, at 7:30 PM
Mercury Cafe, 2199 California in Denver, Colorado
Readings and discussion from three authors:
Scott Martelle — Blood Passion
Eleanor Swanson — A Trembling in the Bones
David Mason — Ludlow
The horrors of Ludlow will be the focus of a free Mercury Cafe event on Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.
Scott Martelle will appear with two other authors, both of whom have addressed the Ludlow massacre in verse: David Mason, author of Ludlow: A Verse-Novel (Red Hen, $28.95); and Eleanor Swanson, author of A Trembling in the Bones (Ghost Road Press, $13.95). The Mercury Cafe is at 2199 California St.
from Rocky Mountain News
Author views Colorado massacre as class war, not just a union labor struggle
By Dan Danbom, Special To The Rocky
August 17, 2007
WHEN the Democratic National Committee announced that Denver had been selected to host the 2008 Democratic convention, it appeared for a while that those plans could be derailed because of Denver's lack of unionized hotels. It seemed that many of those who welcomed the convention thought that organized labor's objections were bothersome at best and ridiculous at worst.
But beneath the surface of the dispute is a history of labor-management relations in Colorado that at one time was shocking in its intensity and manifestly bloody. It reached a nadir in 1913-1914 when, for 15 months, Colorado was the epicenter of a union-management war that cost 75 people their lives. Twenty-one of those, mostly women and children, were killed in a town between Walsenburg and Trinidad called Ludlow.
The events surrounding what came to be known as the Ludlow Massacre were less about "the romantic notion of the resilience of the union men and women in the face of oppression," and more about class distinctions played out against the incidental backdrop of an ugly strike, according to journalist Scott Martelle in an impressive new book about the conflict.
All of this took place during a time of great change in America. The country was gradually making the difficult transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy. Robber barons controlled the economy and its lifeblood: railroads and coal. Public animosity toward powerful trusts had given rise to reform movements, yet those did little more than "nip at the heels" of the wealthy and powerful.
Colorado had evolved into a "company town" dominated by eastern capitalists, specifically John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s Colorado Fuel & Iron. As for workers, the Department of Labor wasn't created until 1913, and it was a toothless entity, ineffectual for labor and untrustworthy to business.
Mines were a natural target for union organizers. Miners lived where they worked, in towns that were little more than shacks. If the mine was productive enough and merited a large enough workforce, the company would add a saloon and store, which helped to insulate miners from outside influences, including union organizers, competing merchants and muckraking journalists.
Their wages were tied to the tonnage they mined. Companies found it convenient to re-define "ton" to mean 2,400 pounds. Work that didn't lead directly to coal coming out of the ground, such as shoring up tunnels, was called "dead" work and often paid nothing.
And few other jobs were as dangerous as mining, which was made more difficult (and twice as hazardous as the national average) in Colorado's peculiar geology. Between 1906 and 1910, seven explosions in southern Colorado killed 272 miners.
From the vantage of 2007, what the miners went on strike for seems entirely reasonable: an eight-hour workday, the right to join a union, freedom to shop outside company-owned stores, and a system of checks to ensure that the miners' coal was weighed correctly.
The mine owners saw things differently. Their chief executive in Colorado, Lamont Montgomery Bowers, ridiculed supporters of efforts to reduce the work week from seven days to six and the work day from 12 hours to eight as "goody, goody, milk and water sort of men."
"It will be a happy day for the business men, who are the only true friends the laboring men have, when a lot of these social fanatics are placed in lunatic asylums, and the muckrakers, labor agitators and the grafters are put in jail," he said.
In New York, Bowers's boss, Rockefeller, acted as if he were detached not only from the events in Colorado, but from the business itself. He agreed with Bowers that meeting with the United Mine Workers of America was tantamount to recognizing their authority.
In Colorado, Gov. Elias Ammons similarly was loath to get directly involved. He sent in the Colorado National Guard, which immediately became an arm of the mine operators. When the union's Denver-based secretary-treasurer suggested that the governor "throw the principals in jail together until they agreed to 'a gentleman's conference,'" Ammons said he would not give assistance to a union that "had armed murderers shooting at innocent people on the road."
The hardened positions of both sides boiled over at Ludlow, where a daylong gunbattle climaxed when National Guard troops set fire to miners' tents, causing most of the deaths in the massacre. Military investigators later wrote that at the time the tents were set afire, the National Guard "had become a mob. Men and soldiers seized and took from the tents whatever appealed to their fancy of the moment."
Enraged, strikers attacked mines all over the state, dynamiting facilities and killing guards, strikebreakers and anyone else they perceived as complicit. At one mine, strikers killed 10 guards. Eventually, President Woodrow Wilson intervened and sent in federal troops. The violence abated, but the strikers would have a long time to wait before they unionized the mines.
Martelle is a journalist, not a historian, so Blood Passion is longer on reportage and research than interpretation. He succeeds in telling the story in a readable form and avoids the temptation to make this the polemic it could have been.
Whether he makes his case that the strike was more class warfare than a management-labor dispute is open to debate. But he reminds us all that no matter what side we're on, we're all captives to history and the inescapable truth that what happened yesterday has an influence on what happens today.
Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West
• By Scott Martelle. Rutgers University Press, $25.95.
• Grade: B+
Dan Danbom is a freelance writer living in Denver.
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