The story of the Ludlow miners

April 24, 2014

Trish Kahle explains what led to the Ludlow Massacre--and the struggle that followed.

ONE HUNDRED years ago this week, the Ludlow Massacre resulted in the death of as many as 25 striking coal miners and members of their families, about half of them children. Members of the National Guard, joined by militiamen from robber baron John D. Rockefeller's private armies, were sent in to break the strike that miners had been waging for more than seven months, demanding recognition of their union, part of the radical Western Federation of Miners.

The tent colony of about 1,200 workers in Ludlow was isolated from much of the country, but was walking distance from other smaller, similarly constructed camps. In sustaining their strike, workers overcame their geographic isolation--but also organized across ethnic and racial divisions that the operators had assumed would keep workers divided.

The workers at Ludlow came from all over the world. The strikers included Mexicans, Slavs, Italians, Austrians, Poles, Greeks, Japanese, Hungarians, Swiss, Bohemians, Finns, French, Swedes and more. Black and Brown workers who didn't fit into these categories were tallied as "colored," regardless of their ethnicity, and represented a small but significant number of strikers. This was the population of the tent city that came under assault.

The ruins of the Ludlow workers' camp after the massacre
The ruins of the Ludlow workers' camp after the massacre

There are conflicting accounts about who shot first on April 20, 1914, but there's no doubt about the overwhelming violence used against the miners of Ludlow, after every other divide-and-conquer strategy failed to break them.

The miners organized bravely and fought for union recognition, better working conditions and the right to a decent life, against one of the wealthiest and most powerful robber baron families of them all: the Rockefellers. They were determined to extract every possible cent of profit from the miners' labor, and they had the support of the government--with Democratic President Woodrow Wilson at its helm--to intervene on their side.

The massacre stands as testament to the vicious power that the state and industry will unleash against those who take a stand.

The assault on the tent colony lasted throughout the day. At one point, 11 children suffocated along with two women as they hid in adobe cellars beneath their tent, and it was set on fire. Another young boy was shot in the head while running through the tent colony.

Others died trying to fight off the National Guard and militiamen. Louis Tikas, the leader of the Greek strikers, was arrested by the militiamen and died from multiple gunshot wounds to his back. The other two men arrested with him were executed as well.

When the fire that destroyed the camp burned out, all that remained was a plain of jumbled metal and free standing stoves as the only evidence that days before, more than a thousand miners and their families had lived there in the nation's largest tent colony, owned by the Colorado Fuel and Iron Co., one of the many coal and steel companies owned by the Rockefeller family.

THE TRAGEDY of Ludlow, however, was only one day in a much larger struggle. It was not the first time during the strike that workers had been killed. But as the miners' leader Mother Jones noted, "Little children roasted alive make a front page story."

In many ways, the Ludlow Massacre was just the beginning of the story. It ignited a workers' uprising now called the Ten Days War. So strong was the rebellion that even after the unions signed a ceasefire agreement with state officials, workers continued to fight back under the battle cry "Remember Ludlow!" All in all, the miners actually inflicted more casualties than they suffered. Rather than retreat after Ludlow, they went on the offensive--and received support from workers around the nation.

The Ludlow miners, rather than being an isolated pocket of radicals and revolutionaries, were part of a wider network in the United Mine Workers, which despite an accommodationist president, still had a network of socialists and other radicals in its leadership. Additionally, the miners received support from the Western Federation, who organized hard-rock miners and smelter workers across western North America and were founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

As workers went on the offensive in the days following Ludlow--marching from camp to camp, appropriating property, arresting scabs and company representatives, and defending themselves from state attack--radicals in the union argued with more conservative union officials that the uprising should not only be supported but encouraged.

Following the deadly day at Ludlow, the Colorado Federation of Labor, Western Federation of Miners and United Mine Workers issued a "Call to Arms" on April 22. It ran in newspapers throughout the region, soliciting donations of arms and ammunition and asking for volunteers to organize militias "to protect the workers of Colorado against the murder and cremation of men, women and children by armed assassins in the employ of the coal corporations." Historian Thomas Andrews describes the immediate response:

Cigar makers, colliers, and other working men and women drilled in the streets of Denver and other towns. Union miners around the country sent telegrams expressing outrage and vowing solidarity; workers from Wyoming, New Mexico, and Oklahoma notified their Colorado brethren that they were armed and ready to enter the fray.

As the uprising continued, and the skirmishes with the companies and the state claimed still more lives, debate raged within the union leadership about whether to continue armed struggle. Public support for the uprising was widespread, and the WFM and radicals within the UMW took this as a sign to keep fighting. More conservative members thought continued bloodshed would erode public support. After days of fierce debate, the union signed a ceasefire.

But in the end, it went unenforced. The strikers continued their offensive. Soon, President Wilson sent federal troops to "restore peace." As fighting continued into its second week, and the death toll continued to rise, miners finally agreed to lay down their arms, believing that the Democratic president would protect their interests and help ensure union recognition.

State intervention, however, led to a company victory. After the Ten Days' War, the companies didn't want to let workers get even the smallest taste of power again. They continued to stall recognition until the UMW ran out of money and was forced to call off the strike. Miners returned to work without union recognition, and more than 400 of the strikers were arrested. More than 300 of them were charged with murder.

That doesn't mean, however, that their struggle had no impact. It played a central role in the continuing effort to organize the western coalfields--since the struggle and its outcome had shown that the state could not be trusted to act on behalf of workers and the companies would go to any length to prevent workers from unionizing. Additionally, Ludlow and the ensuing Ten Days' War helped to lead to the passage of strengthened child labor laws.

Ludlow became a rallying point for workers around the country, taking its place alongside Haymarket, Pullman and Homestead as another battlefield in the class war between capital and labor.

IN THE space of a short article, it's impossible to recount the whole story of the Ten Days' War in any detail, but there are a few important pieces of history that get overlooked when we remember only the Ludlow Massacre and not the entire struggle. For a full and engaging account of the Colorado Coalfield Wars, I recommend Thomas Andrews' Killing for Coal: America's Deadliest Labor War, which stands out as the best book on the subject today.

Remembering only the massacre at Ludlow obscures the vital fact that a group of coal miners--most of them immigrants--managed to organize a strike across racial and ethnic lines, and brought southern Colorado to the brink of revolution. It also obscures the tremendous courage with which miners and their families faced down the power of capitalism and the state--and conceals the role socialists and other radicals played in organizing the strike and rebellion. Finally, it sidelines the incredible--and immediate--solidarity expressed by other workers with the strikers in the Colorado coalfields.

As Thomas Andrews explained:

By making victimization the main story line of a struggle in which strikers actually inflicted more deaths than they suffered, historians have treated men, women, and children who demonstrated tremendous capacity for action as having been almost entirely acted upon. Such interpretations seem to underscore a key premise of [mainstream] 20th-century politics: that working people can best achieve equality, fairness and justice not through collective uprisings from below, but rather through the intervention of national unions, the Democratic Party, and the federal government.

But there is a much different lesson that socialists must teach.

The Ten Days' War has never been publicly commemorated. Most ceremonies focus on the massacre at Ludlow and leave the rest of the story untold. But socialists and radicals today need to know the full story--how workers broke down divisions among them, how other workers around the country supported the strikers when they fought, and how radicals played a central role in moving the struggle forward.

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