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Blood for coal 

A century ago this week, Southern Colorado was at war

Drive south from the city on Interstate 25, passing Pueblo, then Walsenburg, and then, after another 23 miles, you might spot a small roadside sign for "Ludlow Monument." Another mile west on County Road 44 brings you to that monument: a lonely statue and picnic pavilion, on a site owned and maintained by the United Mine Workers of America.

One hundred years ago this week, on April 20, 1914, a white tent stood on that site, one of many that housed striking workers from coal mines owned by the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company, or CF&I. On that day, Colorado National Guardsmen, possibly accompanied by coal company guards — the two were sometimes hard to distinguish — set the strikers' camp on fire. It's estimated that more than a dozen people died in the blaze, including two women and 11 children who suffocated in a pit beneath the tent on this site.

That's the Ludlow Massacre, an event sacred in labor history, one that looms large in the late leftist historian Howard Zinn's telling of America's story, and something that today many Coloradans seem at best hazy about.

Even in its day, the massacre was as much symbol as act, the bloody shirt that militant miners waved in the violence that followed. In what's sometimes called the 10-Day War, they attacked and destroyed mines and battled mine guards and militia from Walsenburg to Trinidad. The war only ended when Gov. Elias Ammons called for federal troops. Even then the strike dragged on, ending in December 1914 — in defeat for the union.

This whole episode, sometimes called the Colorado Coalfield War, is richer and more nuanced than what's signified by the term, "Ludlow Massacre." There are detectives from West Virginia recruited by the mine owners, who improvised a truck-mounted machine gun; there is the presence of the famed and rowdy labor organizer Mother Jones (for whom the progressive magazine today is named); there is a cavalry charge with drawn swords against unarmed women, executed by the Colorado National Guard, which does not exactly cover itself in glory.

Journalist and author Scott Martelle dug into all of this when he researched and wrote his 2007 book Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West. From his office at the Los Angeles Times, where Martelle now serves on the editorial board, he agreed to answer some questions for us.

Any book is a commitment, especially one such as Blood Passion, which is so thoroughly researched. What made you want to commit to this subject? What did you see in it?

I had a long interest in labor issues, and part of my background included going through the newspaper strike in Detroit in 1995, so I'd been sensitized to those issues, and I'd known forever about the Ludlow Massacre. But then I was reading somewhere in a footnote that 100 people died in the Coalfield War and I wondered why I didn't know that ...

So I started poking around, to satisfy my curiosity. At the time I was a feature writer at the Los Angeles Times and I thought there might be a story in it, but my editors weren't interested. So I poked around some more, thinking I could pitch it as a magazine story, like to Harper's, and I started realizing how little had been done on this ... about the drama and the strike itself. There wasn't even a list of the dead, of how many people had been killed in this thing. So I decided to dive in.

Let's start with the conditions that led up to the Coalfield War — tell me about that.

There were more than a dozen different companies, coal operators, that were at work in the coalfields, and the biggest among them was the CF&I, which was owned by the Rockefellers. CF&I set the tone and the others followed — and the conditions were deplorable. For instance, a ton of coal [for which the companies paid the miners] was defined at 2,400 pounds.

That part amazes me, like they could say day was night.

And there was the "deadwork," like shoring up the timbers in the mines, that wasn't paid, even though some of this was against Colorado law. ... The companies controlled everything, not just economically, but in Huerfano County they controlled politics. There were wrongful-death lawsuits arising out of the mines ... and nothing was done. ... So it was the abject domination of the economic and political structure in southern Colorado, and any attempt to organize against that was not well received.

The companies were beating people, running them out of town. And this was an era when there were no safety nets, so if you weren't working, you weren't eating.

So the war begins in 1913 ...

Actually, it starts in 1910, when mine workers organize a strike in the northern fields [of Colorado] and it goes nowhere fast. So they decide to extend that to the southern fields, and among the first of those [incidents] was a union guy named Gerald Lippiatt who's sent down there, and he was the first person killed, in Trinidad, even before the strike occurred. People were dying, and that sort of set the tone for the violence that followed.

On the one hand, you have the mine operators refusing to recognize the union, and on the other you have the union refusing to negotiate its demands. Could this strike have been peaceably settled?

Well, wait, I'm not sure I agree with that. Recognition was the issue that held everything up. The coal operators wouldn't negotiate with the [United Mine Workers of America], and the miners wanted the union to be their representative. ... I think there really was a certain inevitability.

There had been a long run of strikes in Colorado, both in the hard mines, the gold and silver mines, and in the coal mines ... I think there was a sort of lack of appreciation on both sides for the violence each side would have. The operators thought the coal miners wouldn't walk out, they thought the union was just a radical fringe. They couldn't see it.

You know, the union would send a pair of organizers to a coal camp. One would be an overt organizer, while the other one was telling the mine operators, "Hey, Joe Smith [another miner] is a union organizer," when it was the exact opposite; this guy was anti-union. So they'd get rid of him. So when the walkout came, the union had near-total compliance.

Was this a war over the right of labor to strike, or the right of capital to replace strikers?

It was more a war over the right to organize, not to strike but to be represented by a union. That was the pivotal one. They could have settled the other issues. It was to the point where Gov. Ammons had both sides in [Denver] at one point, and they wouldn't even talk to each other — in the same building.

Could you talk about what you learned about the role of the Colorado National Guard, the militia, in the war? Are they a third force or an augmentation of the mine operators?

Once the strike got going, the international United Mine Workers were pressuring the locals to call the strike off, because it was costing them a fortune; and then you have the Rockefellers in New York; and the real fight is on the ground in Colorado ...

The militia started off as a third force. They had the usual class biases and prejudices of the time, so they were kind of by outlook anti-striker, but they came in as a peacekeeping force. Fairly early on, the state ran out of money to pay the soldiers, so the coal operators began ponying up money to keep the militia in the field. And as militia members drifted away, they were replaced by mine guards.

So in fairly rapid order they became an offshoot of the coal operators. And some of the miners would see a mine guard from the day before in the National Guard uniform. There seemed to have been a little bit of hope when the National Guard came in, but that disappeared pretty quickly.

"It is a given," you write, "that the deaths of the women and children in the Ludlow fire constituted a massacre. They did not." Could you elaborate on that?

Not everybody agrees with me on this, but a massacre is the willful and intentional killing of a large number of people. But these women and children were hiding in this chamber under a tent during a day-long battle, and at the end of the day the National Guard came through, close to dusk, and began torching the tent colony, not knowing the women and children were there.

It's a crime, they were committing an arson, and that by no means lets the National Guard off the hook. It's more a matter of deciding what crime they were guilty of.

People who know anything about the so-called massacre say the miners were in tents at Ludlow because CF&I had evicted them from company houses. But also, the UMW, powerful in its own fashion, had shipped tents to Ludlow to erect on pasture land it had leased, to house the workers, before they called them out on strike, knowing they'd be evicted from company homes, something it publicly announced in advance; and the union shipped rifles and revolvers to the strikers. At the same time, the Baldwin-Felts detective agency, which had been blooded in the West Virginia coalfields, was retained by CF&I and among many other things mounted a machine gun on a truck — the "Death Special," miners called it — to be used against strikers.

Is this a clash of two different but powerful interests? Was it symmetrical?

No, by no means. The coal operators, as perverted as it was, had the law and the state apparatus on its side. The strikers didn't start arming themselves until the violence started escalating. The killings were increasing and increasing, so it essentially became a guerrilla war by the miners against a state apparatus that had married the corporate interests.

In this sequence of events, is the importance of the deaths at the Ludlow camp, the so-called massacre, that it ignites the greater war?

It was a breaking point. Before that, the killings came in spurts. After that, it's the 10 days of war, as they called it, just a rage ... The name ["Ludlow Massacre"] became part of the propaganda. The union supporters recognized they had an opportunity to publicize what had happened out there. But it was the Colorado National Guard that did the burning. ...

In reading all the letters and reports, it's clear that [CF&I executive Lamont] Bowers and [Colorado National Guard Gen. John] Chase and other top decision-makers had a very low regard for people working in the mines. They didn't see them as engaged American people. What they also didn't realize was that most of these people came out of wars in the Balkans and they knew how to fight. It's also worth noting that the violence had pretty much died down by the time April 20 came around, so in a way, Ludlow was a rekindling of the flames.

You quote Bowers saying at the outset of the strike, "I always regret cutting the wages of laborers who have families to support and are trying to pay for homes and educate their children but considering those foreigners who do not intend to make America their home, and who live like rats in order to save money, I do not feel that we ought to maintain high wages in order to increase their income and shorten their stay in this country."

It's a remarkable statement in hindsight. And this leads us to the role of immigrant labor. You have Greek and Italian and Slavic union men who are feared because they have experience in these revolutionary actions in the Old World, and then you have Japanese and Bulgarian replacement workers who are brought in by CF&I. What's the effect of concentrating all these varying nationalities in southern Colorado a century ago?

Initially, [the mine operators] did it after the 1903 strike, because they realized if they had a whole bunch of different languages in the camps, it would make them harder to organize. And the same thing with the scabs: If you're from Japan and don't speak the language, you're harder to organize. That was an incredibly high-immigration era in American history. But it was pro-union or scab that was the division.

It's a Hollywood myth that everyone went armed in the Old West, and we sometimes hear, especially in Colorado, that handguns are too easy to obtain and possess today, but contrary to both those notions, everyone in your account — miners, union organizers, mine operators and detectives — seems armed to the teeth.

Maybe not to the teeth. In that era it was not uncommon to go out and shoot a rabbit for dinner, so having a rifle was not uncommon. But then, when the violence picked up, the union guys went out and bought more guns. It wasn't unusual for a coal miner to have a gun in that era. It wasn't a particularly good one, but it would fire.

And then, besides guns, there is the presence of Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, who comes to Colorado as trouble builds. At times she doesn't just sound like an agitator. She sounds like she's calling the strikers to Armageddon. You use this quote from her, addressing a gathering of miners — bellowing, you say: "If you are too cowardly to fight, there are enough women in this country to come in and beat the hell out of you. If it is slavery or strike, why I say strike, until the last one of you drops into your graves." What was the effect of her presence?

By all accounts she was just an inspiring figure to the strikers, prodding them, targeting their sense of manhood, a very much of-the-era kind of attack on their masculinity. She was just a brilliant agitator. The miners found her very inspiring.

There's that scene at the West Theater in Trinidad, which is still there, and she had that place rocking. She had that grandmotherly wardrobe she wore and she swore like a sailor.

And then she's held under house arrest in Trinidad, and about 1,000 women march there to protest. And Gen. Chase, a Denver ophthalmologist — this is another one of those parts of the story I find just incredible — orders a cavalry charge, with drawn sabers, on unarmed women ...

That sort of shows Chase's view of things, doesn't it? He got knocked off his horse or something and that just sent him into a rage ... Police still do that these days, too.

And peace is only restored by the intervention of federal troops. Why is that? Is this an argument for the role of a strong central government?

Not necessarily. There's nothing to keep a strong central government from reacting the way the Colorado National Guard did. I do think it's worth noting that Governor Ammons requested federal help and that didn't come until the miners controlled much of the Front Range, when the National Guard was essentially defeated. When the National Guard was kicking the shit out of the miners, there was no interest in sending in the federal troops. When the workers were winning, then the federal government got involved.

Was the Coalfield War a defeat for labor at the time? For example, real labor reform by the national government only comes much later, in 1935, with the passage of the Wagner Act and the right to collective bargaining.

I don't think so. In Colorado, the coal miners lost the strike but the coal war, nationally, really elevated the level of labor organizing and drew attention to labor conditions in the coal mines, and also showed the absurd lengths capital was willing to go to defeat labor.

To this day, those who are involved in labor look to the Ludlow Massacre as a rallying point, because labor got pushed and it didn't bend, it stood up for itself, even as children and mothers were martyrs to the cause ...

I just don't see the strikers as victims here. Once you subtract the massacre victims, the strikers killed more people than they lost. They didn't roll over and take it ... I think it was a heroic moment in labor history. I understand why the union movement in that era focused on the women and children as victims, but I don't see the coal miners as victims other than in the broad sense that they were victims of this system that they stood up against.

Should we also be commemorating the loss of life at the hands of miners?

A lot of [those victims] were scabs who didn't necessarily know they were being hired as scabs, some of them were National Guardsmen who were company guards. They were just doing their jobs. They were just caught up in this other struggle. That's one of my regrets about records in Colorado, that I was unable to find any source for the viewpoints of the scabs at that time ...

One of the things that I hoped my book would do would be a foundation for other people to build on ... there's a lot of stuff left to be done.

It seems as though most everyone has heard of the Shootout at the OK Corral, in which three people were killed. I was at the Ludlow monument on a recent Sunday and, it wasn't crickets, but for a while the only thing stirring were prairie dogs. They've built their village around the parking lot expecting they won't be disturbed by humans, you'd think.

Why is the Colorado Coalfield War not better remembered today?

It's because it's labor. We've essentially ignored labor history in America. It was a major moment in the state's history that eventually led to a change in the governorship. It was in a lot of ways a watershed moment, but it's not really taught in Colorado schools. We just ignore labor history in this country.

robert@csindy.com

Scott Martelle's newest book, The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man's Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones, will be published May 1 by Chicago Review Press.

  • The Ludlow Massacre is an event sacred in labor history... and our own.

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