1914: War in the US Coalfields

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This month marks the centenary of the Ludlow Massacre when US national guardsmen killed 20 striking miners and their families in Colorado. This is the story of one of the most violent episodes in American labour history.

On 20 April 1914 the US National Guard attacked a tent colony of striking miners at Ludlow in Southern Colorado. By the end of the day at least 20 strikers, their wives and children were dead. Thirteen had died in a pit dug underneath a tent where they were sheltering from the gunfire after the militiamen deliberately set fire to the tents.

Louis Tikas, a strike leader of Greek origin, and two other strikers were murdered in cold blood after they were summoned to a "negotiation" by Lieutenant Linderfelt of the National Guard. Linderfelt knocked out the unarmed Tikas by breaking his rifle butt over his skull and then ordered the shooting.

An eyewitness was reported in the New York World as saying, "The militiamen aimed their rifles and fired into the unconscious man's body. It was the first murder I had ever seen."

This slaughter, better known as the Ludlow Massacre, was the most violent incident in a 14-month long strike of 11,000 coal miners in Southern Colorado. The US labour historian Howard Zinn described the strike as "one of the most dramatic and violent examples of class conflict in American history".

At least 75 people died in the strike. The strikers, members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), were pitted against the richest man in the world, John D Rockefeller Jr, who owned the largest mining company, the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CFIC).

The miners had many grievances which fuelled the strike. The Southern Colorado coalfield had the worst safety record in the world. Rockefeller was vehemently anti-union and in 1912 alone over 1,000 miners were sacked as suspected union members.

Rockefeller had deliberately imported foreign labour to ensure a mixture of nationalities at every mine in an attempt to keep the miners divided. In a speech to a union conference in September 1913 the veteran UMWA organiser Mother Jones quoted a CFIC mine manager as saying, "Dagos are cheaper than props," in dismissing criticisms of the company's safety record. She commented, "There are no dagos in this country. It is the game that has been played down the history of the ruling class to divide the working class."

Most of the miners lived in what were effectively feudal mine camps where the company owned everything. The mine superintendent was mayor and outsiders were denied entrance. The company owned the shops and saloons and appointed the marshal. Mine guards were employed to control the miners. They controlled state and sheriff elections too. CFIC Colorado manager L M Bowers described his company as "the political dictator of Southern Colorado".

Machine Guns

While UMWA officials sought a negotiated settlement prior to the strike, the coal operators prepared for war. They paid for hundreds of gunmen and detectives of the Baldwin-Felts Agency to be deputised and brought in up to 20 machine guns. Detectives from the agency shot dead a UMWA organiser, Gerald Lippiatt, in Trinidad, the main town in the mining area.

The 11,000 miners walked out on 23 September 1913 demanding union recognition, an eight hour day, a 10 percent pay rise and, most significantly, for the state mining laws to be enforced in the Southern Colorado mines. The miners and their families moved into giant tent colonies as the coal operators would evict them from the company camps. Ludlow was the biggest with 1,200 people living there.

The unity and resolve of the miners were unbreakable despite every effort of the coal operators and their hired guns, who even paid for an armoured vehicle, nicknamed the "Death Special" to shoot up tent colonies with machine guns. The first time it was used one boy was hit nine times in the leg and a striker was killed. The miners fought back with what few arms they had.

Bowers agitated for the National Guard to be called in. He told Rockefeller he had got the backing of "all the bankers of the city...the chamber of commerce, the real estate exchange, a great many of the best businessmen...[backed by] 14 of the editors of the most important newspapers in the state." That was sufficient to force the state governor to do as Bowers wished.

The miners believed that the National Guard would be neutral. They were quickly disillusioned. The commanding officer, General Chase, drove around in a CFIC vehicle. He created what he called the "military district of Colorado" arresting hundreds of miners and their wives. Mother Jones was held without charge for months.

The coal operators had hoped that the arrival of the National Guard would break the resolve of the strikers. When this failed they agitated for the National Guard to oversee the mass importation of scab labour. Eventually the governor agreed, so trainloads of strike breakers started arriving, protected by the National Guard, so much so that the women taunted them, calling them "scab herders".

These men did not know they were to be used as strike breakers until they arrived at Ludlow rail junction. Some who protested were killed. They were held prisoner by armed guards in the mine camps. Those who did manage to escape found refuge in the tent colonies.

The salaries of the guardsmen were effectively being paid by the coal operators. As the money dried up most of the guards were recalled at the end of March, leaving just three companies, made up primarily of mine-guards and agency detectives. The company at Ludlow was commanded by Lieutenant Linderfelt, a man who had established his brutal credentials in November when he savagely attacked Louis Tikas and had him jailed.

The attack on the Ludlow tent colony began early on 20 April. Three machine guns fired into the tents, backed up by 400 armed men. The miners fought back as best they could with the limited arms available to them but could not stop the onslaught.

Union railwaymen refused to transport National Guard reinforcements to Ludlow in the form of an armoured train until eventually a scab crew was found. The colony was burnt to the ground and it was not until the fires were put out the following day that the 13 dead were found beneath the tents.

A conservative newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News, commented, "Machine guns did the murder. It was private war, with the wealth of the richest man in the world behind the armed guards." The New York Times said, "No situation can justify the acts of the militia" and fretted that their blunder would give justification to whatever the miners did in response.

The brutality of the massacre sent shockwaves through the American working class. The striking miners were enraged and armed men from other tent colonies poured into the Ludlow area, attacking the working mines, driving off the guards and dynamiting them. They were backed by other local workers taking up arms, including clerks and teachers. Railway workers continued to refuse to transport troops and ammunition to Ludlow.

In Wyoming 1,700 miners took up arms and told the UMWA they were ready to go to Ludlow, while in Cripple Creek 500 miners headed for Ludlow. The Denver Cigar Makers Union voted to send 500 armed men.

Demonstrators

Solidarity donations poured into Ludlow. From September 1913 to April 1914 $8,700 had been donated; in the three weeks following the massacre this rose to $80,000. In Denver 5,000 demonstrated to demand that the National Guard officers be put on trial for murder and branded the governor as an accessory. Demonstrators hounded Rockefeller in New York.

A group of 82 guardsmen mutinied in Denver and refused to board a troop train bound for Ludlow because they did not want to kill women and children. Eugene Debs, leader of the US Socialist Party, said; "The shots fired at Ludlow...will prove the signal for the American revolution." Debs, who had received over 900,000 votes in the US presidential elections two years earlier, called for the setting up of a Gunmen's Defence Fund to ensure that the strikers had the firepower to match that of the guards.

UMWA locals all over the country demanded the union call a national strike. Such a strike could have had huge support, have sparked widespread solidarity strikes and the coal operators could have been beaten. But UMWA officials argued that the best way to support the strike was to stay at work.

When President Wilson sent in federal troops nine days after the massacre union officials effectively stopped resistance. The strike was not finally called off until December but it had been beaten when the national union leaders failed to escalate the strike.

The Ludlow Massacre showed that the US ruling class was willing to use any means to defeat workers (it would enter the First World War three years later in the name of "democracy" and "freedom"). But the Ludlow strike also shows that America's rulers were not all powerful.

If the bravery of the 11,000 strikers and their families fighting the richest man in the world and his private army had been matched by bravery from their union leaders this could have been a famous working class victory. As it was, it took another generation before the Southern Colorado coalfield was finally unionised.