20 April 1914
The events leading up to what is called the Ludlow Massacre began about seven months earlier. There were over eleven thousand coal miners working in Colorado for the Colorado Fuel & Iron Corporation (CF&I, a company owned by the Rockefeller family). They, like many of the miners of the past, were made up primarily of immigrants or recently "native Americans" ( Greeks, Italians, Serbs).
As was a fact of life for those in such occupations, the work was hard and dangerous (at the time, Colorado had one of the highest miner fatality rates in the world), they were paid little and poorly treated. They made $1.68 a day, in what was company scripmeaning it wasn't good anywhere except at stores and businesses run by the company. They were regularly cheated by the company underweighing their mine carts. CF&I also ran and controlled school facilities, libraries, and ministers, and collected their rentthey owned towns where they lived. In fact, their lives were owned by the company and the workers wanted something more in return.
Previous talk of a strike had been dismissed by the union but something happened to set things off. A young labor organizer was shot to death by men in the hire of the company (a "coroner's jury" of local businessmen ruled it to be justifiable homicide). This was the proverbial last straw and the workers gathered to discuss a strike.
They had hoped that the owners would agree to collective bargaining and had invited them to discuss their various demands (of which, only two were not already " guaranteed" by Colorado law). On 23 September 1913, close to 95% of the workers went on strike, following the announcement on the 17th:
All mineworkers are hereby notified that a strike of all the coal miners and coke oven workers in Colorado will begin on Tuesday, September 23, 1913.... We are striking for improved conditions, better wages, and union representation. We are sure to win. (www.pbs.org)
Not wanting to tolerate such dissent, the miners were quickly evicted from their homes despite the cold Colorado winter ahead.
John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and his business associates were pleased with the action taken as much as upset by the strike. Rockefeller wrote the vice president of CF&I in October:
We feel that what you have done is right and fair and that the position you have taken in regard to the unionizing of the mines is in the interest of the employees of the company. Whatever the outcome, we will stand by you to the end. (www.pbs.org)
That same month, the vice president wrote to him that the
net earnings would have been the largest in the history of the company by $200,000 but for the increase in wages paid the employees during the last few months. With everything running so smoothly...it is mighty discouraging to have this vicious gang come into our state and not only destroy our profit but eat into that which heretofore been saved. (www.pbs.org)
(He is referring to union organizer and social activist Mother Joneswho was eventually arrested, confined, and then expelled from the stateand the United Mine Workers Union who had come to aid the striking workers.)
The United Mine Workers Union (or United Mine Workers of America, UMWA) helped them by setting tent cities in the surrounding hills, while the workers continued striking and picketing. In response, the Rockefeller "interests" brought in more men from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agencybasically hired gun strikebreakers (it was one of them who had shot the labor organizer) to help deal with the "problem." They brought along Gatling guns and rifles and began to raid the "cities." With the raids began the casualties. Miners armed themselves for protection against the "detective agency" and its band of hired thugs and gunmen who had already set themselves up in local sheriff's offices, making themselves a sort of unofficial police organization.
Despite the hired "muscle," the workers managed to hold out and continue the strike and resist the raids. They even managed to drive back an armored car with a mounted machine gun. With the strike and the workers' ability to fend off strikebreakers, the mines were unable to continue operatingwhich angered not only the corporate ownership, but the governor of the state. In order to bring a halt to the situation, he called out the National Guard (which had its wages paid by the Rockefellersthree to four times what the workers had made per day).
At first, the miners thought the National Guard was there to protect them, even greeting them waving flags and cheering. The facts of matter were soon learned. Guardsmen beat and arrested"by the hundreds"miners and "rode down with their horses parades of women in the streets of Trinidad, the central town in the area" (Zinn, People's...). Rockefeller was pleased with the proceedings (in a letter to the vice president):
You are fighting the good fight, which is not only in the interest of your own company but of other companies of Colorado and the business interests of the entire country and the laboring classes quite as much. I feel hopeful the worst is over and that the situation will improve daily. Take care of yourself, and as soon as it is possible, get a little let-up and rest. (www.pbs.org)
Not willing to be simply beaten down, the workers took action. They killed a strikebreaker and some mine guards (they were escorting scabs to the mines). They severely beat another and the murderer of the labor organizer was shot and killed. The guard and detectives stepped up their harassment and abuse.
Still the strikers hung on through the winter.
Sunday 19 April 1914. The Greek workers and their families were celebrating Easter. Some strikers were playing a baseball game. Five armed men on horses showed up to break up the game (arbitrary harassment of the strikers was common and de rigueur). The crowd was too large for them to easily disperse and they decided better of it. Reportedly, as they were leaving, some of the women and children laughed at them. They replied "Oh that's right, have your fun today, we'll have our roast tomorrow" (www.uvm.edu; this might be apocryphal or exaggerated but does give a sense of the antagonism that went on).
The following morning, people were going about their business as usual, trying to maintain a sense of normalcy in the midst of the strife. Little did they know that there were two companies of National Guardsmen stationed in the hills above the largest tent camp (Ludlow) training their guns on them. There were about one thousand men, women, and children living there.
At five minutes to ten, a bomb went off, sending the people into a panic. It was the first of two signals to the men with the guns. At ten, a second one went off and the people scattered, many men running toward the hills to draw fire away from their families. The shooting was indiscriminate, anyone was a potential target. Only having a handful of guns and ammunition, the miners could only offer weak resistance. The shooting continued into the afternoon.
Louis Tikas, a leader of the Greek workers, made an attempt to arrange a truce. He went up into the hills for his meeting and never returned. Women and children who were unable to make an escape to the hills dug pits in the tents to avoid the gunfire. The day wore on and around dusk the guardsmen came down to the camp and began dowsing the tents with kerosene and setting them on fire. Along with the tents were three American flags that the workers had flying. Those remaining fled for their lives.
The following day, amid the charred debris, a telephone linesman moved an iron cot, uncovering one of the pits. Inside it were the burned bodies of eleven children and two women. At least twenty-six people were killed in the massacre.
The day after the events, Rockefeller sent a telegram to the vice president: "We profoundly regret this further lawlessness and accompanying loss of life."
Call to arms
On the 22nd, the Denver members of the UMWA issued a declaration:
Organize the men in your community in companies of volunteers to protect the workers of Colorado against the murder and cremation of men, women and children by armed assassins in the employ of coal corporations, serving under the guise of state militiamen. Gather together for defensive purposes all arms and ammunition legally available....
Hold all companies subject to order. People having arms to spare for these defensive measure are requested to furnish same to local companies, and, where no company exists, send them to the State Federation of Labor. The state is furnishing us no protection and we must protect ourselves, our wives and children, from these murderous assassins. We seek no quarrel with the state and we expect to break no law; we intend to exercise our lawful right as citizens, to defend our homes and our constitutional rights. (www.uwm.edu)
As a result, three hundred armed strikers marched to the area where they began cutting telephone and telegraph wires. Another three hundred workers from Colorado Springs left their jobs and traveled to the area armed with rifles, shotguns and revolvers. Following the funerals for the slain in the massacre, the men picked up arms and went into the hills where they destroyed mines and killed guards.
By then, the stories of what happened had gotten out and there was outrage over the events. Soldiers in Denver refused to go to the area because, according to the newspaper: "The men declared they would not engage in the shooting of women and children. They hissed the 350 men who did start and shouted imprecations at them" (Zinn, People's...). There were demonstrations in Denverfive thousand people gathered, asking the National Guardsmen be tried for murder and calling the governor an accessory. A local cigar maker's union pledged to send five hundred armed men in response. The local garment worker's union had four hundred volunteers to be nurses for the men.
There were demonstrations and protests elsewhere in the country. People marched in front of the Rockefeller offices in New York City. A clergyman protested outside of a church where Rockefeller would sometimes gave sermons. He was beaten by police.
The strike ends
At the request of the governor, President Woodrow Wilson sent in federal troops to restore order. To deal with the demands, Congress took thousands of pages of worker testimony. It came to naught. The union went unrecognized and a total of sixty-six of the strikers and their families were dead. No one was charged with a crime.
Upton Sinclair wrote an open letter to Rockefeller concerning the events:
I intend to indict you for murder before the people of this country. The charges will be pressed, and I think the verdict will be "Guilty."
I cannot believe that a man who dares to lead a service in a Christian church can be cognizant and therefore guilty of the crimes that have been committed under your authority. (www.pbs.org)
There seems to be no record of a reply.
Rockefeller's response to Ludlow
In June, Rockefeller gave his version of what transpired two months earlier:
There was no Ludlow massacre. The engagement started as a desperate fight for life by two small squads of militia against the entire tent colony... There were no women or children shot by the authorities of the State or representatives of the operators... While this loss of life is profoundly to be regretted, it is unjust in the extreme to lay it at the door of the defenders of law and property, who were in no slightest way responsible for it. (www.pbs.org)
It is interesting
to note they are "defenders of law and property
," rather than the usual "order." He hired a public relations
person who put out claims that those who had died in the pit, died of an "overturned stove
" rather than gunfire by men who were essentially under authority to act from him.
A year later, in a speech to miners, he showed how "important" and "appreciated" they are to him:
We are all partners in a way. Capital can't get along without you men, and you men can't get along without capital. When anybody comes along and tells you that capital and labor can't get along together that man is your worst enemy. We are getting along friendly enough here in this mine right now, and there is no reason why you men cannot get along with the managers of my company when I am back in New York. (www.pbs.org)
It seems difficult to swallow that even he believed his own line.
In a response to the visit, a UMWA leader commented on how he felt Rockefeller was "sincere" and really trying to "improve conditions." On the other hand, he astutely noted that,
However, Mr. Rockefeller has missed the fundamental trouble in the coal camps. Democracy has never existed among the men who toil under the groundthe coal companies have stamped it out. Now, Mr. Rockefeller is not restoring democracy; he is trying to substitute paternalism for it. (www.pbs.org)
At least that's what he seemed to be aiming for.
Ludlow is now a ghost town. Just some deteriorating, weathered old buildings, left to gradually die and be forgotten. A monument was erected by the UMWA to honor those who died.
Numerous buildings, colleges, and foundations bear the name and/or were built by the Rockefellers. "Philanthropists" are honored by such things.
(Sources: Howard Zinn A People's History of the United States 1980, 1999: twentieth anniversary edition; Howard Zinn Declarations of Independence: Cross-examining American Ideology 1990; www.uwm.edu/Course/448-440/fink.htm; www.fortunecity.com/tinpan/parton/2/werecomi.html; www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45b/030.html; www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/rockefellers/sfeature/sf_8.html)