Ludlow, unions and politics


In 2012, the right-wing Washington Times reported that “union bashing has been a unifying theme at this year’s Republican National Convention, as few topics have generated louder, longer and more robust cheers and applause during keynote speeches.”

In previous years, the GOP avoided overt attacks on organized labor. Now House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was portraying Labor Day as a holiday celebrating management and CEOs.

Just last month, at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, there was a panel on how to destroy the labor movement. It was moderated by Grover Norquist, an influential political strategist, who said unions are in decline but “they’re not dead yet.” Norquist’s goal is to return America to what it was “up until Teddy Roosevelt, when the socialists took over. The income tax, the death tax, regulations, all that.”

Let’s look at life in Norquist’s libertarian utopia a hundred years ago. Today rightwingers whine about “class war” when their taxes are increased a little bit, but in 1914, you had a real shooting war in Colorado. Coal miners in this state were on strike over lousy pay, dangerous working conditions and feudal domination of their lives in fenced camps patrolled by armed guards. The Rockefellers controlled the largest company, Colorado Fuel and Iron. A Rockefeller mine manager found Governor Elias Ammons to be pliable. He called him “our little cowboy governor.”

Ammons called out the National Guard and both sides welcomed them at first. As the strike dragged on for many bitter months, regular soldiers were replaced by company guards and unsavory mercenaries of the coal companies. The Rockefellers paid the Guard’s wages.

The coal companies employed the Baldwin-Felts detective agency, which had an armored car with a machine gun that fired up to 400 shots a minute with a killing range of two miles. It was mounted on a tripod that let it swing from side to side and up and down. The strikers called it the “Death Special.” Detectives would indiscriminately spray bullets into the strikers’ tent colonies. Strikers were living in tents (supplied by the union) because they had been kicked out of their company-owned homes.

On the morning of April 20, the National Guard fired on the strikers’ isolated tent colony at Ludlow. Many residents fled into the hills. Some women and children hid in underground pits the strikers had dug under the tents for protection. In the early hours of shooting, guardsmen assassinated a union organizer, a Greek immigrant named Louis Tikas, and two other strikers; they also killed two other union men and an 11-year-old boy. Then they set fire to the tents. When the fires burned out, camp residents discovered the burned and twisted remains of two women and 11 children who had suffocated and died in one pit.

No one knows for sure how many people were killed in the onslaught. The National Guard sealed off the area for two days to both the families of the deceased and the Red Cross. They shot at anything that moved. The soldiers fired on the undertaker’s horse-drawn wagons when he came from Trinidad to claim the bodies. Several soldiers approached the bodies of the dead strikers and made a joke. They shook Louis Tikas’ lifeless hand and wished him well in the next world.

The Ludlow massacre wasn’t entirely unusual. The U.S. has had the most violent labor history of any industrialized country in the world. The violence was overwhelmingly committed by promanagement forces.

An investigation of the Ludlow massacre by the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations, a body appointed by President Woodrow Wilson, included this statement:

“The State of Colorado through its military arm was rendered helpless to maintain law and order because that military arm acted, not as an agent of the commonwealth, but as an agent of one of the parties in interest, as an agent, that is, of the coal companies, as against the strikers.”

On Thursday April 17, the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Ludlow massacre with a folk music concert by John McCutcheon, Alice Di Micele and many others at the Nomad Theatre in Boulder at 6 p.m. 

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This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.