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Three Strikes: Miners, Musicians, Salesgirls, and the Fighting Spirit of Labor's Last Centuryby Howard Zinn
ON APRIL 21, 1914, in the quiet afternoon, a telephone linesman was making his way through the charred ruins of a miners' tent colony in southern Colorado. He lifted an iron cot covering a pit under one of the tents, and there he found the blackened, swollen bodies of eleven children and two women. The news was flashed swiftly to the world. The tragedy was given a name: the Ludlow Massacre.
Some Americans know about the Ludlow Massacre, though it does not appear in most of the history texts used in our schools and colleges. Woody Guthrie wrote a song about it, a dark, brooding song. But few know that the Ludlow Massacre was the central event in a fourteen-month strike of coal miners that took a toll of at least sixty-six lives—a strike which is one of the most dramatic and violent events in the history of this country.
Two governmental committees subsequently recorded over five thousand pages of firsthand testimony by participants in the Colorado coal strike. Thousands of newspaper stories and hundreds of magazine articles dealt with the conflict. Some of the most fascinating figures in American history were involved in some way in that event: Mother Jones and Eugene Debs, Woodrow Wilson, John D. Rockefeller and Ivy Lee, Upton Sinclair and John Reed.
Yet that story has been buried, in the way that labor struggles in general have been omitted or given brief mention in most mainstream accounts of the history of the United States. It deserves to be recalled, because embedded in the events of the Colorado strike are issues still alive today: the class struggle between owners of large enterprises and their workers, the special treatment of immigrant workers, the relationship between economic power and political power, the role of the press, and the way in which the culture censors out certain historical events.
The Colorado strike took place in a physical setting of vast proportions and staggering beauty. Down the center of the rectangle that is Colorado, from north to south, march an array of huge, breathtaking mountains—the Rockies—whose naked cliffs merge, on their eastern edge, with low hills covered with cedar and yellow pine. To the east of that is the plain—really a mile-high plateau—a tawny expanse of pasture grass sprinkled with prairie flowers in the spring and summer, and gleaming here and there with yellow- blossomed cactus.
Beneath the tremendous weight of the Rockies, in the course of countless centuries, decaying vegetation gradually mineralized into the black rock known as coal. The constantly increasing proportion of carbon in this rock transformed it from vegetable matter to peat, then to lignite and bituminous coal, and finally to anthracite.
Three great coalfields, consisting chiefly of bituminous coal, were formed in Colorado. One of them was contained within two counties in southern Colorado, Las Animas and Huerfano counties, just east of the mountains. This field was made up of about forty discontinuous seams, ranging from a few inches to fourteen feet thick. These seams were from two hundred and fifty to about five hundred feet deep.
The mining of these fields became possible on a large scale only in the 1870s, when the railroads moving west from Kansas City, south from Denver, and north from New Mexico, converged on the region. At about this time, settlers moving down the old Santa Fe trail built a town on the banks of the Purgatory River (el Rio de las Animas Perdidas Purgatorio—the river of lost souls), just east of the Sangre de Cristo (blood of Christ) mountains and about fifteen miles north of the New Mexican border.
The town was called Trinidad, and it became the center of the southern mining area. By 1913 it had about ten thousand people—miners, ranchers, farmers, and businessmen. From the main highways and railroad lines leading north out of Trinidad, branch railways and old wagon roads cut sharply west into the foothills of the mountains, into the steep-walled canyons where the mining camps lay. Scattered in these narrow canyons, on the flat bands of earth running along the canyon bottoms, were the huts of the miners, the mine buildings, and the mine entries.
It was a shocking contrast: the wild beauty of the Colorado countryside against the unspeakable squalor of these mining camps. The miners' huts, usually shared by several families, were made of clapboard walls and thin- planked floors, with leaking roofs, sagging doors, broken windows, and layers of old newspapers nailed to the walls to keep out the cold. Some families, particularly Negro families, were forced to live in tiny squares not much bigger than chicken cooops.
Within sight of the huts were the coke ovens and the mine tipple, where coal was emptied from the cars that carried it to the surface. Thick cloudsssss of soot clogged the air and settled on the ground, strangling any shoots of grass or flowers that tried to grow there. Wriggling along the canyon wall, behind the huts, was a now sluggish creek, dirty yellow and laden with the slag of the mine and the refuse of the camp. Alongside the creek the children played, barefoot, ragged, and often hungry.
Each mining camp was a feudal dominion, with the company acting as lord and master. Every camp had a marshal, a law enforcement officer paid by the company. The "laws" were the company's rules. Curfews were imposed, "suspicious" strangers were not allowed to visit the homes, the company store had a monopoly on goods sold in the camp. The doctor was a company doctor, the schoolteachers hired by the company.
In the early dawn, cages carried the men down into the blackness of the mine. There was usually a main tunnel, with dozens of branch tunnels leading into the "rooms," held up by timbers, where the miners hacked away at the face of the coal seam with hand picks and their helpers shoveled the coal into waiting railroad cars. The loaded cars were drawn along their tracks by mules to the main shaft, where they were lifted to the surface, and then to the top of the tipple, and then the coal showered down through the sorting screens into flatcars.
Since the average coal seam was about three feet high, the miners would often work on their knees or on their sides, never able to straighten up. The ventilation system was a crude affair that depended on the manipulation of tunnel doors by "trapper boys"—often thirteen or fourteen years old—who were being initiated into the work.
The first to labor in the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company's mines were Welshmen and Englishmen who had gained their experience in their mother countries. But with the great waves of immigration from southern Europe in the 1880s and 1890s, these were joined by Italians, Greeks, Poles, Hungarians, Montenegrins, and Serbs. There was also a large proportion of Mexicans and Negroes.
It was a man in charge of the "Sociological Department" of Colorado Fuel & Iron who described the mine bosses and camp officials this way: "At the bottom of the pit with pick and shovel the miner frequently found a grafting pit boss on his back. The camp superintendents as a whole impress me as most uncouth, ignorant, immoral, and in many instances the most brutal set of men that we have ever met. Blasphemous bullies."
Political power in Colorado rested in the hands of those who held economic power. This meant that the authority of Colorado Fuel & Iron and the other mine operators was virtually supreme. A letter from company manager L. M. Bowers to the secretary of John D. Rockefeller Jr., written in May of 1913, describes the situation:
The Colorado Fuel & Iron Company for many years was accused of being the political dictator of southern Colorado, and in fact was a mighty power in the whole state. When I came here it was said that the C. F. & I. voted every man and woman in their employ without any regard to their being naturalized or not; and even their mules, it used to be remarked, were registered, if they were fortunate enough to possess names.... The company became notorious in many sections for their support of the liquor interests. They established saloons everywhere they possibly could.... A sheriff, elected by the votes of the C. F. & I. Co. employees ... established himself or became a partner in sixteen liquor stores in our coal mines.
The Colorado attorney general who conducted an investigation in Huerfano County in the fall of 1913, on the eve of the strike, said, "I found a very perfect political machine, just as much a machine as Tammany in New York." Another letter, from Superintendent Bowers to Rockefeller shortly after the strike began, describes the cooperation of the bankers and the governor against the strike, and refers to Governor Ammons (a Democrat and a supporter of President Woodrow Wilson) as "our little cowboy governor."
Colorado's deputy labor commissioner, Edwin Brake, later testified before the House Mines and Mining subcommittee that investigated the strike, "It's very seldom you can convict anyone in Huerfano County if he's got any friends. Jeff Farr, the sheriff, selects the jury and they're picked to convict or acquit as the case may be."
A Reverend Atkinson, who interviewed Governor Ammons during the strike, asked the governor if there was constitutional law and government in Colorado, to which Ammons replied, "Not a bit in those counties where the coal mines are located."
Company officials were appointed as election judges. Company-dominated coroners and judges prevented injured employees from collecting damages. Polling places were often on company property. J. C. Baldwin, gambler and bartender, was jury foreman in 80 percent of the cases tried in his county.
Much of the land on which these camps stood had been acquired under dubious circumstances under the provisions of the Desert Land Act, according to a report made in 1885 by the federal Land Commissioner.
In 1902, John D. Rockefeller Sr. bought control of the Colorado Fuel & Iron Corporation, the largest steel and coal producer in the West. The company produced 40 percent of the coal dug in Colorado. In 1911 he turned his interests in the corporation over to his son, John D. Rockefeller Jr., who decided major policy questions from his office at 26 Broadway in New York City. Actual management was handled in the Denver office of Jesse F. Welborn, chairman of the board of directors. By 1914 the company owned all the land in twenty-seven camps, including the houses, the saloons, the schools, the churches, and any other buildings within the camp environs.
From the very beginnings of the coal mine industry in Colorado, there was conflict between workers and management: an unsuccessful strike in 1876 (the very year Colorado was admitted to the Union), a successful strike in 1884 against a wage reduction. But the workday was still ten hours long, and in 1894 a strike for the eight-hour day failed.
The United Mine Workers of America was formed in 1890, "to unite in one organization, regardless of creed, color, or nationality, all workmen ... employed in and around coal mines." The first United Mine Workers local in Colorado was formed in 1900, and three years later there was an eleven- month strike, broken by strikebreakers and the National Guard. Some of those strikebreakers became the strikers of 1913.
The top leadership of the U.M.W. was often criticized by more militant elements of the labor movement as being too conservative. And while it was the United Mine Workers who led the strike in 1913-14, members of two other organizations were on the scene and had varying degrees of influence over the miners. These were the I.W.W. (Industrial Workers of the World) and the Socialist Party, which had locals in Trinidad and other Colorado cities.
The I.W.W. was formed in Chicago, in June of 1905, as a trade union organization with a revolutionary goal. "The working class and the employing class have nothing in common" was the first sentence in its preamble. It reached the peak of its power in the successful Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile strike of 1912. During the period 1910-13, some 60,000 workers held membership cards at various times, but the influence of the organization was far greater than its numbers. It was an incessant prod to the regular trade unions for more militant action.
Despite the fact that many miners voted either Progressive (for Theodore Roosevelt) or Socialist (for Eugene Debs) in the presidential election of 1912, most of the United Mine Workers leadership, including the union officials in Colorado, supported the Democratic Party. The biographer of John Lawson, who represented the union in Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah, wrote, "John Lawson and his miners were nadve on the subject of politics. They invariably, regarded the Democratic Party as the champion of the downtrodden, a position that could not have been sustained had they had the experience to draw obvious conclusions from the party's record in the state."
In December of 1912, Lawson reported to the national executive board of the union on the necessity of organizing the southern field. Lawson and Frank Hayes, vice president of the union, set up headquarters in Trinidad in early 1913. They asked Governor Ammons to arrange a conference with the mine operators. The operators refused. They would do nothing to indicate a recognition of the union. Lawson and Hayes sent out a letter addressed to all miners in southern Colorado:
Greetings. This is the day of your emancipation. This is the day when liberty and progress come to abide in your midst. We call upon you this day to enroll as a member of the greatest and most powerful labor organization in the world, the United Mine Workers of America.
Organizers worked quietly in pairs, one outside the mines, one inside, and support for the union grew. Clandestine meetings were held in the countryside; picnics became an occasion for enlisting members. And on August 16, 1913, there took place the incident that heated the atmosphere dramatically and inexorably led to the strike. This was the shooting of Gerald Lippiatt, a thirty-two-year-old Italian-American organizer for the United Mine Workers, on the street in Trinidad.
There are many versions of what happened. The only details on which all witnesses agreed were that Lippiatt, who had just arrived in town, had walked down Commercial Street on a busy, noisy Saturday night; that he had encountered George Belcher and Walter Belk, of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency and exchanged gunfire with Belcher; that Lippiatt had gotten off a shot that wounded Belcher in the leg; and that eight shots were fired at Lippiatt, four of which struck him. He died instantly.
Belcher and Belk were released on $10,000 bond. A coroner's jury was formed of six Trinidad businessmen: the manager of the Wells-Fargo Express company, the cashier of the Trinidad National Bank, the president of the Sherman-Cosmer Mercantile Company, the manager of the Columbia Hotel, the proprietor of a chain of mercantile stores, and John C. Baldwin, gambler and saloon keeper, who acted as foreman.
The jury was told by William Daselli, a miner, that he had witnessed the shooting and had been the first to reach Lippiatt. Daselli said that Belk reached for his gun, Belcher pulled his gun and fired, and Lippiatt fell, then fired from the ground. The jury decided that it was a case of justifiable homicide.
Two days later, the scheduled convention of the State Federation of Labor took place in Trinidad. An empty chair, draped in black, represented Lippiatt, and feeling ran high against the Baldwin-Felts Agency and against the mine operators, who had hired the agency in preparation for possible labor trouble.
Frank Hayes, tall and powerfully built, with flaming red hair, and considered one of the few really militant officials of the United Mine Workers board, addressed the convention:
If the Colorado mine owners, who have no regard for the miners union, could stand at the mouth of his mine some day when the black and swollen bodies of scores of his workmen are brought to the surface, as happened at Primero and other places in this state, and could hear the agonized cries of some mother, wife or child piteously begging that their loves ones be saved ... they might then agree ... that the miners union is justified in its demand for recognition.
On August 22 the delegates left the convention. Biding northward with them on the train was the coffin of Gerald Lippiatt. At Colorado Springs, Lippiatt was buried while a crowd of miners stood with heads bowed in the shadow of Pike's Peak and Lippiatt's fiancée wept quietly.
A letter from the U.M.W. policy committee was sent to fifty operators in southern Colorado asking for a conference. No reply came. Another letter invited the operators to a miners' convention to be held in Trinidad in mid- September. Again no reply.
Meanwhile, organizing was going on at a rapid rate. Miners from all the coal canyons in southern Colorado were being signed up as union members. Secret meetings were held in churches, at picnics, in abandoned workings hidden in the mountains. At hundreds of meetings, delegates were elected to represent the coal camps at the Trinidad convention.
At the same time, the mine operators were not idle. The Baldwin-Felts Agency began importing hundreds of men from the saloons and barrel- houses of Denver, and from points outside the state, to help break the impending strike. In Huerfano County, by the first of September, 326 men had been deputized by Sheriff Jeff Farr, all armed and paid by the coal companies.
On Monday, September 15, 1913, there was a parade of miners through the streets of Trinidad, and then the largest labor convention in Colorado history began its sessions. Two hundred and eighty delegates, representing every mine in Colorado as well as some in New Mexico and Utah, sat in the great opera house and sweated in the late summer heat.
For two days the convention's Scale and Policy Committee listened to the complaints of rank-and-file miners, who reported that they were being cheated to the tune of 400-800 pounds on each ton of coal; that the law allowing miners to elect checkweighmen of their own choice was being completely ignored; that they were paid in script worth ninety cents on the dollar (a violation of Colorado law); that the promise of an eight-hour day made by Colorado Fuel & Iron earlier that year had been ignored; that their wages could only be spent in company stores and saloons, where prices were from 25 to 40 percent higher; that they were forced to vote according to the wishes of the mine superintendent; that they were beaten and discharged for voicing complaints; and that armed guards conducted a reign of terror that kept the miners in subjection to the company.
A set of demands was adopted: recognition of the union was key, followed by the eight-hour day, wage increases, pay for "dead work" (laying tracks, shoring up the roof, etc.), elected checkweighmen, free choice of stores, boarding houses, and doctors, and the abolition of the guard system.
The operators claimed that the miners earned $20 a week, but the Colorado Bureau of Labor Statistics put their average takehome pay at $1.68 a day.
Perhaps what aroused the miners to rebellion more than anything was the refusal of the mine operators to spend money to insure the safety of the men as they worked hundreds of feet below the surface. There had been deadly explosions in the southern Colorado mines again and again. There were two primary causes for mine disasters: rotten timbers holding up the roofs of the caverns where the miners dug their coal, and the accumulation of gas and dust in dry conditions under which the gas ignited easily.
The Colorado Fuel & Iron Company's Primero mine was sprinkled only when the dust became thick enough to prevent the passage of the mules. The miners had a saying that the operators would "rather kill a man than maim a mule." In 1907 an explosion at Primero had killed twenty-four men; three years later another explosion had killed seventy-nine. In response, Colorado Fuel & Iron official L. M. Bowers said that such accidents "will happen and we have to make the best of it.... Work will be resumed as soon as the miners get over the excitement."
In 19l0 the Starkville mine, where the state labor commissioner had previously reported a failure to sprinkle, suffered a frightful explosion. Forty miners were killed; rescuers were kept out of the mine during daylight hours so as not to cause panic. A spokesman for Colorado Fuel & Iron insisted Starkville was nongaseous. Four weeks later, a mine at Delagua, this one belonging to the Victor-American company, also exploded, killing eighty-two.
By the time the labor convention took place in Trinidad on September 15, 1913, the grievances had accumulated. When Mother Jones dramatically appeared to address the delegates, they were ready to be aroused.
Mary Jones, whom the miners came to call Mother, was born Mary Harris in Ireland, where as a child she had seen British troops march through the streets with the heads of Irishmen stuck on their bayonets, and where her grandfather had been hanged during the fight for Irish freedom. Her family had emigrated to Canada, and Mary, then in her twenties, moved to Michigan and then to Memphis, working as a dressmaker and a schoolteacher. At thirty- one, she married an ironworker named George Jones, and they had four children.
In 1867, a yellow fever epidemic struck Memphis. All of Mary Jones's children and her husband died. At the age of thirty-seven she left for Chicago, where she worked as a seamstress, later recalling, "Often while sewing for the lords and barons who lived in magnificent houses on the Lake Shore Drive, I would look out of the plate glass windows and see the poor, shivering wretches, jobless and hungry, walking alongside the frozen lake front."
She began attending meetings of the Knights of Labor, then the only national union that admitted women, and in the 1890s began organizing for the United Mine Workers. In 1903, with 100,000 miners on strike in Pennsylvania, including 16,000 children under age sixteen, she led a group of children on a twenty-two-day march to New York to confront President Theodore Roosevelt at his Oyster Bay home. She never found him there, but on the way she spoke at meetings of working people about child labor. In her autobiography she describes one of those meetings, near the Philadelphia city hall: "I put the little boys with their fingers off and hands crushed and maimed on a platform. I held up their mutilated hands and showed them to the crowd and made the statement that Philadelphia's mansions were built on the broken bones, the quivering hearts and drooping heads of these children."
Mother Jones was scathing in her denunciation of politicians, like the congressmen who passed legislation on behalf of the railroads but did nothing for working people. "I asked a man in prison once how he happened to get there. He had stolen a pair of shoes. I told him if he had stolen a railroad he could be a United States Senator." She was equally scornful of union leaders who compromised with employers, like United Mine Workers president John Mitchell. In her autobiography she wrote, "Mr. Mitchell died a rich man, distrusted by the working people whom he once served."
When the Colorado strike began, Mother Jones had just come from the coalfields of West Virginia. "Medieval West Virginia!" she called it later. "With its tent colonies on the bleak hills! With its grim men and women! When I get to the other side, I shall tell God Almighty about West Virginia!"
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