obituary

Jet Skis, Barbecues, and the Ludlow Massacre

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The closing months of 2020 qualify as interesting times: an important presidential election, unusual weather that’s quickly becoming the usual weather, a pandemic, wealth inequality to rival the Gilded Age, and an ever increasing number of people literally fighting for their beliefs. “Interesting” may be a bit of an understatement: Tumultuous is probably a little closer to the mark.

Occasionally someone–a friend, pundit, politician–will toss out an “in the history of this country” in the context of our problems, as in “we haven’t seen civil disorder like this in the history of our country,” or “we haven’t seen concentrations of wealth and power this great in the history of our country,” or “this is the longest we’ve gone without endless Olive Garden breadsticks in the history of our country.” Such utterances are usually delivered in a somewhat panicky tone, because you can’t spell hyperbole without “hyper.” (Note, you also can’t spell hyperbole without “bole,” but tree trunks aren’t terribly panicky so I’m not sure what to do with that information.)

But the simple truth is that the United States has found itself embroiled in near constant tumult quite literally from its founding. Don’t let our giant televisions and our air conditioners fool you: This is a rough country, one where change rarely comes without bloodshed. We’re also a nation of short memories. We’re great at commemorating those changes with a three day weekend, but we tend to forget what it took to get us there. Take the Colorado Coalfield War, for example. “You’ve never heard of the Colorado Coalfield War?” said the smartly vested snowman who looked and sounded like Burl Ives. “Well pull up a snowball and have a seat.”

The Rocky Mountains were a rich source of coal back when the black stuff really mattered in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Everything ran on coal back then: trains, factories, power plants, home furnaces, even vibrators. (That’s not a joke, by the way. Look it up.) Coal was also essential to steel manufacturing, and steel was the construction material of the time. Enter Colorado Fuel and Iron, or CF&I, founded in 1892. CF&I coughed and sputtered now and then like all businesses do, but it was no minor player: during the first decade of the 1900s the company was part of the Dow Jones, that hallowed index of 30 large publicly traded companies.

We’ll yada yada yada over a bunch of corporate history and get to the good stuff: In 1903 John D. Rockefeller became the majority owner of the company, which he then gave to his son, imaginatively named John D. Rockefeller, Junior. Junior was a bit of an absentee landlord, more interested in philanthropy than the goings on of a coal and steel concern located in cowboy country. His philanthropy was nothing to sneeze at, by the way: Over the course of his life, Junior gave $537 million dollars to charitable causes. Righteous bucks, as the economist Jeffrey Spicoli might say.

That’s a lot of noble giving, but back in Colorado daddy’s birthday present wasn’t behaving quite so charitably. CF&I was the kind of company that Tennessee Ernie Ford sang about in “Sixteen Tons.” Workers were paid by the tonnage of coal they mined weekly, and inspectors would often find some flaw with that tonnage so that they wouldn’t have to pay. “There’s rock mixed in with this load,” they might say. “It’s worthless.” As soon as the exhausted miner was back in the hole, the inspectors would dump the “tainted” coal in with the good stuff and use it anyway.

Employees weren’t paid for “dead work,” meaning anything that wasn’t a carload of coal. Reinforcing tunnels, removing rock to get the coal, blasting, etc.–that’s not CF&I’s problem, we pay you for coal. Employees were required to rent company houses, use company doctors, and shop at the company store, so what little money CF&I paid out went directly back to the company.

CF&I actively recruited workers from non-English speaking nations specifically so that they couldn’t talk to each other about the dangerous conditions below ground and the meager pay on the surface. Those recruitment efforts promised a lot and delivered very little, much like art schools and gym memberships, but what’s a Greek immigrant to do once he’s packed up the family and moved to what must have felt like the middle of nowhere? Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store.

Remarkably, it took until the summer of 1913 for all of this to come to a head, when the United Mine Workers of America tried to get CF&I to agree to various demands. The company refused, and the strike began. The company evicted around 20,000 strikers from their houses which, after all, belonged to CF&I rather than their occupants.

These folks set up camp in a massive tent city, the tents organized along lanes just like any residential district, with a big tent for gatherings and a hospital tent. Many occupants dug cellars beneath their tents both for storage and security. If things got rough, they could always hide in these fox holes.

And things were going to get rough, there was no doubt about that. Most law enforcement in the area was associated with CF&I, and joining their ranks were temporary deputies from other states and, most notably, Baldwin-Felts. Baldwin-Felts was a company that employed “detectives” who for a price provided security, broke strikes, etc. They were mercenaries, a private army available to the highest bidder. The Baldwin-Felts even had at their disposal an armored car nicknamed the Death Special, complete with mounted machine gun. They’d regularly speed through the tent city in this proto-tank, firing their machine gun over the heads of the displaced workers and their families. Who built the Death Special? If you guessed CF&I congratulations.

Did I mention the National Guard? Yeah, they were there, too.

Over the next several months this small army and the strikers went at it–some pot shots here, a little arson or dynamite there. You could keep count of the number of casualties on both sides with your fingers, provided they hadn’t been blown off by the aforementioned dynamite. Eighty year-old Mother Jones arrived in January 1914 to help the strikers and was promptly arrested by the National Guard. Even the U.S. Congress got involved by doing what they do best: They formed a committee that presumably wasted the first six months arguing over what to name the committee.

Seven months into the strike the shit finally hit the coal-powered fan. On April 20, 1914, three National Guardsmen approached the tent city, occupation now around 1,200, and demanded the release of a man they claimed was being held by the strikers. The camp leader, a 30 year-old Greek immigrant named Louis Tikas, agreed to meet with them and off he went. During the ensuing battle the Guardsmen caved in Tikas’s head with a rifle butt and shot him in the back.

CF&I’s private army loaded up their machine guns and riddled the tent city. The strikers were armed, too. The two sides exchanged fire for hours, but what chance did a bunch of coal miners have against the police, the National Guard, and a group of mercenaries in a tank? By that evening the tents were blazing and the majority of the strikers had fled on a train that a good Samaritan engineer parked specifically to provide them cover from the machine guns.

When it was all over 20 civilians were dead, 12 of whom were children. Remember those cellars beneath the tents I mentioned earlier? Eleven of those 12 kids were found huddled in one along with four women, two of whom survived. The private army’s losses numbered one to four, depending upon the report. As news of the Ludlow massacre spread strikers in other parts of the state took up arms, and thus the Colorado Coalfield War was born. After ten days of fighting as many as 199 people lay dead, or as few as 69. That’s the thing about wars: The fatality count varies based upon which side is doing the counting.

So what exactly did these violent protesters want?

  1. Recognition of the United Mine Workers of America in collective bargaining.
  2. Compensation for digging coal at a ton-rate based on 2,000 pounds rather than 2,200 “long-tons.”
  3. Enforcement of the eight-hour work-day law.
  4. Payment for dead work.
  5. Weight-checkmen elected by workers.
  6. Right to use any store, and to choose their boarding houses and doctors.
  7. Strict enforcement of Colorado’s laws and an end to the company guard system.

Essentially they wanted to be treated like people rather than mules, which were actually worth more to CF&I. Cheap labor is easy to come by, after all, but a good mule? That’s irreplaceable. The workers wanted to be treated fairly–wanted the laws enforced. They wanted to be treated as if they mattered.

The Ludlow Massacre is only one of many violent struggles that occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries between labor (that’s probably you) and capital (that’s your company). We owe our eight hour workdays to those folks, along with our weekends, our minimum wage, our childhoods as we know them, and at least one of our three day weekends: Labor Day. People literally died so that you can jet ski and barbecue on a work day each September.

So does 2020 mark the most tumultuous time in America’s history? While it may feel like that to those of us who are living through it, I suspect that in the long run this year will be remembered as just another period when people shed blood to affect change, and that’s if it’s remembered at all. Who knows? Maybe all of this year’s chaos won’t even rate a three day weekend.

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