Historian Jonathan Rees and author Jeff Biggers discuss the significance of the deadliest incident in U.S. labor history, and the struggles faced by coal miners today
ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore.
Today marks the 100th anniversary of an event that one could say underscores the element of war in class war faced by the American working class in the early 20th century. On April 20, 1914, dozens of striking miners and members of their families were killed in Ludlow, Colorado, by Rockefeller company guards and the Colorado National Guard in what is now known as the Ludlow massacre. The strikers were part of a union known as United Mine Workers of America, and their demands included higher wages, an eight-hour work day, and enforcement of mining laws. When news of the massacre reached other striking miners, they armed themselves and retaliated by killing tens of company guards. The violence ended after President Woodrow Wilson sent in federal troops to control the situation.
With us to discuss the significance of this event in U.S. labor history are our two guests.
Jeff Biggers is an award-winning journalist and historian and author of several books, including Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland. He’s also the grandson of a union coal miner in Southern Illinois and a long-time chronicler of the coal industry.
With us also is Jonathan Rees. He’s a professor of history at Colorado State University-Pueblo. He’s the author of Representation and Rebellion: The Rockefeller Plan at the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, 1914-1942.
Thank you both for joining us.
JONATHAN REES, PROF HISTORY, COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY-PUEBLO. : Thanks for having [inaud.]
WORONCZUK: So, Jeff, set the stage for us. What kind of working conditions did coal workers face at this time, and what kind of political power did they have?
JEFF BIGGERS, JOURNALIST AND HISTORIAN: They had very little political power, just to put it frankly. And they were dealing with situations that dealt not only with the situation of famine and near starvation with such low wages, but working conditions that were more dangerous than anybody who wanted to walk across the front lines of combat in World War I or the Spanish-American war. We really were dealing with one of the front lines of one of the most dangerous episodes of industrial warfare in American history.
WORONCZUK: And can you briefly narrate that event for us, tell us what happened on that day?
BIGGERS: You know, I think I’m going to go ahead and let Jonathan handle that, since that’s sort of his expertise.
WORONCZUK: So, Jonathan, can you narrate that day for us, April 20, 1914, and give us some context? What led to that event?
Well, the Ludlow massacre was the culminating event of the Colorado coalfield war of 1913-1914. There’d been small-scale violence on both sides throughout Southern Colorado in the days and months leading up to April 20, but on April 20 there were some stray explosions, and as a result a gunfight broke out between the Colorado National Guard and the striking miners.
When that happened, a lot of the people fled the tent colony, but not all of them, and the Colorado National Guard set fire to the tent colony, trapping 11 children and two women in a pit under one of the tents. They suffocated. There were also a few murders of strike leaders who were trying to broker a peace.
But once the massacre was over, you got the infamous ten-day war, when the coal miners decided they would strike back against the people who had killed their colleagues and their women and children, and literally the miners managed to take over most of southern Colorado from everywhere just south of Denver all the way down to the New Mexico line. It’s really an extraordinary event in American labor history. The miners did very well in the days afterwards, inspired by the horrible violence of April 20.
WORONCZUK: And what impact did the Ludlow massacre, as well as the Colorado Cold War, have on the labor movement and labor laws in the country?
REES: I think of the Ludlow massacre as being something that draws an enormous attention to just how difficult the conditions that miners face are. But really it’s one of a series of very bad losses for the labor movement in the late 19th and early 20th century. You could take it back to the Great Railway Strike of 1877, continue on to Blair Mountain. And without those losses, without those sacrifices, I don’t think you would have had the labor reforms of the 1930s that are the bedrock of [incompr.] today.
WORONCZUK: I know you’ve also written about John D. Rockefeller Jr., who owned these mines in Colorado. How did powerful philanthropists like him shape labor policy in America? And how did workers respond to some of his efforts to appease them, like proposals for company unions?
REES: Rockefeller was sort of your typical indifferent industrialist before the massacre happened. He essentially told the people who ran CF&I to do what they had to in order to get rid of the union.
When the massacre happened, he took an enormous amount of bad press. Upton Sinclair, the author, for instance, created a mock trial in his home town, trying to pin the murders on John D. Rockefeller Jr. And he responded to that by starting, really, the first important company union in the United States, a union that was controlled by management rather than labor.
While a company union is not as good as a real independent union, it was an improvement over the conditions they had before. And because of that, a lot of workers responded well. But in the long run, when they couldn’t negotiate wages or really have any control over their workplace, the company union didn’t stop violence in the southern Colorado coalfields and failed, particularly after company unions in general were outlawed in 1935.
WORONCZUK: So, Jeff, let’s get a final comment from you. A Stanford University study from 2011 showed lower fatalities and traumatic injuries in unionized mines and pointed out that mining disasters like that that occurred in 2010 at a Massey Energy mine in West Virginia were nonunion. What ongoing struggles do miners, as well as retired miners, face today?
BIGGERS: Right. That’s a great question. All of the great mining disasters in the last years have happened at nonunion mines. You know, recently, this month, we had the fourth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch disaster, of course. Out West you had the Crandall Canyon disaster in Utah, and earlier the Sago disaster in West Virginia, all nonunion mines that were working not only in a nonunion atmosphere where there was poor workplace safety, but massive violations while you had an increase in production.
So I think the real take-home message is that we’re still looking at a coal industry that is largely an outlaw industry, that is working often in a constant state of violations.
Just recently we’ve had to have retired coal miners who were aligned with United Mine Workers descend on St. Louis, on Peabody Energy, the largest coal company, privately held coal company in the world, who actually had created this bankruptcy scheme to have them lose their health benefits, and so once again miners even having to fight for the very basic rights of health, just like they had to fight a century ago.
I mean, I think what’s most important to me, coming from someone of a coal mining family and a very proud union family is that still today a century after Colorado, three coal miners die daily from black lung disease, which is a completely preventable malady related to inhalation of coal dust that is really related to workplace safety and coal companies who refuse to follow the laws and take the safety and lives of their miners very seriously. And I think that ultimately shows that the struggle continues a century later.
Okay. Jeff Biggers and Jonathan Rees, thank you both for joining us.
BIGGERS: Thanks for having us.
REES: Thank you.
WORONCZUK: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.