Guns turned on families of American workers in 1913 debacle

History is written by the victorsWinston Churchill

Cover of the June, 1914 issue of The Masses by John French Sloan, depicting the Ludlow Massacre.

Cover of the June, 1914 issue of The Masses by John French Sloan, depicting the Ludlow Massacre.

It is amazing what is minimalized or deleted from American history books. For example, we read about the Trail of Tears, but fail to learn that a significant number of Cherokee had already assimiliated into western society — adopting the clothing styles, building schools and farming European style — before they were uprooted from their homes and driven west by the Andrew Jackson administration.

History books tend to show the Native Americans in a more ‘savage’ manner with the ‘Great White Father’ Andrew Jackson needing to guide, counsel and control them.

Textbooks have also sanitized or omitted the Labor issues that plagued America between 1880-1920. Workers often are villified as violent agitators unthankful for America’s great bounty.

This is especially true in a strike that occured in 1913 at the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Corporation mine. The violence would claim the life of up to 200 people (according to a Rockefeller-financed investigation — the state report pegged it at 69) before it ended — and would show that justice favors the powerful.

Just the Facts

On September 23, 1913 miners went on strike for the following reasons:

  • Wages — they earned $1.68 per day. When paid, they received scrip instead of U.S. currency.
  • Unsafe working conditions. The mine fatality rate was twice the national average due, in large part, unenforced state safety laws.
  • Brutality against union organizers. The murder of a union organizer prompted the strike.

The company responded by:

  • Evicting miners and their families from company-owned homes.
  • Hiring strikebreakers and replacement workers
  • Petitioning the state of Colorado for National Guard assistance

Move and Countermove

Once the strikers were evicted from their homes, with the assistance of the United Mine Workers of America, miners created  ‘tent towns’ (for workers and their families) by renting land near canyon entrances, so they would be visible to replacement workers and prevent their jobs from being taken. Miners also presented this list of demands to the company:

  • Recognition of the United Mineworkers of America as the miners’ union
  • A fair, effective checkweighmen system of checkweighmen
  • Pay for digging coal at a ton-rate based on 2,000 pounds
  • Wages paid twice a month in U.S. currency
  • Abolition of scrip and the truck system
  • End to discrimination against union members
  • Strict enforcement of state safety laws by supplying miners with timbers, rails, and other required materials

The demands outraged Rockefeller who launched a campaign to destroy the strike.

Resistance meets Brute Force

Rockefeller hired armed guards to harass and intimidate the strikers. One of the agencies hired by Rockefeller built an aptly named Death Special — an armored vehicle with a machine mounted on top.  Less than a month after the strike began, on October 17, the vehicle was used in an attack on the Forbes tent colony resulting in the death of one miner and two wounded children. A boy’s legs were riddled with machine gun fire while a girl suffered a gun shot wound to the face.

The union fought back — and the back and forth loss of life continued through March. It escalated to the breaking point when, on March 10 the body of a strikebreaker was found near railroad tracks at the Forbes tent colony. When this occured National Guard’s General John Chase ordered families in the tent colonies evicted.

The Battlefield

Karl Linderfelt, center, accused in death of miner Louis Tikas.

Karl Linderfelt, center, accused in death of miner Louis Tikas.

Ludlow was the largest of the tent colonies and on April 20 (the day after Easter), troops fired into the civilian-occupied colony. Anyone moving was fair game and a 14-hour gun battle ensued. During the battle, the tent colonies main organizer 30-year-old Louis Tikas met with National Guard Lieutenant Karl Linderfelt (the officer in charge of the assault on the Ludlow camp) to arrange a truce. But instead of working out a cease-fire, Linderfelt struck Tikas with the butt of his rifle and National Guard soldiers fired multiple times into Tikas’ back as he lay on the ground — killing him.

After dark, with Tikas dead, Guardsmen enter the camp and set fire to the tents killing two women and 11 children in addition to the estimated 40 people killed during the gun battle.

Backlash

In the aftermath, sympathy strikes occured across the country in support of the miners. However, none of the miners’ demands were met.

Louis Tikas killed by Colorado National Guard during conflict at Ludlow mines.

Louis Tikas killed by Colorado National Guard during conflict at Ludlow mines.

In 1918 a monument was erected with the following names and ages:

Louis Tikas, 30
James Fyler, 43
John Bartolotti, 45
Charlie Costa, 31
Fedelina Costas, 27
Onafrio Costa, 4
Frank Rubino, 23
Patria Valdez, 37
Eulala Valdez, 8
Mary Valdez, 7
Elvira Valdez, 3 months
Joe Petrucci, 4 ½
Lucy Petrucci, 2 ½
Frank Petrucci, 4 months
William Snyder Jr, 11
Rodgerlo Pedregone, 6
Cloriva Pedregone, 4

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Categories: American History, Labor History | Tags: ,

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