Salt of the Earth

Remembering the heroes of America's labor wars

NRO Weekend, September 2-4, 2000, National Review Online 

By Dave Kopel, director of the Independence Institute 

he summer barbecue season that began on Memorial Day and peaked on Independence Day now ends with Labor Day.  What connects Labor Day with the other two holidays, however, is more than just charcoal.

Independence Day celebrates the revolution against British imperialism. Memorial Day, originally called "Decoration Day," was set aside to honor the Union soldiers who died in the Civil War; in modern times, the Day honors all American soldiers who have given their lives for freedom. And Labor Day, like the other two summer holidays, honors men and women who suffered violent death so that others might live free.

At the turn of the century, companies like Colorado Fuel & Iron earned handsome profits from the rich bituminous coal fields near Pueblo, Walsenburg, and Trinidad. The coal miners, though, suffered in what the Colorado Bureau of Labor Statistics called "a condition of peonage...that was but little removed from downright slavery."

Paid according to how many tons of coal they could extract in a day, the miners were cheated on the company scales. What little the miners were paid came not in U.S. currency, but in scrip worthless paper that could only be spent at the company general store.  Prices at the store were far above competitive levels.

Miners found little help from the Colorado Legislature. As a Colorado Fuel & Iron employee reported to his supervisor in New York City, the coal companies controlled the legislature "by graft and bribery undercover."

The United Mine Workers led a statewide strike in 1903-04, and it was finally crushed when the Colorado National Guard invaded southern Colorado on behalf of the coal companies. Guard commander Zeph Hill abolished freedom of assembly, established press censorship, took control of the phone system, and confiscated firearms from strikers.

National Guardsmen raped the miners' wives and daughters. This particular atrocity of the National Guard was not unusual; during ordinary times the mine guards and foremen would do the same, threatening a wife that her husband would be fired if she did not submit.

In the summer of 1914, the miners struck again. Again, the coal companies refused to negotiate, or to recognize the existence of a union.

Instantly expelled from the company towns, the strikers and their families set up a tent camp at Ludlow, north of Trinidad.

The coal companies had deliberately imported miners of many different nationalities, hoping that ethnic hostilities would prevent recognition of common class interests.  But over the cold winter at Ludlow at least 22 different nationalities came together as friends.  "I saw a true melting pot at Ludlow," reported State Senator Helen Ring Robinson.

Again the Governor sent the Colorado National Guard to the coal fields. Despite assurances that the Guard would be a neutral force, it instantly aligned with the coal companies. As many disgusted Guardsmen deserted, their places were taken by corporation thugs. A new round of weapons searches and confiscations began.

Still, the strike wore into the next year, and the strikers showed no intention of relenting.

On Sunday morning, April 19, 1915, the Greek miners led the entire Ludlow colony in a celebration of Greek Orthodox Easter.

On April 20, the Colorado National Guard and the company mine guards opened fire on the Ludlow Tent Colony, and set the tents ablaze. Nineteen people, including eleven children, died in the Ludlow Massacre. A small civil war erupted in southern Colorado, which was ended by the intervention of federal troops against the strikers.

Sensational as the Ludlow Massacre was, it represented only the most visible part of corporate violence against the miners. The year before, seventy-five Colorado miners had died in accidents, mostly caused by a deliberate corporate disregard for existing safety standards.

Twenty-four-year-old Mary Petrucci saw three of her children slain at Ludlow. After the massacre she joined other Ludlow survivors on a national speaking tour to tell the nation what had happened. Overcome by grief and unable to speak at rallies, she had to return to Colorado in midtour. Before leaving for home, she told a reporter: "I suppose I'll live a long time, but I don't see how I can ever be happy again...I can't have my babies back. But perhaps when everybody knows about them, something will be done to make the world a better place for all babies."

National outrage at the Ludlow Massacre forced Colorado Fuel & Iron to spend even more on publicity in 1915 than it had on guns in 1914. Company head John D. Rockefeller Jr. made a much-advertised trip to Colorado, and promised better conditions.

After many generations of struggle, the working people of Colorado and the United States eventually did win the right to decent working conditions and collective bargaining. Like the men who died at Lexington or Gettysburg, the heroes of America's labor wars including Mary Petrucci have earned a day to honor their sacrifices in building a free nation.  

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Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of the Independence Institute or as an attempt to influence any election or legislative action. Please send comments to Independence Institute, 727 East 16th Ave., Colorado 80203. Phone 303-279-6536. (email) webmngr @ i2i.org

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