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Ludlow Massacre - Roadsigns to Forgotten Heroes
On a long, exhausting, interstate road trip there is a tendency to view the interminable road signs one passes with a sense of numb lethargy. Okay, here comes another McDonalds and Wal-Mart at this next exit, as expected, next to a Conoco or Texaco or Arco gas station - slight differences in whatever 'co' a particular state has; but really just minor, cosmetic variations on the same theme. Cookie cutter franchises dot cookie cutter freeway towns, and the driving excursion turns the motorist into an insignificant and uninspired ant on a billboard.
Yet even on the massive four lane thruways that connect our major cities, from time to time some rusty, wobbly, ill-maintained metal placard will capture the attention of the curious driver; perhaps causing a bit of dangerous fumbling for the phone for a quick and probably illegal google search. Future generations of Homo sapiens will most certainly evolve a third arm to carry out this function, after the two arm googling drivers, unable to keep both hands on the wheel, have been deselected for reproduction by horrible car crashes. Until then, however, curiosity and marathon automobile excursions continue to be a risky, though sometimes unavoidable combination. Let's face it, sometimes long drives are boring and we need mental stimulation to keep us awake.
Such a situation occurred to me recently while driving southbound on the Interstate 25, somewhere between Pueblo and Trinidad, Colorado. Fortunately, my wife was along to slap my hand away from the phone, so I had to wait until we stopped for the night in Gallup, New Mexico, to investigate the "Ludlow Massacre Memorial" sign I saw.
I fancy myself a student of history, but sometimes I get stumped. Since this sign was located on the open plains on the edge of the Rocky Mountains, land that was once the northern edge of the immeasurable grassland empire of the mighty, free ranging, indomitable Comanche and Kiowa tribes, I assumed that the "massacre" part of "Ludlow Massacre" meant that a few dozen white men had probably been separated from their hairpieces there. One lesson that can be taken from the history of this continent's aboriginal wars is this: If the name of the fight is attached to the word battle in the history books it means the white people won. On the other hand, if it reads massacre on the caption it signifies a white defeat by duplicitous, unprincipled savages. A battle implies something noble, dignified, planned out, fairly fought. A massacre, on the other hand, has overtones of a brutal, wanton slaughter, with an element of dishonorable sneakiness about it.
To my great surprise, I found out that evening that this Ludlow Massacre had nothing at all to do with Native Americans having the audacity and bad manners to defend their home turf by falling upon a party of unsuspecting travelers, or something of the sort. Instead, this pretty much forgotten incident on the Colorado plains took place several decades after the last of the continent's indigenous people had been rounded up and herded onto reservations. The era of the plains warrior was over, but the era of the struggle of working people to stay off the impoverished, corporate sanctioned reservations of tenement houses, lethal working conditions, and brutally long work hours was just beginning.
This road sign along Interstate 25 in southern Colorado was the first place I was exposed to the largely forgotten page of American History known as the Ludlow Massacre. It was not an event that my public school teachers featured alongside the expansive, dramatic conflicts of Yorktown, Gettysburg, Bastogne, and other battles that feature prominently in the curriculum. Who can say whether struggles in places like Ludlow are deliberately suppressed by those who write our textbooks. Whatever the case, we regularly ignore these episodes in history, and have largely forgotten the heroes who fought and died there, all to our detriment. What follows here is an attempt to help us remember.
If you want a more in depth description of what happened at Ludlow, I am sure you are quite capable of reading the Wikipedia article for yourself. I'll simply give you a brief summation of events here, in order to round out your understanding of why the massacre was important and what it means to us today.
In 1913, the working conditions in Colorado's coal mines were abysmal. 7 out of 1000 workers were dying in work place accidents, a number twice the national average of about 3 per thousand. Furthermore, miners were paid by the ton of coal and not for the necessary side work they were required to do, like laying track and shoring up unsteady walls. This motivated workers to sometimes take dangerous shortcuts in order to produce more coal; since more coal equaled more pay.
At that time, Colorado Fuel and Iron (CF&I), an enterprise owned by the Rockefeller family, was the largest coal mining company in Colorado. In the days before legalized pot, coal mining was king in the Centennial State, employing approximately 10 percent of the workforce. I apologize for not resisting the temptation to throw in at least one bad marijuana joke, but these days it seems obligatory in any article about Colorado.
Colliers, as coal miners are called, could not effectively protest bad working conditions, because they were often forced to live in company towns, where the threats of unemployment and expulsion from ones home were ruthlessly employed by armed company thugs to enforce obedience. Admittedly, in company towns miners and their families had improved access to education, medical care, and other amenities, but this came at the exchange of personal freedom - specifically the right to protest the threat to life imposed by horrible mine conditions.
Nonetheless, the Colorado colliers managed to organize in secret and came up with a list of demands that mostly consisted of what was already required by Colorado labor laws. In September, 1913, after having these demands rejected, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) called a strike in the coal mines. The strikers were rapidly evicted from their homes in the company towns, and set up a tent city on union-leased public land around Ludlow. Being directed from New York City by John D. Rockefeller Jr., CF&I brought in strikebreakers to intimidate the miners and their families into submission. A machine gun equipped armored car was shipped in from Pueblo, Colorado, to fire random shots into the camp. At least one person was killed, and several wounded by this death dealing device, affectionately dubbed the "Death Special" by its thuggish operators.
In response, the miners dug pits beneath their tents to protect themselves and their families, but the atrocities were only beginning. One outrage the mine owners could not be faulted for was lack of diversify - CF&I deliberately employed non English-speaking colliers of diverse backgrounds who could not communicate with one another, meaning they could not effectively coalesce to fight the company. On April 20th, 1914, taking advantage of the Orthodox Easter revelry celebrated the day before by many of these foreign born miners, the tent city was attacked by CF&I directed militia.
Slaughter, arson and looting ensued. A fortuitous passing freight train blocked the machine gun placements of the strike breakers, allowing many miners and their families to escape to nearby hills. All the same, an estimated 19 to 26 people died. Along with the murder of several union operatives, 4 women and 11 children suffocated in one of the bullet proof pits beneath the tent city when it was set aflame.
News of the tragedy rallied miners throughout Colorado. The resulting Coalfield War; resulting in the death of 75 people, lasted for ten days after the massacre at Ludlow, ending only when Federal troops were called in.
After so much spilled blood and property destruction, the coal miners lost the strike. About 300 of them were indicted for the murder of a handful of strikebreakers. After the brutal death of innocent women and children in the camp, only one of the strikebreakers was found guilty of assault, and was let off with a reprimand.
So if the coal miners lost the strike, and the perpetrators of the Ludlow abominations went unpunished, what does this episode of history teach us about the benefits of standing up to greedy corporations and their paid henchmen?
For strikers who resist violence with violence, the answer to this inquiry is probably nothing. Not only does striking mean you lose your job, but it might mean you lose your life too. Your spouse becomes a widow and your children are rendered fatherless, perhaps becoming orphans too if your wife suffers the misfortune of being asphyxiated in a pit.
The strikers knew the risks associated with their resistance but, even so, they resisted. Did they really think they would win a few nickel and dime concessions, or had they reached that point of no return where, to quote Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, I'd rather die on my feet than live on my knees? Had it become a war where the principles they were fighting for had become greater than the immediate material benefits? Were they motivated by their own future earnings potential, or with the livelihood, standard of living, and happiness of future generations? If they carried out this struggle entirely for themselves, they either suffered from mass delusion or had been duped by their leaders; because in that era the American working man was friendless and helpless in the face of east coast capitalists and their political allies. Maybe the answer is that they did it out of a sense of duty for their children and their children's children, if this sort of self-sacrifice can be understood at all in our present age of self-centered narcissism.
Ultimately, the deceased coal miners, miners' wives, and miners' children did not die in vain. After the tragedy at Ludlow, many in the public looked upon the Rockefellers as callous murderers, and the family took stringent measures to improve its sullied image. The Colorado mines were reformed. Working conditions were improved. Congressional hearings were heard, and the massacre helped provide impetus to legislate a national eight hour workday and to ban child labor.
...this was the contented, happy, prosperous condition out of which this strike grew … That men have rebelled grows out of the fact that they are men.— Federal mediator Ethelbert Stewart
Lest We Forget - Whoops! We Already Forgot.
In the kind, patriarchal eyes of John D. Rockefeller Jr. and CF&I, the striking workers at Ludlow were ingrates who did not appreciate the beneficence that flowed from the unbounded generosity of the company coffers. They had been given houses to live in; had been provided with churches, schools and public halls. They were free to do whatever they wanted to except, of course, leave the company town or discuss unionizing or labor conditions. In particular, they could not grumble about the ugly fact that 7 out of 1000 among their number would die in mine disasters.
In our fat, dumb and happy age of slick gadgetry and unlimited leisure time, are we in danger of forgetting that things were not always as good for working people as they are now, or have we forgotten this already? Are we really deluded into believing that billionaires; most of whom were enriched through the power of influence peddling, government handouts of public lands and funds, and outright piracy, gave us this standard of living out of the goodness of their hearts, that not a drop of blood was spilled to properly distribute a fair share of American resources among all Americans?
Ironically, it is those same Ludlow strikers and their allies throughout history who created the corporate cookie cutter franchises I drove by on my recent Interstate trip. If not for unionized labor pressing for wage increases, paid vacation, and the eight hour workday, who would have the leisure time and disposable income necessary to take the road trips that are serviced and supplied by the McDonalds, Wal-Marts, and corporate run travel centers along the highways? If anybody has benefited from the struggle in Ludlow and other long forgotten battles fought by working people, it is those corporate franchises that pop up everywhere along the Interstate. Remember this, shareholders - sharing the wealth ultimately pays dividends.
So next time you and your family take a road trip - and hopefully for your own happiness you get off the Interstate beaten path and explore the unsullied back roads a bit; take a moment or two to think about the Ludlow victims. Remember the dead men, women and children plus the several hundred who lost their livelihood there. They didn't win the war but they won the peace. They set the wheels of justice and righteousness in motion so that you could enjoy a relaxing, leisurely moment or two as fair exchange for your labor.
By all means, see the country and tour the battlefields - take a selfie atop the cannons at Gettysburg, relive the last moments of Custer's crew at Little Big Horn, do your grass skirt hula dance in view of Pearl Harbor's Arizona Memorial. But don't neglect the forgotten, fallen heroes at a little place on the high plains known as Ludlow, Colorado.