It began at 10 o’clock on that morning of April 20, 1914, in the southern Colorado town of Ludlow. National guardsmen, professional gunmen and others high on a hillside unleashed a deadly stream of machine-gun and rifle fire into a tent colony below that housed some 1000 striking coal miners and their families.
Strikers grabbed their hunting rifles and fired back. Two men and a boy on their side were killed. One Guardsman died.
The battle raged all day. Finally, as night fell, Guardsmen wielding torches dashed down the hill, doused the tents with coal oil and set them aflame. They shot to death ten of those who fled — men, women and children alike – as well as three strike leaders they had captured. Thirteen others, two women and 11 infants and children, were burned alive or suffocated as they huddled in a pit under a tent where they had sought refuge.
The events of that day have been known ever since as the Ludlow Massacre, one of the most horrific episodes in US labor history, but one that ultimately led to important and lasting improvements in how American workers are treated.
None were in greater need of improvements than the 11,000 striking miners, most of them wretchedly paid immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Virtually their entire lives were controlled by three highly profitable mining companies, the most prominent of them owned by the enormously wealthy family of John D. Rockefeller.
But though Rockefeller was the world’s richest man, his company’s employees and the other miners were among the nation’s poorest men. Take-home pay was less than $2 a day for their onerous and extremely dangerous work.
And out of that they had to pay the rent for company-owned shacks where they were required to live and pay for the food, clothing and explosives and other materials used on the job that were sold at company-owned stores where they were required to shop. The miners had to perform for no pay so-called “dead work” that did not involve digging coal, such as laying the tracks for the carts that carried the coal out of the mines.
The miners had no voice in determining their working conditions, and the mine owners vowed to keep it that way. To allow miners to take the collective action essential to gaining a voice, Rockefeller declared, would be to turn over control of the coal companies to “disreputable agitators, socialists and anarchists.”
Miners were virtually voiceless off the job, too. Their employers controlled the towns where they lived, appointing and paying law enforcement officers, doctors, nurses, school teachers, librarians, even clergymen. The company decided which books and other material should be stocked in the town libraries and stores, which films should be shown in the towns’ movie houses.
It’s no wonder the miners finally struck. As a federal investigator found, they were “prohibited from having any thought, voice or care in anything in life but work, and to be assisted in this by gunmen whose function it was, principally, to see that you did not talk labor conditions with another man.”
Strikers demanded recognition of their union, the United Mine Workers, the right to trade at any store, live wherever they wished, choose their own doctors and be paid for “dead work. ” They wanted to elect the “weighmen” who often cheated them in reporting how much coal they had dug and wanted their pay per ton of coal dug raised so as to net them a modest 10% pay increase.
The struck companies responded swiftly. They evicted the miners from their company shacks, then hired a detective agency that dispatched armed gunmen to join company guards in raiding the tent colonies with the support of local law enforcement officials who deputized them. But though outgunned, strikers held them off, prompting Colorado’s governor to send in two National Guard units at Rockefeller’s request.
Rockefeller paid the Guardsmen’s wages. They repaid him by escorting strikebreakers to the struck mines and beating and arresting miners who protested. Strikers held off the Guardsmen as they had held off the private gunmen, through four cold winter months. In desperation, the Guardsmen launched the attack that led to the massacre of 26 men, women and children.
As word of the massacre spread, armed miners and other workers marched on Ludlow from throughout the area to clash with Guardsmen and other employer forces. That battle raged for ten days, until President Woodrow Wilson sent in federal troops to stop it.
Strikers soon returned to work. They had lost much and won nothing. But the violent response to their struggle for basic rights was a major factor in enactment of the laws which legalized unions and their right to strike, banned child labor and established the eight-hour workday as a national standard.