Radical Reprint: The Ludlow Strike

From Freedom News (16/06/2024)

In June 1914 much of that month’s edition of Freedom was given over to a lengthy analysis in the aftermath of the Ludlow Massacre, one of the most infamous strikebreaking incidents in United States history. The mass killing of striking coal miners and their families by National Guard soldiers and paramilitary thugs had shocked observers worldwide, with 21 people being killed and a ten-day running battle forcing Federal intervention.

Freedom had acquired a well-written and informed piece by Harry Kelly, a New York anarchist whose own father had worked in the mining trade, and there is a palpable sense of outrage in his writing, much of it directed at the villain of the piece, John D Rockerfeller Jr. One of life’s great hypocrites, JDR Jr was a darling of the liberal set, and even today biographies focus on his philanthropy. But that wealth and generosity towards churches and pretty buildings was built on his role sending murderous thugs to kill employees for daring to demand fair treatment as they toiled and died in his mines. Hie efforts to wash the stain clean led to, essentially, the invention of modern PR campaigning, but his efforts to make amends by visits and “listening” exercises never touched his personal means.

I’ll leave Kelly to put across the horror and detail of the events at Ludlow. What he could not have known then was that the bravery of those miners and the brutality of their treatment would have lasting effects. With protests against him and bombs aimed his way by furious radicals, Rockerfeller was shamed and frightened into introducing reforms to his company towns. No credit is due there, he could have done so at any time before feeling the pinch personally. Historically, the massacre and its legacy would be a vital lever in the campaign for both the eight-hour workday and the banning of child labour in the US. The Colorado miners’ bravery and sacrifice would affect the lives of millions, for generations to come.


The Miners’ War in Colorado

To write adequately about the war in Colorado, one should be a poet or a scientist. The latter could have his feelings sufficiently under control to analyse the matter coldly and dispassionately, and convince his readers by reason; the former could stir men’s passions and make them act quickly, blindly perhaps, but, as so often happens in life, with an intuition that would be as unerring as it would be effective. Being neither poet nor scientist, the mass OF material that confronts me is enough to fill a more trained writer with dismay.

The coal miners of Colorado have been striking off and on for seven years, but the present struggle began in September last, and has grown fiercer and fiercer, until it culminated in the terrible Ludlow Massacre, with which, no doubt, all Europe is now familiar. The demands of the men which led to the strike were seven in number —

  • The eight-hour day.
  • Pay for narrow and dead work.
  • A checkweighman without interference of company official.
  • The right to trade in any store they pleased.
  • The abolition of the criminal guard system.
  • Ten per cent advance in wages.
  • Recognition of the Union.

Professor Edward R. A. Seligman, of Columbia University, writing in The Annalist, a magazine of finance, commerce, and economics, of May 4, says:

“Of these seven demands, five are guaranteed, under severe penalty by the laws of the State of Colorado. It is claimed by the Union that had these laws been enforced there would never have been any strike. Whether or not this is so, is it not a remarkable commentary on the state of American civilisation that individuals should be compelled to resort to a strike in order to enforce a series of laws which it is the obligation of the employers to obey and the State to enforce? That these laws were habitually and persistently disregarded is claimed by the Unions, and is virtually substantiated by the official statements in the reports of the factory inspectors in Colorado.”

He says a great deal more that is well worth quoting, were we writing ‘for a different set of readers and had more space at our disposal.

Each day brings with it fresh evidence of the savagery of the coal barons of Colorado and their chief here in New York — John D. Rockefeller. It compares with, if it does not surpass, the stories of the grand ladies of Paris poking their parasols into the wounds of the Communards as they lay helpless after the fall of the Commune. The New York Daily Globe, the oldest daily paper in the city, writes editorially as follows:

“In regard to the Ludlow massacre, the Senate of Colorado, in a formal resolution, declares : ‘Blame for the horror rests on the imported assassins who masqueraded as sons of Colorado in the uniform of the National Guard.’ This declaration coincides with and emphasises previous findings by the coroner’s jury and the Federal grand jury, and the practical confession of guilt by the military court that endeavoured to whitewash the tragedy. It is established that murder was committed at Ludlow — that the guardians of society whose sworn duty was to protect the sheep, turned wolves and devoured their charges. In one of the companies of alleged militia that shot down and burned women and children were thirty mine guards — that is, mercenaries of tile mining companies — and seventy were clerks, bosses, engineers, and others in the employ of’ the mining companies. This ‘National Guard’ Company was never mustered into the State’s service, never held a drill, never elected any officers, and never was paid by any one except the mining companies. Is it strange civil war broke out when government expressed itself in such form?”

As is customary in all such struggles, the coal capitalists of Colorado have lied persistently and deliberately about the strike; they lied to alienate sympathy from the strikers and cut off supplies, and when that failed, murdered their wives and children; and now lie to save themselves from the condemnation being vented upon them. A few weeks ago John D. Rockefeller, Jr., swore before, a Congressional Committee that the strike was one of principle and could not be arbitrated. The principle was the “open shop,” or, to put it another way, the right to keep the men divided so that they could be exploited more easily. The miners swear that recognition of the Union has not been the main issue; that they have been willing to arbitrate their differences ever since the strike began, and the employers have steadily refused.

Where the spirit of brutality has been as rampant as it is in, Colorado, it would be idle to lay the blame entirely upon one man; but it is all but universally admitted that Rockefeller, Jr. is more responsible for the murder of innocent women and children, to say nothing of men, than all the other forces combined. From the date of his declaration before the committee at Washington, the struggle has grown in intensity, reaching its climax with the firing of the tent colony at Ludlow, where two women and ten children were burned or smothered to death. It was his insistence on unconditional surrender, and his statement that they — the Standard Oil interests — were prepared to lose all they had invested in Colorado rather than treat with the men on any other basis, that touched the magazine that lay ready for the match.

Wm. T. Stead once said the United States was so anxious to lead the world in everything, that it was leading it in crime. This was true, and it is equally ,true with regard to the bitterness and savagery displayed in its Labour struggles. Life here in the United States isn’t worth a pound of powder, and it grows cheaper every, day. Strikes have always been more brutal here than in Europe; but just

as the brutality in the treatment or the negro has grown worse in the last twenty years, so the treatment of men who dare to strike for better conditions has grown barbarous beyond belief.

In this case there is Indisputable evidence that the tents were deliberately fired without regard to the safety of the women and children, When the coroner’s jury, the Federal grand jury, and the Senate of Colorado find the militia guilty, they must be, without the faintest shadow of a doubt. Federal grand juries and State Senates have never been composed of working men or sympathisers with working men, and the evidence against this “National Guard” must have been so overwhelming that no other verdict was possible.

According to Press despatches from Colorado, and reports of investigating committees, more than one hundred lives have been lost up to date, which far surpasses any Labour struggle .on this continent, and it makes even such struggles as Homestead and Hazleton pale into insignificance.

As we see it, there are several very encouraging features in connection with the strike, and at least two very discouraging ones. One of the first is the perfectly open and frank manner in which the miners armed themselves, and even allowed themselves to be photographed with guns in hand and cartridge belts strapped around their waists. It must cheer the heart of every revolutionist to know the actual fighting was done largely by Greeks and Bulgarians fresh from the Balkan War. Bitter enemies a few months ago over what they conceived to be national rights, they stood side by side in the mountains of Colorado and fought the common enemy to a standstill. How strange is human nature, after all. Another very inspiring feature is the way the Colorado Unions responded with money, arms, and recruits. This last must be supplemented by the money sent from other parts of the country to Colorado.

The discouraging features are the failure of the Miners’ Convention at Indianapolis to declare in favour of a general strike in support of their Colorado comrades, and the attitude of the Socialist Party over the affair. The failure of the miners to declare the general strike is due, no doubt, to the fact that they have no real conception of the class struggle. To protest against wage slavery and capitalism in all forms is at present beyond them. The officials of the United Mine Workers have long been recognised as the most astute politicians in the Labour movement, and with an ex-miner (Secretary Wilson) in the Cabinet of President Wilson, it is more than possible that politics played its part in the report of the committee of the Convention against the general strike.

At the present writing, federal troops are in control in the mine districts of Colorado, and a demand has been made on both miners and mine owners to surrender their arms. It is not expected that either side will surrender all their arms, and as the Federal troops cannot remain for ever, the fighting may be resumed as soon as they leave.

The mines in the disturbed districts are closed at present; for bow long it is impossible to say. But the Rockefeller interests will soon be brought to bear on the Government, and under Federal surveillance an attempt will be made to open the mines, and it is, a question of how far the miners will be awed by the fact that they are fighting the central Government instead of the local authorities. Libertarians know full well the heavy price that must be paid when Labour rebels against its exploiters, and it grieves us to think of the lives lost in this struggle; certain gains have been made, however, and for that we feel grateful. For the first time in the history of this country, and perhaps of any great nation, has the President of chief ruler sent openly to a capitalist and asked him to settle a strike, as president Wilson did to John D. Rockefeller Jr. That fact will assist in striking the scales from the eyes of many men. ‘

The Socialists have disavowed all connection with the movement to send money, arms and recruits to the assistance of the rebellious miners. They insult the dead in Colorado by telling the living that had they voted the Socialist ticket this would not have happened. Every form of activity except speech-making and voting is strictly taboo with the Socialists here, and their demoralisation is so complete that the German Socialist Party looks revolutionary beside them. The yeast is fermenting, however, and the revolutionary spirit grows in spite of the reactionaries. The immensity of the country makes it difficult to have united action on any subject, and more particularly revolutionary action on the part of the working class. The struggle grows more intense each day, and the sporadic Revolts more and more frequent, and the final Crash may be nearer than many of us dare hope for. That unrest, on a gigantic scale, exists even the dullest reactionary is forced to admit, and that society is being revolutionised is apparent to all. The coal strike of Colorado is but one of the many symptoms that the day of reckoning is fast approaching, the day when Labour will come into its own.

Harry Kelly, New York

Song: Ludlow Massacre

Words and Music by Woody Guthrie

It was early springtime when the strike was on,
They drove us miners out of doors,
Out from the houses that the Company owned,
We moved into tents up at old Ludlow.

I was worried bad about my children,
Soldiers guarding the railroad bridge,
Every once in a while a bullet would fly,
Kick up gravel under my feet.

We were so afraid you would kill our children,
We dug us a cave that was seven foot deep,
Carried our young ones and pregnant women
Down inside the cave to sleep.

That very night your soldiers waited,
Until all us miners were asleep,
You snuck around our little tent town,
Soaked our tents with your kerosene.

Suggested further readings:

Sam Lowry, The Ludlow Massacre, 1914 (libcom.org)

April 20, 1914: Ludlow Massacre, Zin Education Project

The Ludlow Massacre, PBS

Ludlow Massacre, (Marxist Internet Archive)

Cover illustration shows mine worker firing a gun after his wife and children were killed in a massacre at their tent camp by the Colorado National Guard and Colorado Fuel & Iron Company camp guards. The Masses Publishing Co., 1914. Library of Congress
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