Ludlow, Colo. — Near this town in the gloomy, gray, coalfields of southern Colorado stands a memorial built by the United Mine Workers. The UMWA had bought the land for it, a peaceful little spot near Ludlow on the high prairie. The stone renderings of a man, woman and child honor miners and their families who shed their blood a century ago.
This April 20, exactly 100 years after that awful massacre, visitors before me had already placed flowers in the statues’ hands.
In 1913, over 15,000 laborers, mainly immigrants, lived and worked in the coal mines around Ludlow. They spoke 24 different languages. They lived in company shacks and bought necessities from company stores. They literally had to give their wages back to the company.
The largest mine was owned by John D. Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel and Iron Company.
Work in the mines was hard and dangerous, with long hours the norm. Not all laborers received pay. Those who laid track and timber supports were not paid. Children worked in the mines in those days, not just in Colorado but in many other states, too.
The UMWA organized these workers into a union and presented the owners with seven demands:
• Recognition of the union and the right to bargain.
• An increase in tonnage rates — equal to a 10 percent wage increase.
• Payment for “dead” work, such as laying track and timber supports.
• Enforcing the eight-hour day.
• Weights to be checked by the miners, not the company.
• The right to use any store, doctor or choice of boarding house.
• Strict enforcement of Colorado’s safety laws; abolishment of script and company guards.
The major coal companies rejected these demands, so the workers went on strike in September 1913. On the spot where the monument stands, the union helped build tents for the over 1,700 people who had been evicted from company-owned houses.
Seven months of cruel winter descended on the families in the tents. One of the worst Colorado blizzards ever hit the little camp in Ludlow.
Mother Jones, an activist and “Wobbly” from the Industrial Workers of the World, came to the camp to support the families and was jailed many times.
A young Greek immigrant named Louis Tikas was the main organizer for the UMWA. He did everything to help people live safely and try to keep the peace.
But Rockefeller was so against the union that he said keeping it out “was worth killing for.” And he had the power to order it done.
The governor of Colorado called in the National Guard to break the strike. The militiamen were reinforced by hired assassins, mercenaries and armed goons to do violence to the striking miners and try to break their will.
On the early morning of April 20, as goons poured gasoline around the tents, gunfire erupted from the “death special” — machine guns mounted on flatbed railroad cars along the tracks near the camp. Approximately 26 workers were killed.
Tikas was one of those murdered — his head crushed with the butt of a rifle and three bullets in his back. Troops perched on railway cars sprayed machine gun bullets into the tents.
The miners had built a small cellar or cave under one tent, where women and children could descend down some stairs to be protected. But the tents were set on fire. Two women and 11 children who had fled to the cellar perished by suffocation and burning in that tomb. Only two women escaped.
Workers’ sacrifices honored
An Easter service was held at the memorial on this 100-year anniversary of the Ludlow Massacre. It was led by Metropolitan Bishop Isaiah, representing regional Greek Orthodox churches. A picture of Louis Tikas was displayed. After 100 years he continues to inspire the Greek community for the sacrifice he made in blood “for the love of his fellow man,” said the bishop.
Mike Pattarozi, whose entire family had been miners, helped visitors descend the steps into the underground tomb where the two women and 11 children perished. His grandfather had gone into the mines at age 13 and worked there for the next 50 years. Tears rushed to my eyes. It was incomprehensible that the capitalists could so violently hate the workers, the source of all their wealth and comfort.
The miners retaliated after the massacre. In a mini-revolution, they used guns for protection and destroyed some property, but it was nothing compared to what the bosses had done.
Howard Zinn described the Ludlow massacre as “the culminating act of perhaps the most violent struggle between corporate power and laboring men in American history.” (zinnedproject.org, April 19)
Three retired miners — Mike Romero, Tom Hay and Alex Girardo — shared stories about the days before their retirement, when the local mining company decided to shut the mine early so the workers would not be eligible to get health benefits. The union took the company to court and won the benefits back. The union continues to pay their pensions.
The average union wage in 1996, they said, was $12 an hour for an eight-hour day, with about another $20 per hour in benefits. They were proud to be members of the union, which helped them retire with dignity.
The Ludlow massacre touched the hearts of workers all over the United States. “Remember Ludlow!” was heard for many decades as people struggled for their rights and against capitalist exploitation. Today, conditions similar to those existing 100 years ago in the Colorado minefields are spurring on a new, militant movement among low-wage workers.