In 1914, you couldn’t be neutral about the Colorado coal miners strike. Muckraker Upton Sinclair said the Denver newspapers were prostitutes of Big Coal. The Denver Chamber of Commerce advocated a boycott of the Rocky Mountain News
Denver Times for pro-worker bias. Boulder Daily Camera publisher L.C. Paddock raged against Denver papers and published a pro-management special section of his paper on the strike, which he distributed throughout the state to 40 dailies and 80 weeklies.
Beginning in February, a U.S. congressional committee held hearings to investigate the wretched living and working conditions in the Colorado coal fields. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. was compelled to testify and he claimed the strikers were merely outside agitators and that his employees were happy and satisfied.
For many months, private detectives hired by the coal companies conducted a reign of terror against the strikers which featured beatings, simulated executions, torture (including waterboarding) and random shootings. There was a lawless environment in southern Colorado with corrupt local officials where scores of people were jailed without charge or warrant and homes searched and private property confiscated without warrant or probable cause.
Then on April 20, a strikers’ tent colony at Ludlow was attacked with machineguns. About 1,200 men, women and children were living there. The tents were torched and looted. Many strikers were killed as well as two women and 11 children.
William Chenery of the Rocky Mountain News wrote an emotional editorial on April 22:
The horror of the shambles at Ludlow is overwhelming. Not since the days when pitiless red men wrecked vengeance upon intruding frontiersmen and upon their women and children has this Western country been stained with so foul a deed.”
This was the time of the Mexican Revolution. Chenery said “Mexico offers no barbarity so base as that of the murder of defenseless women and children by the mine guards in soldiers clothing.” The mine guards were “the gunmen of the great cities, the off-scourings of humanity… hardly human in intelligence, and not as high on the scale of human kindness as domestic animals.”
He said, “Machine guns did the murder. The machine guns were in the hands of the mine guards, most of whom were also members of the militia. It was a private war, with the wealth of the richest man in the world behind the mine guards.”
After the massacre, rumors of mass strikers’ graves and a “war of extermination” against workers were in the air. Miners rallied to a “Call to Arms” issued by the United Mine Workers: “Organize the men in your community in companies of volunteers to protect the workers of Colorado against the murder and cremation of men, women and children by armed assassins in the employ of the coal corporations, serving under the guise of state militiamen.”
For 10 days, there was a coordinated, efficient but ferocious military assault on the state militia, strikebreakers and mine properties by over a thousand strikers on a 225-mile front.
The fighting reached Boulder County on April 27. A gunfight broke out between guards at the Hecla mine in Louisville (located today near the King Soopers on South Boulder Road) and strikers living nearby. Thousands of shots were exchanged over many hours but there was only one death.
The war finally ended when President Woodrow Wilson sent in federal troops.
The miners were defeated and the Rockefellers devised a corporate P.R. spin campaign to clean up their image. In 1915, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. visited the mines, ate meals with miners and danced with miners’ wives. He promoted his tightly controlled company union where workers could air their grievances. He visited Boulder (an anti-union town) and dined with the University of Colorado president and several Boulder businessmen.
Life improved somewhat for the miners but in 1927 they went on strike over grievances similar to those in the 1913-14 strike. This strike ended with another massacre of workers at a mine near Lafayette.
It wasn’t until FDR’s New Deal that unions became legal. Industrial disputes became more civil and workers were included in a liberal coalition. That’s the crucial lesson of Ludlow. Workers can only win if we are militant, use collective action — and elect a friendly government.
Dave Anderson is a long-time Democratic Socialists of America activist in Boulder, Colorado. He writes a regular column for the Boulder Weekly.