Robert B. Simpson: A very somber anniversary

May 3, 2014 

Sunday, April 20, was most significantly Easter Sunday. But the date also marked the 100th anniversary of another momentous, though much smaller, event that would awaken Americans of that time to unfair treatment of workers at the lowest levels. And to the tendency of governmental and corporate entities to maintain close kinship while ignoring the mistreatment.

Apparently few people today know the story of what happened all those years ago in a dusty tent camp in Colorado. It was known as the Ludlow Massacre. I learned of it only recently from a physician in Colorado whose grandfather was a labor organizer there many decades ago. To the grandfather, the memory of the Ludlow Massacre was real and bitter.

In the early 1900s, the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company operated a sprawling coal mining empire. CF&I was owned by John D. Rockefeller, a man who let nothing and no one stand in the way of his dominating chosen industries and maximizing profits. By 1914 he had turned CF&I over to his son, John D. Rockefeller Jr., but operating methods were unchanged.

To the dismay of mine owners throughout Colorado, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) had begun attempting to organize miners in the state. The Rockefellers and other mine owners considered workers who tried to organize so as to have a voice in labor-management matters ungrateful, disrespectful, and undeserving. Rather than try to negotiate working conditions and pay, they were expected to rely on the benevolence of the owners. They were, as a federal mediator said at the time, expected just to work, have no thoughts about anything else, live in a house owned by their employer, buy what food he chose to stock in his employee store, at prices he set, and never dare to discuss labor relations, unions, religion, politics, or anything else but work. The housing areas were patrolled by armed guards. Curfews were set. And if a worker annoyed his overlords, he and his family could summarily be kicked out of housing. While America professed to believe in freedom for all, the mining companies, as well as some other businesses, insisted on a serf-master relationship.

Soon after CF&I workers went out on strike in September 1913, John D. Rockefeller Jr., testifying before Congress, said working conditions had been admirable, none of the men had ever complained, and the strike had been imposed on the company by outsiders. He was understandably annoyed, because a CF&I vice president had written to him that they'd been on track to make the most money ever, but had had to give some of the increase to worker raises. He apologized for having to waste Rockefeller's money that way.

No longer able to live in company houses, the striking miners moved with their families to tent camps set up by the union. One that would become famous was the encampment of the Ludlow Mine employees. As the strike dragged on, conflicts grew, and Ludlow would eventually suffer severe punishment.

In an effort to restore calm, the Governor called out the National Guard. Initially this helped some, but eventually funds ran out and most of the Guard except for two companies was removed. Incredibly, they were replaced by CF&I company guards for whom the Governor provided National Guard uniforms. On April 20, 1914 conflict flared up between National Guard elements overlooking the camp, reinforced by the company guards, and the Ludlow miners. The militia was able to rake the tent camp with machine gun fire from a ridge above it. The fighting went on all day, and soon after dark the camp was set ablaze. Among those killed were two women and 11 children who had taken refuge in a pit dug beneath one of the tents. They died of suffocation and fire.

In retaliation, the UMWA called for armed revenge, and the conflict ranged throughout southern Colorado until President Wilson sent in regular troops to restore calm. Total dead from the entire conflict was approximately 75. But the two women and 11 children were the ones who tore at the nation's conscience.

Rockefeller, perhaps in an effort to patch his tattered reputation, eventually supported major reforms and negotiations with miners. Soon conditions improved and the mines were busy again. And money once again poured unimpeded from the mines into Rockefeller's bank accounts.

It would be nice to think everything was hunky-dory after that. It would also be foolish. The struggle between competing interests continues still today, and there is always danger of losing what ought to be fundamental human rights. We need to remember the Ludlow Massacre. The dead there bought the right for workers to be treated as valued team members, not as serfs.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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