By Steve Vairma
President, Teamsters Joint Council 3
Events are now being planned for next year to mark the 100th anniversary of the Great Colorado Coalfield War of 1913-1914 during which the tragic Ludlow Massacre occurred.
The events are being planned by Colorado State University-Pueblo and other organizations dedicated to preserving Colorado history.
For those of you who are not aware of the massacre, in which 18 men, women and children were killed, the United Mine Workers union gives the following account of what happened almost 100 years ago at Ludlow, which is about 20 miles north of Trinidad:
“The date April 20, 1914 will forever be a day of infamy for American workers. On that day, 18 innocent men, women and children were killed in the Ludlow Massacre. The coal miners in Colorado and other western states had been trying to join the UMWA for many years. They were bitterly opposed by the coal operators, led by the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company
.”Upon striking, the miners and their families had been evicted from their company-owned houses and had set up a tent colony on public property. The massacre occurred in a carefully planned attack on the tent colony by Colorado militiamen, coal company guards, and thugs hired as private detectives and strike breakers.
“They shot and burned to death 18 striking miners and their families and one company man. Four women and 11 small children died holding each other under burning tents. Later investigations revealed that kerosene had intentionally been poured on the tents to set them ablaze. The miners had dug foxholes in the tents so the women and children could avoid the bullets that randomly were shot through the tent colony by company thugs. The women and children were found huddled together at the bottoms of their tents.
“The Baldwin Felts Detective Agency had been brought in to suppress the Colorado miners. They brought with them an armored car mounted with a machine gun—the Death Special— that roamed the area spraying bullets. The day of the massacre, the miners were celebrating Greek Easter. At 10:00 AM the militia ringed the camp and began firing into the tents upon a signal from the commander, Lt. Karl E. Lindenfelter. Not one of the perpetrators of the slaughter was ever punished, but scores of miners and their leaders were arrested and black-balled from the coal industry.”
A monument erected by the UMWA stands today in Ludlow, Colorado in remembrance of the brave and innocent souls who died for freedom and human dignity. In December, 2008, the U.S. Department of the Interior designated the Ludlow site as a National Historic Landmark.
States within Teamsters Joint Council 3 have experienced events that have had significant influence on the course of labor history in the mountain west. In fact, from the late 1800s until the Great Depression, there was more labor unrest, due to coal mining activity in the west, than in any other part of the country,
Here are some examples of that labor unrest:
1892—Coal miners strike in Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho.
1886—State militia sent to break miners’ strike in Leadville, CO.
1894—First time in history a state militia is called to Cripple Creek, CO, to protect miners’ from deputy sheriffs.
1903—Utah coal strike begins.
1908—Free speech fight starts in Butt, MT
1914—Colorado militia and striking miners fight at Dansville, CO.Six union members were killed, 15 arrested and 79 deported to Kansas two days later.
A strike by the Western Federation of Miners was crushed at Butte, MT
1915—Legendary labor leader Joe Hill is arrested in Salt Lake City, UT. He was executed 21 months later on trumped up charges.
1916—Arizona copper strike starts.
1916—Several thousand armed vigilantes force about 1200 workers into manure-lade box cars and deported to the New Mexico desert. The action was precipitated by a strike when workers' demands (including improvements to safety and working conditions at the local copper mines, an end to discrimination against labor organizations and unequal treatment of foreign and minority workers, and the institution of a fair wage system) went unmet.
1917—IWW leader Frank Little is lynched in Butte, MT.
1927--Picketing coal miners marching under the banner of the Industrial Workers of the World were massacred in the Columbine mine massacre in the company town of Serene, Colorado. Six strikers were killed and many more injured.
1933-New Mexico miners’ strike begins.
Ludlow and these other battles should remind us that our unions were fighting mightily for workers rights when the labor movement was in its infancy and had few weapons other than the enduring human desire to better his/her standard of living. It is ironic that the often deadly battles that struggling workers then won—and lost— gave impetus to union organizing in other more populous areas of the country.