Minerals and raw materials are the building blocks of industrial capitalism. No industrial revolutions would have been possible without iron, coal, copper, rubber, and similar substances. The extraction of such materials from the earth has been, without exception, a human enterprise mired in misery, in which one small class of persons viciously exploited other more numerous classes of workers and peasants, with the sole aim of making as much money as possible. Theft of land, forced migrations, enslavement, torture, murder, brutality of every imaginable kind, injury and death on the job, the poisoning of the air, soil, and water, even concentration camps, all giving evidence of what Marx said more than 140 years ago: “. . . capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”
Steel is a quintessential industrial commodity, and during the nineteenth century, its production was central to the development of the most important capitalist industry, the railroad. However, to make steel, you need coal, which is converted into coke, the latter needed to produce iron and steel. Coal is found in many parts of the world, including the United States. Originally, it was mined in deep underground cavities, and much of it still is, although surface, strip mining now accounts for about 40 percent of all coal production worldwide.
Underground coal mining is inherently dangerous work, but the relentless drive of both the mine owners and the steel capitalists (often the same people) to cut costs and increase profits makes the work lethal. At the same time, the risk of the labor breeds a strong sense of cohesion among the workers. This solidarity was enhanced by the remoteness of many mines, which allowed the companies to contain miners and their families in isolated company towns, owned lock, stock, and barrel by the mine’s owners. In a company town, almost all economic activity was connected to mining. Social differences were clearly marked and unbridgeable. There were the miners, and there were the bosses. Working underground together and living above ground together created strong social class bonds. The companies recruited a polyglot workforce to break down the cohesiveness of the miners, but often as not this failed. In the United States, the United Mine Workers union (UMWA) early on embraced a diverse membership, including black miners, one of the first labor unions to do so. Miners learned quickly that it mattered not one whit to the company whether the shovels were wielded by black or white hands or whether the men killed in an explosion were Italians or Greeks or Welsh. And at the end of work day, every miner’s face was black.
Low wages, unsafe conditions, long hours, crooked scales, and totalitarian rule in the company towns (the companies had their own, state-deputized police) combined to cause the workers to embrace labor unions wholeheartedly, even in places, like rural Appalachia, where notions of rugged individualism were strong. Any attempts to unionize were met with utmost resistance, always wed to violence, by the coal operators. Given the array of implacable forces lined up against them, including police, politicians, national guards, even the U.S. Army, coal miners were, themselves, not averse to employing violent means to achieve their aims.
The coalfields of southern Colorado were the scenes of a monumental and ultimately murderous labor struggle in 1913 and 1914. One of the major coal companies was the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel & Iron Company.
It maintained company towns at the base of the Rocky Mountain foothills near the mine sites, including those of Berwind and Ludlow, south of the steel town of Pueblo. Berwind was named for the coal baron, Edward J. Berwind, who sold his holdings to the Rockefeller company. More about him later.
Working and living conditions for the miners were horrible, with workplace death rates often double the national average. Life in the towns was serf-like. The UMWA had been organizing in the region for years, and the workers were receptive, stopped only by the violent opposition of their employer. Finally, their patience worn out, the miners struck, heeding the September 17, 1913 call of the union. The workers demanded
Recognition of the United Mineworkers of America as the bargaining agent for workers in coal mines throughout Colorado and northern New Mexico, an effective system of checkweighmen in all mines, compensation for digging coal at a ton-rate based on 2,000 pounds, semi-monthly payment of wages in lawful money, the abolition of scrip and the truck system, an end to discrimination against union members, and strict enforcement of state laws pertaining to operators’ obligations in supplying miners with timbers, rails, and other materials in underground working places.
The CF&I bosses responded by evicting the strikers from their company houses. The union secured land nearby, on which they helped the mining families to set up tent colonies at the canyon mouths leading to the mines, and it was from these that they waged a strike for many months, surviving an extraordinarily frigid winter. The employers hired the vicious Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to intimidate the strikers and their families, which they did with gusto, shining spotlights on the colonies, firing bullets into the tents (often from a specially designed car, mounted with a machine gun, built inside a CF&I steel plant in Pueblo, and known as the “Death Special”), beating people—all the tactics such thugs have always used to defeat workers. The miners retaliated as best they could, and the failure of private police to end the strike led Colorado’s governor to call out the public police, better known as the National Guard. The Guard was every bit as criminal as Felts, actually destroying one colony while workers were attending the funeral of a dead child.
Matters reached a head on April 20, 1914, in what has come to be known as the “Ludlow Massacre.” The wikipedia entry gives a vivid account of what happened:
On the morning of April 20, the day after Easter was celebrated by the many Greek immigrants at Ludlow, three Guardsmen appeared at the camp ordering the release of a man they claimed was being held against his will. This request prompted the camp leader, Louis Tikas, to meet with a local militia commander at the train station in Ludlow village, a half mile (0.8 km) from the colony. While this meeting was progressing, two companies of militia installed a machine gun on a ridge near the camp and took a position along a rail route about half a mile south of Ludlow. Anticipating trouble, Tikas ran back to the camp. The miners, fearing for the safety of their families, set out to flank the militia positions. A firefight soon broke out.
The fighting raged for the entire day. The militia was reinforced by non-uniformed mine guards later in the afternoon. At dusk, a passing freight train stopped on the tracks in front of the Guards’ machine gun placements, allowing many of the miners and their families to escape to an outcrop of hills to the east called the “Black Hills.” By 7:00 p.m., the camp was in flames, and the militia descended on it and began to search and loot the camp. Louis Tikas had remained in the camp the entire day and was still there when the fire started. Tikas and two other men were captured by the militia. Tikas and Lt. Karl Linderfelt, commander of one of two Guard companies, had confronted each other several times in the previous months. While two militiamen held Tikas, Linderfelt broke a rifle butt over his head. Tikas and the other two captured miners were later found shot dead. Their bodies lay along the Colorado and Southern tracks for three days in full view of passing trains. The militia officers refused to allow them to be moved until a local of a railway union demanded the bodies be taken away for burial.
During the battle, four women and eleven children had been hiding in a pit beneath one tent, where they were trapped when the tent above them was set on fire. Two of the women and all of the children suffocated. These deaths became a rallying cry for the UMWA, who called the incident the “Ludlow Massacre.” In addition to the fire victims, Louis Tikas and the other men who were shot to death, three company guards and one militiaman were killed in the day’s fighting.
Tikas’s murder was witnessed by a young engineer, Godfrey Irwin, who was hiking with a friend. Here is what he told the New York World:
We were going down a trail on the mountain side above the tent city at Ludlow when my chum pulled my sleeve and at the same instant we heard shooting. The militia were coming out of Hastings Canyon and firing as they came. We lay flat behind a rock and after a few minutes I raised my hat aloft on a stick. Instantly bullets came in our direction. One penetrated my hat. The militiamen must have been watching the hillside through glasses and thought my old hat betrayed the whereabouts of a sharpshooter of the miners.
Then came the killing of Louis Tikas, the Greek leader of the strikers. We saw the militiamen parley outside the tent city, and, a few minutes later, Tikas came out to meet them. We watched them talking. Suddenly an officer raised his rifle, gripping the barrel, and felled Tikas with the butt.
Tikas fell face downward. As he lay there we saw the militiamen fall back. Then they aimed their rifles and deliberately fired them into the unconscious man’s body. It was the first murder I had ever seen, for it was a murder and nothing less. Then the miners ran about in the tent colony and women and children scuttled for safety in the pits which afterward trapped them.
We watched from our rock shelter while the militia dragged up their machine guns and poured a murderous fire into the arroyo from a height by Water Tank Hill above the Ludlow depot. Then came the firing of the tents.
After the massacre, the miners conducted an insurrectionary war against the coal operators, obtaining guns from the UMWA and attacking mine sites and supervisors. The National Guard could not stop them, and only the intervention by the U.S. Army, sent in by President Wilson, ended the war, during which many more people were killed. Hundreds of union members were arrested, but nearly all charges were eventually dropped. Strike leader John Lawson was tried and convicted of murder, but a higher court overturned the conviction. Some guardsmen were court-martialed, though soon exonerated, and even the man who killed Tikas got off nearly scot-free. The strike continued into December, but the UMWA ran out of money to fund it, and the companies successfully hired scabs. In the end, the strike was defeated. However, the grossness of the violence perpetrated by the private and public thugs inflamed nationall opinion, and the U.S. Congress held hearings, calling John D. Rockefeller to testify. “Junior” denied any responsibility for the violence and made a large number of remarkably obtuse remarks that were widely ridiculed in the press and in the labor movement. He did, however, grasp the gravity of the peril into which such events could put the captains of industry. He hired labor “expert” W.L. Mackenzie King, later Canadian Prime Minister, to advise him, and based on King’s recommendations, he introduced the Rockefeller Plan of company unionism, granting certain superficial concessions to workers in the hope that this would deter real unionization. He also hire railroad publicist Ivy Lee ( a relative of Beat writer William Burroughs) to refurbish the Rockefeller image. Lee is one of the fathers of modern public relations, better seen as professional lying. Thus one legacy of Ludlow is the endless pro-business hype which with we are today bombarded.
There is a very fine memorial to the Massacre, built by UMWA on land it acquired in 1916.
It is located right off Interstate 25 in southern Colorado, just south of Pueblo and north of Trinidad, at exit 27. The exit is marked, but the sign across from the exit stop sign is barely visible. Turn right and drive about a mile to the monument. We visited it on March 18, on our way to New Mexico. We had always intended to see this place, and this time we did. After years of agitation, the union got the federal government to declare the sight a National Historic Landmark. This is a must stop for all union members and anyone committed to building a more humane world. There are informative posters, a heroic statue (badly vandalized in 2003 but since repaired), a granite marker honoring those murdered, and a cellar door you can lift up to reveal on of the trenches in which women and children hid for protection but in which they were burned alive.
I was reading the posters when a man asked me who the woman was who was leading a march of strike supporters in Trinidad. I told him and his wife that this was “Mother Jones.” I told them something about this angel of the workers and that she had said, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” He said, “Well, that’s a pretty good saying.” Yes, it is. When you see something like this monument and you see what happened and you know that, bad as it was, it was not unique and similar things still happen, all the time, around the world, it is hard not to think that we live in a sick world, one in desperate need of radical upheaval.
Across the country, there is a town in west-central Pennsylvania named Windber. It is close to where I taught, and I have been there many times. I still have friends who live there. I remember once umpiring a softball game between teams from Windber and Franklin, the latter a small black community bordering Johnstown and home to workers who labored in the hot, dirty, and dangerous coke plants at Bethlehem Steel. After the game, we went to a local bar for beer. The bartender didn’t want to serve us because so many of the group were black. He eventually did, but we joked later that he probably broke the glasses.
Windber, founded in 1897, was originally owned by the Berwind-White coal company. The Berwind part of the name refers to the same James Edward Julius Berwind mentioned above in connection with the Ludlow Massacre. At the time of his death in 1936, he was the largest owner of coal land in the United States; he was the dominant force in Pennsylvania coal. A prominent member of the Eastern establishment social set, he built a magnificent 18,000 square feet mansion in Manhattan at the corner of 64th Street and 5th Avenue. This house was one of the very few of great “robber baron” estates that remained intact, and it was finally converted into several lavish condos just a few years ago.
Berwind was every bit as anti-labor as Rockefeller, but he had more savvy in suppressing workers. Winder was built as a model company town, much grander is conception than other such places. It was much larger, with regular streets and parks, a library, stores run by outsiders (though there was still a company store, called the Eureka Store), fine homes on the hills for the management, some more modest homes that workers could purchase, and free heat from steam generated from the mining for homes. However, surrounding Windber were more than a dozen “satellite” towns, each connected to and named after a numbered mine (for example Mine 40), and htis is where most miners lived, often segregated by nationality, living in extremely rough conditions as in Ludlow and Berwind, and often forced to take in boarders to survive. Pay was low, conditions were bad, health was poor, child labor was common, and the Coal and Iron Police, legally state-sanctioned private cops, were a constant and ominous presence. Political power and economic power were one thing in Windber.
In 1922, the unionized miners in the country were forced to strike to get the companies to renew the collective bargaining agreements that had expired. Union fever swept the coal fields, and union president John L. Lewis and his allies, including John Brophy, whose district included Windber, called out the nonunion miners to support the strike. Support was forthcoming, almost universal, as nonunion miners rushed into the union and shut down the Winder mines in April 1922. As in Ludlow, they were evicted from their company-owned houses and sought refuge in tent colonies. A few were housed by miners and sympathizers who owned their homes. Somehow they survived and stayed on strike until December 1923. In the meantime, the UMWA signed contracts with the union companies and in a real act of treachery abandoned the nonunion strikers, including those at Windber. They courageously stayed on strike and actually sent a delegation to picket the Berwind-White headquarters in Manhattan.
It was not until 1933 that the UMWA returned, with the protection of the New Deal and the anti-employer sentiment rampant during the Great Depression, and organized the Windber miners, this time for good. When they began their heroic “strike for union,” one of them said, “We are no longer slaves and we are done loading three ton for two. We will never return under a scab system. We want union to protect our rights.” Words to remember.