Some Colorado labor history

Labor day. It commemorates the likes of Samuel Gompers, Big Bob Haywood and Mother Jones and their efforts to unite working class peoples. They met great resistance from gullible populations of consumers and business owners who weren’t going to give anything unless they were forced.

Child labor laws, five day work weeks, eight hour days, overtime pay, work breaks, retirement, benefits, sick days, vacation days, we owe all these to the might of collective bargaining.

Today’s labor organizers are seen more as standing in the way of productivity. We think of union workers as lazy and greedy, corrupt and undeserving. How is it the labor unions have fallen so low in our sentiments? Probably because businesses have public relations budgets which advance the corporate view, and labor unions, well, do not.

Was this always so? Actually, yes.

The Gold Miner’s Strike, 1894
Colorado Springs citizens themselves figured prominently in an early and notorious labor conflict: the Cripple Creek Miner’s Strike of 1894. Miners united by the Western Federation of Miners were fighting for the three dollar, eight hour day. This was a high wage at the time, but the gold mining business was a veritable bonanza and mine owners were building huge homes on Wood Avenue, “Millionaire’s row.”

Up on the mountain the miners seized and shut down the mines. From their exclusive hang out, the El Paso Club, the mine owners complained about the evils of socialism and the populist leanings of the governor.

When underhanded attempts to dislodge the strikers failed, the mine owners, with the assistance of the Gazette, convinced the population of Colorado Springs to rise up in arms against the miners, lest the miners descend from the mountain and attack them. Twelve hundred men were deputized and led on a march to defeat the seven hundred miners. Luckily the 1,200-strong Colorado Springs volunteer posse was outwitted and the miners achieved their demands.

The struggle was long and bitter and makes an amusing story now. We can be happy that the miners prevailed but let us not today be mistaken about which side most of Colorado Springs was on.

Breaking the union, 1904
By 1904, miners had lost the eight hour day. The Mine Owner’s Association issued work permits only to miners who would renounce their union memberships. As the owners shipped in scab labor to substitute for the union holdouts, the conflict grew bloody. The state militia was called in to close the Victor Record, a newspaper sympathetic to the W. F. M. The union was silenced.

On June 6, 1904, a lunatic fighting on the side of the miners, but for motives of his own, blew up a train platform, killing 21 nonunion workers. Though it was not then established who had done it, the W. F. M. was immediately blamed and routed. 225 union miners, a number of whom had families in Cripple Creek, were boarded unto trains and deported from Teller County.

One group was sent to the Kansas border, marched across, and abandoned. The other was dropped off in a desolate part of New Mexico. All were threatened with dire consequences should they return. The mine owners responsible have names which any Colorado Springs resident can recognize today: Carlton, MacNeill, Penrose, and Tutt.

The Ludlow Massacre, 1914
Who hasn’t heard of the “Ludlow Massacre?” The Ludlow Massacre put Colorado on the map. Do you know what for?

In 1913, the coal miners of Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel & Iron Corporation in Trinidad were protesting against poor wages, unsafe conditions, and struggling with debt in towns owned entirely by their employer. Naturally when the workers went on strike they were immediately evicted from their shacks.

With help from the United Mine Workers Union the striking workers were able to set up tents in the nearby hills and continue their protest. The Rockefellers hired the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to snipe at them and fire into their camps with Gatling guns. The National Guard was brought in to further harass the striking workers, the justification given to the public being the interrupted supply of coal.

When the miners were able to keep up their strike through the harsh winter that year, the Rockefellers had the Governor of Colorado order an all out attack. The National Guard encircled the largest of the tent settlements at Ludlow, inhabited by approximately one thousand men, women and children, and commenced firing.

Thirteen people were killed in the shoot out before the soldiers set fire to the tents and forced the families to flee. After the fire, someone discovered eleven burned corpses, most of them children. They’d been hiding in a shelter dug to escape the incessant gunfire.

News of the “Ludlow Massacre” spread fast. Working class people came from the surrounding areas to avenge the massacre. Mine shafts were exploded, mine guards were shot, anarchy reigned in the hills, and this time President Wilson sent in the Federal troops.

In the end, 66 people were killed. Not a single mine operator or soldier was indicted of a crime. The press announced the attack on the union stronghold and the burning of the sheltered children to have been “a tactical blunder.”

Should such accounts be taught in our schools? The next time we’re told that a union’s demands are unreasonable, let’s remember to look who’s doing the telling.

(This article is reprinted from CRANK MAGAZINE, vol I, number 7)

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Eric Verlo

About Eric Verlo

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