The appreciation and treatment of workers has probably been a sore spot of humanity ever since one person submitted to the wishes of another in order to earn a living. Until the 20th Century, serfs, peasants, laborers and most other workers toiled under very harsh conditions. If a person takes some time online or in a library, one can find written accounts of this problem.
It wasn’t until the 20th Century, that such concepts as the eight hour day and the abolition of child labor were not only accepted, but were legalized. Benefits, such as meal and coffee breaks, safe, sanitary working conditions and fair treatment came a bit later. Such perks as retirement pensions, basic healthcare plans and profit sharing came to more fortunate employees.
We are not only becoming more aware that the modern worker is losing his and her respectful benefits, the jobs themselves have been going away. The hard won rights and benefits of average American workers are vanishing as quickly as the jobs have gone overseas. Even the scant government safety nets are on the brink of being dismantled and privatized.
The struggles to attain and secure modern benefits and jobs have been long and dangerous. The efforts of progressive, tenacious individuals have been nearly forgotten in this day and age of anti-labor advocates. The past sacrifices and fights for freedom and humane treatment of workers should not be forgotten.
Issues regarding labor and worker representation, individually and by labor unions had stymied the United States in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. The western frontier of the nation experienced especially harsh conditions.
Miners in Colorado were typically paid an average daily wage of $1.68. The conditions were especially harsh with fatality statistics about twice the national average. What little the miners earned, was paid in scrip. This was redeemable only at company stores where prices were artificially steep. Children could only attend company owned schools and families lived in substandard housing or tents.
The tensions began building among workers of the three main companies in Colorado. They were the Rockefeller owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, The Rocky Mountain Fuel Company, and the Victor-American Fuel Company. Between 1884 and 1912, more than 1,700 Colorado employees of those companies had been killed in the mines. In 1913, 104 men died in mining operations.
There were few if any opportunities for miners to air grievances. They lived in company towns where land and everything else was owned by the company. The capitalists controlled worker unrest and anger by employing brutal company police and enlisting the national militia. Attempts to unionize were forcefully refused.
Finally, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) began to focus on the Southern Colorado mines because of the harsh, conservative Rockefellers and other owners. To counter the recruitments by the unions, the companies hired strike breakers.
By valiant, secret efforts, the UMWA, presented a list of demands in 1913. The main points were:
1.Recognition of the union as bargaining agent
2.An increase in tonnage rates (equivalent to a 10% wage increase)
3.Enforcement of the eight-hour work day law
4.Payment for “dead work” (laying track, timbering, handling impurities, etc.)
5.Weight-checkmen elected by the workers (to keep company weightmen honest)
6.The right to use any store, and choose their boarding houses and doctors
7.Strict enforcement of Colorado’s laws (such as mine safety rules, abolition of scrip), and an end to the company guard system
The workers who went on strike were immediately evicted from their homes and moved to tent towns prepared by the UMWA. Labor/management violence festered for several months.
The morning of April 20, 1914 was the day after Greek Orthodox Easter and celebrated by the Greek immigrants who were at Ludlow, Colorado. Three Colorado National Guardsmen entered the Ludlow camp to order the release of a man supposedly being held against his will. This prompted a meeting with camp leader Louis Tikas to meet with the local militia commander.
Meanwhile, two companies of the National Guard set up machine guns atop a ridge near the camp. Tikas and most of the other miners returned to camp afraid for the safety of their families. A gunfight broke out afterwards. Shooting raged all day between the company ordered militia and guards against the miners. A freight train halted on the tracks in front of the machine gunners and evacuated many miners and families. By 7:00 PM the tent camp was set afire.
Tikas and two other workers were captured. While two soldiers restrained Tikas, Lt. Karl Linderfelt, one of the commanders, broke a rifle butt over Tikas’ head. Tikas and his two comrads were found shot to death. Tikas being shot in the back.
During the skirmish, eleven children and four women hid within a pit underneath one of the tents. They were trapped after the tent was set alight. Only two of the women survived. Along with the civilian victims, three guards and one guardsman was killed in the fight. The outraged UMWA called the incident the “Ludlow Massacre”.
Days later, unionists issued a call to arms as 700 to 1,000 strikers attacked other mines in Southern Colorado, driving off or killing guards and burning buildings. The conflict was dubbed the “Colorado Coalfield War”. The most violent labor conflict in American History finally ended after President Woodrow Wilson ordered in Federal forces under direct command to the U.S. War Department. The strike was called off on December 10, 1914 when the UMWA’s treasury was depleted.
Even though the unions didn’t win company recognition. the strike and conflicts changed the national attitude of labor relations. Experts, including future Canadian Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King worked to reform mines and mining towns.
The improvements included town infrastructure and worker representation on company committees regarding working conditions, health, safety and recreation. Discrimination against former union members was not to be tolerated. A voice vote passed the plan.
The ultimate legacy included national legislation in favor of the eight hour day and the ban on child labor, among other reforms hoped for by the unions.
The Blue Jay of Happiness honors the memory of the victims of worker suppression with the hope that we never forget the reasons for their sacrifices.