In the late nineteenth century, industrialization spurred a massive demographic transformation in the United States. People left their rural homes and towns for the opportunities that awaited them in the cities, and immigration from Europe and Latin America expanded at an unprecedented rate through the first decades of the twentieth century. New industries formed, as American fuel and technological needs created a demand for copper, coal, iron, and other metals. Mine workers had it especially hard. They worked long hours for little pay, under conditions that were unhealthy at best, extremely dangerous at worst. It did not take long for mine workers to realize that their risk was not being adequately compensated; either with pay or respect. This was the case in Ludlow, Colorado on this day in 1914.
It was early springtime when the strike was on,
They drove us miners out of doors,
Out from the houses that the Company owned,
We moved into tents up at old Ludlow.
As the pure and simple unionism that Samuel Gompers advocated took hold, the American Federation of Labor was a stalwart ally of the workingman. Formed back in 1886, the AF of L took on issues such as working conditions, the eight-hour day, and the initiation of the weekend as mandatory days off for all workers. Far from an explicitly politicized organization like the Knights of Labor, the AF of L directed its energy to simple “bread and butter issues”— but even such simple issues were too radical for federal and state governments, and they were out of the question as far as most company owners were concerned. It was in the second decade of the twentieth century that politicians and the wealthy began demonizing socialism and socialists, and with it, many laborers who simply wanted a better life and respect for their work. By the 1910s, it was not unusual to see state or federal soldiers at mines, called by state politicians to break up strikes through either intimidation or violence. On this day in Ludlow, mine workers on strike faced intimidation on the picket lines as well as in their homes, with entire families fleeing for their lives.
We were so afraid that you would kill our children,
We dug us a cave that was seven foot deep,
Carried our young ones and pregnant women
Down inside the cave to sleep
That very night your soldiers waited,
Until all us miners were asleep
You snuck around our little tent town
Soaked our tents with your kerosene
You struck a match and in the blaze that started,
You pulled the triggers of your gatling guns
I made a run for the children but the firewall stopped me.
Thirteen children died from your guns.
The April 20th, 1914 Ludlow Massacre occurred in a social political context where free speech was curtailed, and the right to collectively bargain, strike, or even form a union was often difficult if not impossible. It occurred in a context where politicians expressed their disdain for working people, when they could be bothered to acknowledge them. When they did acknowledge workers, politicians and the wealthy accused them of being socialists, communists, and anarchists, and imprisoned them whenever they could.
I’m not about to say that things today are as bad as they were 97 years ago. Even though less that nine percent of the workforce is unionized in the United States, there are still safety regulations, a minimum wage, and workers of nearly all types have rights in the workplace. Yet at the same time, in the vast majority of workplaces, employees are helpless to negotiate the value of their work with their employers. In the public sector, politicians in a number of states are working to eliminate important aspects of collective bargaining. When pressed, they have admitted that it has nothing to do with deficits or the economy, but that instead it is a political and philosophical position about which they feel strongly. This is not 1914, obviously, but what we are seeing today is a concerted effort to make the worker invisible again. What happens after that? I can’t say. I’m a historian, so I can only speak authoritatively about the past, but I would bet there are some important clues about our future buried in Ludlow.