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What Is The Meaning Of Labor Day?

August 31, 2012
By

A Historical Reconstruction

It’s cold most mornings in the Rocky Mountains, especially when you are living in a canvas tent with nothing but a cast iron stove for heat. I reckon a fella sort of gets used to those sorts of things, but it’s most a hardship on the wives and the youngins. It all began in September of 1913. Many of us colliers had had enough of Mr. John D. Rockefeller and his C.F & I coal company. The death rate in them mines was seven per thousand, we lived in company housing and had to shop in company stores, cause we was paid in script stead of real money.

Weren’t no one to check the weights on the coal we was hauling cept for company men.

We’d had enough. Why in 1913 alone, 110 men got killed in Colorado mines and they left behind 51 widows and 108 orphans. Being paid on the tonnage system made some of the boys reckless with their lives, cause they was desperate for money, cause they had hungry children, but sometimes their recklessness got others hurt as well, I reckon.

We began to listen to the union men, who was telling us how the death rate in union mines was about forty percent lower. They was telling us how the company was breaking the law by not paying us in real money. The boys and me, we didn’t know nothing about such things; most of us couldn’t even read. Even so, we reckoned we had a right to be paid for “dead work.” I mean, if in you ask a man to cut down trees and clear right of way and lay down railroad track he got a right to be paid for it, don’t he?

The company over the years had tried to make things some better for us, with some better housing and a doctor every once and a while. We was uneducated, but we weren’t stupid, they was trying to buy us off, and that don’t feed no widows, nor orphans. So we was stuck, we didn’t have no place to turn. There weren’t no government to speak of, and the law, if you could call em that. Well, they was all company men, they weren’t no copper button blue coat policemen but toughs, just roust abouts with guns, so we was stuck.

The boys decided to throw in with the United Mine Workers of America and it weren’t long before the company hired the Baldwin–Phelps Detective Agency. They was from back East, but we knew who they was, they was strike breakers and when they arrived they begun putting the strikers out of their houses. It was snowing like hell that morning, but they didn’t care nothing bout that. They had writs, don’t even know if they was legal  or even what they said, but them detectives they began emptying out our houses stacking our belongings into the street, snowstorm or no snowstorm.

The union had leased some land off of the company’s property and we began moving our stuff there. It was located in a small canyon where we could keep an eye on the mine. We was all in it now, but we’d made our demands and we would stick by them.

Recognition of the union as bargaining agent:

  1. An increase in tonnage rates (equivalent to a 10% wage increase)
  2. Enforcement of the eight-hour work day law.
  3. Payment for “dead work” (laying track, timbering, handling impurities, etc.)
  4. Weight-check men elected by the workers (to keep company men honest)
  5. The right to use any store,  and choose their boarding houses and doctors.
  6. Strict enforcement of Colorado’s laws (such as mine safety rules, abolition of scrip), and an end to the  company guard system.

Course the company rejected our demands out of hand and as soon as the strike began, the company began hiring scabs. Fore long, them detective boys set up searchlights and was shining them down into our camp all night just to make us mad trying to disturb our sleep. That weren’t so bad, but every now and again they’d fire a stray rifle shot into the camp. So the boys began to dig pits under their tents where they could put their women folk and the youngins to protect them from the flying lead. Well, it didn’t take long for them harassment tactics begun to take affect. Some of the boys, well, they was ready for an out and out shooting war, but we talked’em down from it. But just you let us catch a scab by his lonesome, and then, you just wait and see what would happen.

Them union men they had their hands full trying keeping the boys calm. They splained it, we had to follow the law and not let the company goad us into a fight, cause the big city papers back East would paint us as a violent mob disrupting an honest business. Didn’t make no sense to me, but I reckon it was so. They was shooting into our tents where there was women and kids, and didn’t care none, all they cared about was their money and their coal. Them detective boys built themselves an armored car out of a big old sedan car and mounted a machine gun on top of it.

It was getting just plain awful when Governor Ammons sent in the National Guard at the end of October, trying to calm things down. At first, it helped a might, but then the Guard just became more cops rousting the strikers and backslapping the company men. It weren’t no surprise really, we’d already been warned bout the general in charge of the Guard. They said, ole John Chase had been a real hard ass in the Cripple Creek strike ten year ago, but what he done to us was down right criminal. He weren’t no Christian nor honest man. The searchlights and shootings continued in the camp and then on March 10th 1914 the dead body of a scab was found on the railroad tracks near Forbes Colorado.

Well sir, General Chase, he ordered our camp destroyed, he didn’t hold no hearing nor investigation, he just went ahead and ordered the only lodgings for poor and hungry men women and children destroyed, cause one man had died someplace on company property. On April 10th the day after Easter, the National Guard appeared on the rim of the canyon. A lot of the Greeks was attending a funeral for a baby what had died the day before. Then Guardsmen appeared at the camp entrance, claiming we was a holding some fella against his will, but there weren’t no truth to it. Our leader, Louis Tikas asked for a meeting at the Ludlow train depot, less than a mile away with the head of the militia.

While Tikas was gone, them Guard units began to set up machine gun emplacements. Everybody knew it meant trouble and Tikas, he high tailed it back to camp. Some folks was scared, some was just plain angry. They’d gotten so sick of the whole situation they tried to flank them Guard units. My main concern was getting my wife and babies to safety.  Some folks was running towards an out cropping of hills we called the “black hills,” but the shooting had already started, and then, by some stroke of luck, a train pulled in front of the machine guns. It was the last chance most folks had to escape, cause from then on, the shooting went on all day and never stopped. By night fall, our camp was in flames and folks testified they witnessed two Guardsmen hold Louis Tikas while Karl Linderfelt, the commander of the National Guard units busted a rifle butt over Tikas’s head. They found his body the next day along with two other fellas shot in the back. They had laid them bodies out along side the Colorado & Southern Railroad tracks for three days, in full view of the passing trains. They was sending us a message, alright.

Them militia officers wouldn’t let nobody remove them bodies, until finally, the railway union complained, but you know, that weren’t really nothing.  It didn’t matter a hoot in hell what happen to them men. Cause when the smoke cleared in our camp they found what was left of a tent and down in the pit we had dug to protect our women and children, we found the bodies of two women and ten children, some of them no more than babies. How could decent folks do such a thing? Fifty strikers died, but to wantonly kill women and children, that’s something else entirely. Most of the folks had come from half way round the world searching for freedom and a better life. Look what they got, they got shot down and murdered, what sort of place is that?

That weren’t the end of it though, no sir. Folks they was pretty angry by now, them union men in Colorado sent out a call to arms for union men and strikers to gather up arms and ammunition. And I guess, it would have been like the first American Revolution, all over again. At Trinidad Colorado, must have been at least a thousand union men getting guns and ammunition from the union headquarters and the orders was to attack the mines. Them boys set fires and killed the mine guards. The governor, he rushed in hundreds more National Guardsmen into the area and there ain’t no telling what would have come of it, if in the President his self, Woodrow Wilson hadn’t sent in Federal troops.

The troops was supposed to restore order but there weren’t no order, ain’t no law neither, when folks can murder little children and still walk the streets. An investigation was ordered by Mr. John D. Rockefeller, he called it the Colorado Coalfield War, but we called it the Ludlow Massacre. The union run out of money in December, and the mine had hired replacement workers, so there weren’t no work for us, no how. In the end we didn’t get nothing but killed.

Four hundred strikers and union men was arrested, 322 of them was indicted for murder. John Lawson, the leader of the strike was convicted of murder, but his conviction was overturned by the Colorado Supreme Court. Twenty two National Guardsmen were court-martialed but they was all acquitted, cept for Karl Linderfelt, he was found guilty of assault on Louis Tikas and was reprimanded for his crime. The estimates for how many folks died was all over the map, some said it was 69, others said it was 199 but all that mattered to me was them ten babies. If a fella wants to get his head busted or shot dead fighting for his rights, well then, that’s his own look out.

A fellas got to ask himself what sort of country this is when a worker stands no chance against the big money back East, when the cops and courts turn their backs on him in the face of his miseries and his murder.

Lucy Costas, – age, four years

Onofrio Costas – age, six years

Cloriva Pedregon – age, four years

Rodgerio Pedregon – age, six years

Frank Petrucci – age, four months

Joe Petrucci – age, four years

Lucy Petrucci – age, two years

William Snyder Jr. – age, eleven years

Elvira Valdez – age, three months

Eulala Valdez – age, eight years

Mary Valdez – age, seven years

________

These events occurred almost a century ago, as today, organized labor slides towards the abyss in a nation ruled by big money interests and well armed gun thugs. The only historical parallel is the British Army at Dunkerque, with their backs to the sea, but there is no England for us to retreat to, we have no homeland but this one. A thousand graves cry out, tis no time to tarry, this is what Labor Day is about, it’s not about the rights you have, but about the rights you still don’t have, almost a century later.

 

David Glenn Cox is a senior staff writer for TLR and an award winning author and musician; he is the author of the novel, “The Servants of Pilate”.

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3 Responses to What Is The Meaning Of Labor Day?

  1. JasonR on September 29, 2012 at 6:33 pm

    I loved this piece. The author does an outstanding job of creating a sense of realism in the narrative. It really brings home how difficult it must have been for workers in these mines to establish that they were fully human beings. Save the unions!!!

  2. Lycurgus on September 5, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    Nice idea and execution.

    This piece reminds me, however, of the many magnificent blind spots in the American curriculum. Sadly, almost no one knows anything about the history of the labor movement in this country (except for maybe those few who took course in college). I think most Americans assume that the vital work place protections they enjoy today are just “there” and always have been–because they’ve never been taught or shown any different. Government didn’t just “bestow” upon us certain rights and safety standards–like emergency exits, fire alarms, 8 hour work days, over-time, FMLA, ect–they were fought for by several generations, in the streets and in the courts–and as this article reminds us–cost many, many lives. And it’s surely worth emphasizing — it was through and by the Government that any of these protections were ever wrestled free from the hands of corporate power. It’s mind boggling to think where we’d be if left to fend for ourselves in the regulation-free, laissez-faire nightmare that is the right wing’s ideal economic fantasy.

    And the lack of historical awareness is as debilitating as it is outrageous. Could we imagine if the vast majority of people today knew nothing of the civil rights movement? Didn’t know or never heard anything about racism, discrimination, segregation, the bus boycotts, the sit-ins, the protests, MLK, etc? To the average Joe–without that point of reference–everything that happens now (with regards to the continued pursuit of equality) might just seem trivial, exaggerated, or “much to do about nothing.”

    We definitely need to better inform our youth and citizens. I don’t know how, but this article is a good start.

  3. nathangreen on September 1, 2012 at 7:33 pm

    Very moving piece! It’s a part of history that too few know. And… it’s a history we may be revisiting. What do we do? The working class has been made too simple to realize what the right is doing to them, and all of us. Romney will probably win and become the second handicapped president (FDR had polio, Romney has no spine).

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