April 20

The Ludlow Massacre

Striking miners at Ludlow, CO.

Today is the 103rd anniversary of the Ludlow Massacre. On April 20, 1914, private security guards and Colorado National Guard troops attacked a tent city occupied by 1,200 striking miners. Twenty-six  men, women, and children, were killed.

My family has a personal interest in the massacre. My wife’s great-great grandfather was one of the union organizers, and was present for the massacre. He and his family survived, but the family memory is still strong.

Giuseppe DiGiovanni was born in Italy and emigrated to the U.S. He moved to Colorado, where he worked as a coal miner. According to one source, “In 1912, the death rate in Colorado’s mines was 7.055 per 1,000 employees, compared to a national rate of 3.15.” They were also forced to live in “company towns,”in which all stores were controlled by the mining company– the background to the song “Sixteen Tons.” Appalled by the conditions the miners had to endure, Giuseppe became an organizer for the United Mine Workers of America. Banned for his organizing activities, he changed his name twice in order to get work, first to Joe White, and then to Joseph DiJohn.

Joe DiJohn, later in life (seated).

The union presented demands to the three major coal companies, which included safety protocols, limits on hours worked, and pay for non-producing activities like laying track and setting braces. Miners at the time were paid only by the ton produced. In September, 1913, the companies rejected these demands, and the miners went on strike.

The companies responded by hiring a private security firm to bring in strike breakers. These were supported by the Colorado National Guard, which was also strongly pro-company. Their union-busting activities included “unofficial martial law includ[ing] the suspension of habeas corpus, mass jailings of strikers in ‘bullpens,’ a cavalry charge on a demonstration of miners’ wives and children, the torture and beating of prisoners, and the demolition of a striker tent colony at Forbes.” However, the state was nearly bankrupt, and most of the National Guard units were disbanded.

On April 20, 1914, the day after the camp celebrated Orthodox Easter, private security and the remaining National Guard troops surrounded the damp at Ludlow. The miners, as shown in the photos, had some bolt-action rifles. Their opponents had machine guns, including at least one Browning M1895. One of their more frightening weapons was an armored car with a machine gun mounted in the back, which the miners called the “Death Special.”

The “Death Special.”

The attack began about 9:00 am and went on for ten hours. The miners and their families were trapped, until dusk when a passing freight train blocked the attack from one side and allowed them to escape. By 7:00 pm, the camp was razed and burning. The camp leader, Louis Tikas, was captured and executed.

The aftermath of the Ludlow Massacre

News of the massacre spread quickly, and resulted in the Ten Day War, in which miners all over Colorado attacked mine sites and destroyed mining equipment. This continued until President Woodrow Wilson sent in federal troops, which disarmed both sides.

In the aftermath, over 400 miners were arrested, and over 300 charged with murder. Only one was convicted, strike leader John Lawson, and his conviction was later overturned by the State Supreme Court. Of the National Guard troops, ten were charged but only one was convicted– the man who executed Louis Tikas– though he only received a slap on the wrist. None of the security guards were ever charged.

The UMWA failed to gain recognition, but John D. Rockefeller did implement reforms and allowed the miners to form a “company union.” The clash represents one of the deadliest conflicts in American labor relations, and in the aftermath, Congress imposed new labor laws, including restrictions on child labor.

While I have issues with the role of unions in our post-modern economy, I remain very much aware of the work they have done and the lives they have lost to change working conditions across the country. The Ludlow Massacre was a tragedy, but it also was a turning point. These brave miners, most of the immigrants, gave their lives to ensure that American workers would have a better future.

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