A Praxis Parable: Organised Labour and the Ludlow Massacre

Content Warning: Graphic descriptions of violence

A bullet whistles by your ear. You look around to see scores of your fellow coal miners, with their wives and children in tow, sprinting for cover. You start to run, and just a few strides in front of you see a young boy, no older than 11. He crouches down to save his kitten amongst the onslaught. You gaze in horror as a machine gun round pierces his skull, killing him instantly. The date is April 20, 1914, and you are stuck right in the middle of a state-sponsored massacre.

Today, April 20, 2020, is the 106th anniversary of the Ludlow massacre, the culmination of seven months of strike action. In a period now known as the Colorado Coalfield War, 10,000 miners under the direction of the United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) stood against three coal mining companies, including the Colorado Fuel & Iron company owned by the mega-rich Rockefeller family. They aimed to gain increased pay, better working conditions and an 8-hour limit on the working day. 22 men, women and children died that day at the hands of these companies and the Colorado National Guard. Casualties from the workers returning fire left an additional three National Guardsmen among the dead.

The Rockefellers are all too often seen as philanthropists, but the events of April 1914 demonstrate more than ever that the Rockefeller legacy is one of exploitation. The family’s billions were accumulated on the blood and toil of the working class, a fortune which continues to be hoarded even a century later.

As a result of the ongoing strike action, the industrialists had evicted mineworkers en masse from their company-managed towns, forcing them to set up tent colonies in order to survive. The largest of these housed over 1,000 people in the now-derelict town of Ludlow. Detectives were hired by the companies to “investigate” the striking workers, but these detectives were known for their brutality and abuse of power. To make matters worse, the Colorado National Guard, which was supposedly deployed to “reduce violence”, deliberately favoured these detectives and systematically overlooked their transgressions.

Violence had increased in the immediate prelude to the massacre, after a reduction in the number of National Guardsmen deployed. Accounts are scant as to how the bloodbath began, but some accuse the National Guard of opening fire when striking workers refused to hand over an individual to state forces. It is not clear whether this individual was one of their own or a hostage. A machine gun had been deployed in a position overlooking the tent colony the previous day. The only respite for workers defending the colony came when sympathetic rail workers positioned an engine in front of the machine gun position, blocking its line of fire.

The young boy mentioned towards the start of this article was Frank Snyder, an 11-year-old boy. An account from the prominent trade unionist Mother Jones tells us how young Frank was trying to save his kitten when he was hit in the head by one of the many machine gun rounds that were sprayed across the Ludlow tent colony. Another child was fatally shot as he carried water to his dying mother.

Frank Snyder was by no means the youngest to die on that fateful spring day. No less than 11 young children burned and suffocated to death in a pit below a tent alongside two women. How could this happen you might ask? In the evening, the militia attacking the colony poured kerosene over the tent covering the bolthole, setting it alight. Among the dead were some who would not live to celebrate their first birthday. Frank Petrucci was six months old. Elvira Valdez? Three months old. They were babies, murdered by those that viewed workers’ rights as an aberration.

Frank Petrucci’s mother, Mary, lost another two children in the fire that engulfed the pit. She fortunately survived the blaze and made it through the massacre alive. Years later, she would recall: “I came out of the hole. There was light and lots of smoke. I wandered among the ashes until a priest found me. I couldn’t feel anything. I was cold.”

Strike action limped on for another eight months before finally breaking in December 1914. The aftermath of the massacre was bloody, with 50 deaths occurring in incidents related to the response to the events in Ludlow. In December 1914, 12 National Guardsmen were acquitted by court martial. As even more of a kick in the teeth for the survivors of the violence, Rockefeller created company-sponsored unions to undermine the bargaining power of the UMWA.

The cooperation between the Colorado National Guard and the Rockefeller empire was no coincidence. Capitalist hegemons such as John D. Rockefeller Jr. require the state’s monopoly on violence to maintain their wealth. The accumulation of billions is not possible without the legitimacy granted to capitalist industrialists and entrepreneurs by the backing of the state. In turn, these wealth hoarders grant the state legitimacy. Not an election cycle goes by in the United States without billionaires donating to one major party candidate or another. Often both.

There are lessons to be learned for the working class from the ashes of the Ludlow massacre. Electoral politics cannot be a substitute for the power of organised labour. Any movement for fundamental change must be built upon a base that stretches far beyond the marble monuments of the District of Columbia. Dismantle the powers that be, else they dismantle everything you hold dear.

By Will Corbett

Freelance Journalist || MA News Journalism at Nottingham Trent University || Contact:

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