Mike Littwin: The rise and fall of labor after Ludlow
“History is written by the victors.” — Winston Churchill
Sometimes history, even the most awful history, can be summed up in remarkably few words. On the day of April 20, 1914, the Colorado National Guard exchanged fire with 1,000 striking mine workers and their families in a makeshift tent city in Ludlow. No one is certain who fired the first shot, but the fighting would continue throughout the day. What is certain is that the guardsmen had the machine guns, and on that night they moved into the tent city and set it afire and mowed down workers as they raced away. Women and children, hiding from the battle, would be trapped in a cellar-like pit. Thirteen died, choking in the smoke and flames.
It became known as the Ludlow Massacre, and it shocked a nation that was not necessarily open to stories of exploited workers, particularly immigrant workers. But these were women and their children. And so, the victims would come to own the story. The unions would come to own the story. It would become part of the narrative that would lead to the rise in unions and of workers’ rights.
But who were the victors? That’s a far more complicated tale 100 years later — with unions in decline, income inequality on the rise, the corporation-friendly Supreme Court in control, immigration reform stalled, minimum wage reform stalled, and, yes, coal miners still being denied benefits.
If you have been reading the moving stories about the 100th Ludlow anniversary, you know how the history is told. Of immigrants from across Europe, speaking a dozen languages, working in the non-union mines. Of company stores, of company housing, of company scrip, of long and dangerous days and nights. Of the union that came to organize. Of mine owner John D. Rockefeller Jr’s refusal to negotiate. Of the bloody strike that followed. Of the tent cities that formed as the striking workers were ejected from company housing. Of the detectives hired by Colorado Fuel and Iron to police the strikers. Of the Colorado National Guard — paid for by the Rockefellers — that came to enforce the peace with their machine guns. Of the fateful day in April 1914, months into the strike, when the shooting began in earnest, when the tents were burned down, and when a massacre of mothers and babies jarred the nation’s conscience.
It was 100 years ago and it doesn’t seem possible that it happened so nearby, or that it is so little recalled — that a labor war, a guns and bullets war, erupted in the state and that the state, ignoring its own labor laws, fought on behalf of the owners. Money, it seems, wasn’t just speech then.
It was not so long ago, but long enough that John D. Rockefeller Jr. would testify before Congress that this was “a national issue, whether workers shall be allowed to work under such conditions as they may choose.”
And so we had a villain (although historians tell us that Rockefeller was more complicated than that) and we had heroes and we had a story that is a part of the American story, even if most of the stars of the story couldn’t speak English and were so easily exploited because they, in fact, were immigrants.
This was when capital versus labor was at the center of the national discussion. And if the massacre at Ludlow was shocking, it still took another 20 years and the Great Depression before laws would be passed making it easier for unions to organize.
Still, Ludlow is part of the story that led to the advance of unions, which even most union critics would agree helped lead to the growth of the American middle class and to most of the protections that workers — union and non-union — enjoy today. But, of course, the story isn’t as straightforward as that.
As everyone knows, unions are in decline. Only 7 percent of private sector workers are organized. As late as the 1950s, 75 percent of Americans approved of unions. Now approval is hovering right around 50 percent. But it’s not just the decline, which can be explained, in part, by the decline of American industry. It’s the antagonism. It’s the anger at the GM bailout. We may love our teachers but not the teachers’ unions. Pensions negotiated by public employee unions have become the villains of this time. States have been passing laws making it more difficult for public-sector employees to organize, and one governor went as far as to call them “exploiters,” which might surprise those Ludlow workers.
Meanwhile, as Paul Krugman likes to cite a few times a year, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor once sent out this Labor Day tweet: “Today, we celebrate those who have taken a risk, worked hard, built a business and earned their own success.”
It’s still capital versus labor — but this time labor is being erased from the picture. At least with makers versus takers, you’ve got everyone represented.
And it’s a different kind of violence being committed against coal miners today in West Virginia. On his New Yorker blog, Ben Mauk explains why Ludlow still matters. The Center for Public Integrity won a Pulitzer for its report about how coal industry lawyers had withheld evidence in cases arguing for benefits for miners with black lung disease. Mauk says to think of the lawyers as today’s version of the 100-years-ago Colorado National Guardsmen. And the mine owners then as the mine owners today.