Denver Direct: Ludlow: The Public/Private Partnership

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ludlow: The Public/Private Partnership

from the April edition of the Naysayer newsletter from historian, author, and social critic Phil Goodstein.
Note a different location, La Casa de Manuel at 3158 Larimer, for the Naysayers’ meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 4.
Ludlow strikers. (from here)

Events 100 years ago showed what the public/private partnership really means. Both then and as advocated by the likes of Federico Peña and Bill Clinton, it is an alliance of the govern­ment and private capital. In particular, in April 1914 it linked the state government, controlled by the Democrats, with Colorado Fuel & Iron (CF&I). The latter was the state’s largest industrial concern. Besides manufacturing steel in Pueblo, it had coal mines through southern Colorado, being the dominant coal dealer in the region. Most of all, CF&I was the foremost branch of the Rockefeller empire in the Centennial State.

The company treated its workers with utter contempt. Since the 1880s, waves of strikes had swept its coal fields. CF&I had responded with vicious repression, hiring goons to intimidate workers who stood up for themselves. Repeatedly, it brought in entirely new workforces to dig the coal. This was especially the case following a long, traumatic strike in 1903–04 which it had defeated with the help of the state government, then firmly in control of the Republicans. To staff its mines, CF&I recruited toilers from southern and eastern Europe, promising desperate peasants the American idyll. Once in Colorado, CF&I mostly locked them in isolated company towns. It observed they owed the firm for the cost of transporting them to the United States. Those working for it were overwhelmingly dependent on its company stores. For all intents and purposes, they were virtually its slaves.
Despite the opposition of CF&I, the United Mine Workers (UMW) made some headway among the state’s coal miners beginning around 1908. It especially organized them in northern Colorado. CF&I responded by trying to undercut the sales of union employers, dumping its coal on the market at a loss to pressure such firms to repudiate their contracts with the UMW.
The miners’ union was anything but a revolutionary organization. On the contrary, it eagerly desired to collaborate with capital. Time and again, it found its offers of cooperation scorned by the Rockefellers. Eastern interests joined with Wall Street’s most powerful family in seeking to destroy the UMW, especially those who were unhappy about losing a major strike to the union in 1902–03. The UMW, in turn, realized that as long as CF&I dominated the Colorado coal market, it would never be secure in its representation of miners in the northern fields while it was ever apt to lose the gains it had achieved in the East.
Despite the omnipresent spies in CF&I company towns, UMW organizers managed to get a toehold in the communities. In the course of 1913, it built an extremely strong organization among the miners. Having done so, it offered CF&I a deal: it would negotiate for the workers and keep them on the job in exchange for recognition. The Rockefeller firm announced that if the workers went out on strike, it would evict them from the company towns.
In face of this, the UMW leased federal and state land on the front range close to CF&I mines in southern Colorado. In a raging blizzard on September 23, 1913, the union led 12,232 coal miners and their families out on strike, settling them in instant tent villages. CF&I responded by increasing its forces of repression. In particular, it brought in notorious goons of the Baldwin–Felts Detective Agency who had viciously clashed with the UMW in West Virginia.
With the detectives readily abusing the striking workers, violence flared. CF&I, echoed by much of the press, claimed that this was all the doing of the workers. It insisted the state disarm them. Governor Elias Ammons agreed. Swept into the statehouse in 1912 in the greatest Democratic triumph in Colorado history, he had no sympathy with labor. On the contrary, his major campaign platform had been attacking Washington’s demand for the conservation of public lands. In the name of assuring peace in the strike zone, he sent in the National Guard.
The UMW, firmly committed to working within the system and believing it had a friend in the statehouse, welcomed the soldiers. The troopers immediately demanded the disarming of the workers. It did not, however, disarm the CF&I guards. Nothing was done to chase Baldwin-Felts operatives out of state. Instead, embodying the public/ private partnership, they quickly forged a close working relationship with the National Guard.
Nobody did more to encourage this than Ammons. When members of the National Guard complained about strike duty—they had joined the militia to defend the country, not to act as soldiers in CF&I’s private war against labor—the governor announced that any trooper finding a replacement could leave the service. With the financing of CF&I, company goons and Baldwin-Felts detectives quickly filled the ranks of the National Guard. In no time, there was virtually no difference between the National Guard and the Rockefeller corporation’s private police.
Through the vicious winter of 1913–14, violence sporadically flared between the CF&I goons/National Guard and the striking work­ers. The militia destroyed some of the tent colonies. Despite the repression, the workers stuck it out, demanding nothing more than union recognition. CF&I categorically refused all offers of arbitration. Meanwhile, a virtual police state was in effect in such towns as Trinidad and Walsenburg as the state, the militia, and local law enforcement personnel arrested, detained, and deported UMW activists. The gov­ernment additionally sought to use the courts to sentence arrested workers and union leaders to long prison terms. The authorities never seized any representatives of the CF&I. On the contrary, led by the governor, state and business executives insisted that Colorado had to do the bidding of Wall Street. At the most, a few Democratic lawmakers protested Ammons’ actions.
As the costs of the National Guard occupation increasingly drained the state treasury, the governor ordered the withdrawal of all but a couple of companies of the militia. Those remaining were virtually all professional soldiers/goons. They were most unhappy that the workers had survived the winter. On this basis, on Sunday, April 19, 1914, they went out of their way to disrupt festivities in the tent colonies where the strikers were celebrating Greek Easter. The soldiers promised they would be back the next day, especially at Ludlow, a tent colony about half way between Trinidad and Walsenburg, which was the headquar­ters of the workers.
Ready for action, the National Guard arrested and murdered the leader of the Ludlow colony the next day—officially, he was “shot while trying to escape” after the soldiers had bashed in his head with a rifle butt. The troopers then opened fire on the tent village. Prepared for this, the strikers used their few arms to try to fight back by going into the rugged nearby country. Women and children were ordered into underground bunkers if they could not escape the attack. After a day-long skirmish, the workers were out of ammunition by dusk. About this time, the soldiers invaded Ludlow. After looting the village, they poured kerosene on the tents, setting them afire. They then systemati­cally machine-gunned people trying to flee. Only the passage of a freight train between the soldiers and the camp prevented a total bloodbath. Even at that, in the ruins the next day were found the suffocated bodies of two women and 11 children in an underground bunker.
In the wake of the massacre, the workers fought back. Finding any weapons they could, they systematically attacked CF&I properties, dynamiting some of the mines. Neither the National Guard nor the Baldwin-Felts detectives were of any use in defeating the aroused workers and defending CF&I. Seeing this, Governor Ammons called for help to the federal government. Initially, President Woodrow Wilson was reluctant to intervene. Not only had he previously clashed with Ammons whom he considered an incompetent bungler, but the president had recently mobilized the army to invade Mexico to crush that country’s revolution. Reluctantly, Wilson had to cancel that operation to send the troops into Colorado.
The UMW had no desire to fight the United States army. On its arrival, the workers laid down their arms. This assured the defeat of the strike. Now the army, rather than the National Guard/goons protected scabs. Realizing that the walkout had failed, the union called off the strike in December.
This was a month after the Colorado Democrats had lost virtually all their posts in the state government—only CF&I backed candidates won in the state elections. The workers temporarily realized that they had no “friends” in the Democrats. Even so, they mostly continued to back the UMW’s strategy of collaborating with business. Before long, union officials were back in the ranks of the Democrats even as yet more violence killed strikers in the coal mines through the 1920s, including when a Democrat was governor.
At the most, the unions argued that law enforcement had to be a public policy, not something determined in cahoots with anti-union forces such as CF&I. They believed they had finally achieved victory when, with the insurgencies of the New Deal, they finally gained recognition. Before long, they found they repeatedly had to strike to defend and enhance their working and living conditions. Meanwhile, corporate Democrats demanded the “public/private partnership.” None, of course, have bothered to reflect on its ultimate meaning on the centennial of its practice at Ludlow.