The Colorado Coalfield War of 1913-1914 was the deadliest strike in American history. Union miners challenged the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company for better conditions and pay in a dispute that ended in a massacre.
Wealthy industrialists controlled the coal mines and railroads of 19th century America. They ruled entire communities who depended on them for employment, appointing their own marshals, teachers, doctors and priests. Private armies maintained order and quashed dissent.
In 1903, industrialist JD Rockefeller acquired the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I), the largest coal firm in the American West. In 1907, Rockefeller gave his CF&I shares to his son, JD Rockefeller Junior, as a birthday gift. The Rockefellers ran the entire company from New York. CF&I was Colorado’s largest employer.
The mining workforce were mainly immigrants from Greece, Mexico Poland and Japan. CF&I deliberately mixed them by ethnicity, so the language barrier mitigated the chance of unionising.
Conditions in the mines were poor. To save costs, CF&I only paid miners for the coal they mined. ‘Dead work’, like track laying and mine maintenance, went unpaid. Miners therefore neglected safety which led to cave-ins and explosions, in addition to diseases like black-lung. CF&I workers died at twice the national average. Explosions killed 167 men in 1910 alone. As the sheriffs assigned the juries and the company assigned the sheriffs, miners could find no recourse in the legal system. Before 1914, only one case in 95 found the company at fault.
The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) mobilised in southern Colorado in 1913. Organised strikes earned miners an eight-hour workday, but the company still refused to recognise the union as the miners’ bargaining representative.
9,000 miners went on strike in September 1903, demanding payment for dead work. CF&I refused to negotiate and expelled the strikers and their families from their homes. The union organised a tent colony, half a mile north of Ludlow, Colorado. News spread across the state, and over the next two days, almost every coal miner in Colorado left their jobs to join the union encampments. The UMWA subsidised strikers with three dollars a day, one for women and fifty cents for children.
CF&I built an armoured, machine gun mounted car dubbed the ‘death special’ to intimidate the tent colonies. The strikers armed themselves in response. As tensions grew, skirmishes and gunfights became more and more common. Mother Jones, an Irish-born union activist, rallied public support and collected donations from across Colorado. Leading the Ludlow colony was 27-year-old Greek immigrant Louis Tikas.
The National Guard deployed in the strike’s sixth month to ease tensions, but the strikers refused to surrender their weapons. A force of 177 national guardsmen and company militia surrounded the Ludlow colony. After an accidental gunshot, the two sides opened fire. Though fewer in number, the national guard were better armed, with Springfield rifles and two machine guns. Five miners, including Tikas, and one guard, were shot dead while 13 women and children suffocated to death as they hid from the gunfire. The tent colony was now a smoking ruin.
Fighting continued for the next ten days, as strikers across southern Colorado sought revenge. The press aroused public outrage against CF&I for the deaths of women and children.
By mid-1914, the coal companies had enough strikebreakers to resume mining. By 1915, the UMWA finally went bankrupt and ended subsidies to its members.
Although the strike failed, the coal company’s response raised public awareness of the working conditions in American coal mines. In response, Congress approved the 1915 Mining Act that laid the foundations for the USA’s eight-hour workday, child labour laws and the New Deal. In 1918, the UMWA erected a monument outside Ludlow to commemorate the strike. By the 1950s ,most of the old mining communities were ghost towns.
Sources: Colorado Encyclopedia, Global Security, Denver Library, Legends of America