Management Techniques of the Gilded Age

Originally posted by Code of the Wes on 08/10/07

This is my third diary on watershed moments in the history of the American labor movement. Although this diary was started before the mine collapse in Utah and now the one in Indiana as well. I believe the issues raised by this piece may have a direct bearing on both events. At least as far as they both concern labor issues if nothing else.

When the right-wing talks about “free market capitalism” for the most part from what I can tell from what I’ve seen what they really mean is that they want to return to the laissez-faire capitalism of the Gilded Age. I have tried in my last two diaries to show what laissez-faire capitalism actually looks like for those of you who are unfamiliar with it. Those previous diaries were about the Homestead Riot and the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory Fire and why these episodes are fine examples of Gilded Age business practices. There is one that stands out even more in my opinion. That would be the Ludlow Massacre of 1914.

As Howard Zinn wrote in his book A People’s History of the United States:

“….shortly after Woodrow Wilson took office there began in Colorado one of the most bitter and violent struggles between workers and corporate capital in the history of the country.”

“This was the Colorado coal strike that began in September 1913 and culminated in the ‘Ludlow Massacre’ of April 1914.  Eleven thousand miners in southern Colorado … worked for the Colorado Fuel & Iron Corporation, which was owned by the Rockefeller family.  Aroused by the murder of one of their organizers, they went on strike against low pay, dangerous conditions, and feudal domination of their lives in towns completely controlled by the mining companies.  …”

It ended in the murder of 17 people by the Colorado State Militia, 11 of which were children ranging in age from 11 years old to 3 months.

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  In the early 20th century. Working as a coal miner for the Colorado Fuel and Iron Corporation meant that you could look forward to making $1.68 a day for a company that often had twice the fatality rate of any other coal mining operation in the United State. Not only that but you got to shop at the company store since they were the only ones that would take the company script you were paid in. You got to live in overpriced company housing, send your kids to the company school, read at the company censored library. And on Sundays you got to go to church and listen to the ministers bought and paid for by the company. Add to all that brutal suppression of any attempts at unionization which culminated in the murder of union organizer Gerry Lippiat. Is it any wonder they decided to strike in September 1913.

So what were the outrageous demands of these radicals?

“… Recognition of the United Mineworkers of America as the bargaining agent for workers in coal mines throughout Colorado and northern New Mexico, an effective system of checkweighmen in all mines, compensation for digging coal at a ton-rate based on 2,000 pounds, semi-monthly payment of wages in lawful money, the abolition of scrip and the truck system, an end to discrimination against union members, and strict enforcement of state laws pertaining to operators’ obligation in supplying miners with timbers, rails, and other materials in underground working places.”

  By the way if you’re wondering what a checkweighman is. The miners were actually paid on a by the ton basis and the checkweighman was the person who actually weighed the coal. Unfortunately for the miners the checkweighman worked directly for the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company and they weren’t necessarily honest when dealing with the miners.

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As soon as the miners decided to strike, they were promptly evicted from the company housing. They were prepared for this however as they had set up tent cities in several different places in the area. So they took their possessions and moved into the tent cities. One of which blocked the road to the mine in order to keep strikebreakers from getting to the mine, it was not far from a depot by the name of Ludlow. For seven months they endured hunger, cold and the attacks of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. Rockefeller had hired them as strike breakers to destroy the miners’ morale and solidarity. Problem was they couldn’t do it not with rifles or shotguns not even with a machinegun mounted on a makeshift armored car named the “Death Special”.  The Baldwin-Felts men would regularly circle the camp in the “Death Special” and spray it with machine gun fire. Not to mention the occasional random sniping by the strikebreakers. This in turn forced the miners to dig pits inside their tents to protect themselves from the random gunfire. Eventually the governor of Colorado Elias Ammon called out the Colorado State Militia.

  Initially the miners thought that the militia was there to protect them from the Baldwin-Felts men. They met them at the railway depot waving American flags and cheering. But they soon found out their mistake. The Colorado Militia was there on behalf of the CF&I, in fact their wages were being paid for by Mr. Rockefeller.

[The following account from a reporter on the scene was printed in the New York World at the time]

“Then came the killing of Louis Tikas, the Greek leader of the strikers. We saw the militiamen parley outside the tent city, and a few minutes later, Tikas came out to meet them. We watched them talking. Suddenly an officer raised his rifle, gripping the barrel, and felled Tikas with the butt.
Tikas fell face forward. As he lay there we saw the militiamen fall back. Then they aimed their rifles and deliberately fired them into the unconscious man’s body. It was the first murder I had ever seen, for it was a murder and nothing less. Then the miners ran about in the tent colony and women and children scuttled for safety in the [underground] pits which afterwards trapped them.
We watched from our rock shelter while the militia dragged up their machine guns and poured murderous fire into the arroyo from a height by Water Tank Hill about the Ludlow depot. Then came the firing of the tents. . . . The militiamen were thick about the northwest corner of the colony where the fire started and we could see distinctly from our lofty observation place what looked like a blazing torch waved in the midst of militia a few seconds before the general conflagration swept through the place.”

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For ten days after the Ludlow Massacre war broke out between the striking miners, the Baldwin-Felt guards and the Militia. Finally because of a desperate plea from Governor Ammons, President Woodrow Wilson sent in federal troops to put an end to the chaos. The Army arrived as the militia stood down and disarmed both sides of the conflict. Despite President Wilson’s efforts to end the strike, it went on until December 10th, 1914 when the UMWA ran out of money to keep it going.

Aftermath of the Strike

“Immediately after the strike, mass arrests of miners were made.  Of the 408 miners arrested, 332 were indicted for murder, including John Lawson, the main strike leader.  Though most never came to trial, those that did dragged on until 1920.  Of those miners tried, only John Lawson was convicted and he was convicted of murder.  Although all charges against all miners, including Lawson, were subsequently quashed, it took the Colorado Supreme Court to overturn Lawson’s conviction.  The State of Colorado court-martialed 10 officers and 12 enlisted men of the National Guard but found them innocent of wrong-doing with one exception.  Lt. Linderfelt was found guilty of “civil assault” for having struck Louis Tikas over the head with his rifle.  Central to the defense of the Guardsmen was the argument that they were forced to take action because of the “aggressive nature” of the miners. 

A Board of Inquiry appointed by Governor Ammons on April 25 (five days after the Massacre) to investigate the battle at Ludlow heard testimony from witnesses who insisted that strikers started the incident.  Neither strikers nor union leaders were interviewed.  Of the three officers constituting the Board, two are notable.  Major Edward Boughton was Gen. Chase’s right hand man and an attorney for the Cripple Creek mine owners’ association during the 1904 strike in Cripple Creek.  Capt. Philip Van Cise had commanded Company K at Ludlow and after the Massacre had conducted his own investigation, the results of which were immediately suppressed.  In a subsequent secret court of inquiry called by Gov. Ammons’ successor, Gov. Carlson, the court heard testimony that directly implicated Lt. Linderfelt (having given orders to “…shoot the prisoners…”) in the death of Louis Tikas and two other strikers.  Captain Van Cise, an attorney, later was elected President of the Denver Bar Association (1941-42).”

  Is this what corporate America want us to return to? If the actions of President Bush and V.P. Cheney are any indication they do. No bid contracts, prosecutorial immunity to contractors and the gutting of safety and labor laws. Seem to be just a start on the road to a second Gilded Age. What is the remedy to this trend? It’s fairly simple actually unionize. We need to reverse the public apathy and/or hostility to unions fomented by corporate America. Remind people that it was the unions that made it possible to have the standard of living we enjoy today, not the corporations. It’s easy to see that the current stagnation of wages, gutting of pensions and lose of medical plans is directly related to the decline of unions in this country. Collective bargaining is the only counter the working class has against the hostile labor practices of corporations and it’s time for it resurgence.


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