What Is The Meaning Of Labor Day?
August 31, 2012 By David Glenn Cox
A Historical Reconstruction
It’s cold most mornings in the Rocky Mountains, especially when you are living in a canvas tent with nothing but a cast iron stove for heat. I reckon a fella sort of gets used to those sorts of things, but it’s most a hardship on the wives and the youngins. It all began in September of 1913. Many of us colliers had had enough of Mr. John D. Rockefeller and his C.F & I coal company. The death rate in them mines was seven per thousand, we lived in company housing and had to shop in company stores, cause we was paid in script stead of real money. Weren’t no one to check the weights on the coal we was hauling cept for company men.
We’d had enough. Why in 1913 alone, 110 men got killed in Colorado mines and they left behind 51 widows and 108 orphans. Being paid on the tonnage system made some of the boys reckless with their lives, cause they was desperate for money, cause they had hungry children, but sometimes their recklessness got others hurt as well, I reckon.
We began to listen to the union men, who was telling us how the death rate in union mines was about forty percent lower. They was telling us how the company was breaking the law by not paying us in real money. The boys and me, we didn’t know nothing about such things; most of us couldn’t even read. Even so, we reckoned we had a right to be paid for “dead work.” I mean, if in you ask a man to cut down trees and clear right of way and lay down railroad track he got a right to be paid for it, don’t he?
The company over the years had tried to make things some better for us, with some better housing and a doctor every once and a while. We was uneducated, but we weren’t stupid, they was trying to buy us off, and that don’t feed no widows, nor orphans. So we was stuck, we didn’t have no place to turn. There weren’t no government to speak of, and the law, if you could call em that. Well, they was all company men, they weren’t no copper button blue coat policemen but toughs, just roust abouts with guns, so we was stuck.
The boys decided to throw in with the United Mine Workers of America and it weren’t long before the company hired the Baldwin–Phelps Detective Agency. They was from back East, but we knew who they was, they was strike breakers and when they arrived they begun putting the strikers out of their houses. It was snowing like hell that morning, but they didn’t care nothing bout that. They had writs, don’t even know if they was legal or even what they said, but them detectives they began emptying out our houses stacking our belongings into the street, snowstorm or no snowstorm. The union had leased some land off of the company’s property and we began moving our stuff there. It was located in a small canyon where we could keep an eye on the mine. We was all in it now, but we’d made our demands and we would stick by them.
Recognition of the union as bargaining agent:
An increase in tonnage rates (equivalent to a 10% wage increase)
Enforcement of the eight-hour work day law.
Payment for “dead work” (laying track, timbering, handling impurities, etc.)
Weight-check men elected by the workers (to keep company men honest)
The right to use any store, and choose their boarding houses and doctors.
Strict enforcement of Colorado’s laws (such as mine safety rules, abolition of scrip), and an end to the company guard system.
Course the company rejected our demands out of hand and as soon as the strike began, the company began hiring scabs. Fore long, them detective boys set up searchlights and was shining them down into our camp all night just to make us mad trying to disturb our sleep. That weren’t so bad, but every now and again they’d fire a stray rifle shot into the camp. So the boys began to dig pits under their tents where they could put their women folk and the youngins to protect them from the flying lead. Well, it didn’t take long for them harassment tactics begun to take affect. Some of the boys, well, they was ready for an out and out shooting war, but we talked’em down from it. But just you let us catch a scab by his lonesome, and then, you just wait and see what would happen.
Them union men they had their hands full trying keeping the boys calm. They splained it, we had to follow the law and not let the company goad us into a fight, cause the big city papers back East would paint us as a violent mob disrupting an honest business. Didn’t make no sense to me, but I reckon it was so. They was shooting into our tents where there was women and kids, and didn’t care none, all they cared about was their money and their coal. Them detective boys built themselves an armored car out of a big old sedan car and mounted a machine gun on top of it. It was getting just plain awful when Governor Ammons sent in the National Guard at the end of October, trying to calm things down. At first, it helped a might, but then the Guard just became more cops rousting the strikers and backslapping the company men. It weren’t no surprise really, we’d already been warned bout the general in charge of the Guard.
They said, ole John Chase had been a real hard ass in the Cripple Creek strike ten year ago, but what he done to us was down right criminal. He weren’t no Christian nor honest man. The searchlights and shootings continued in the camp and then on March 10th 1914 the dead body of a scab was found on the railroad tracks near Forbes Colorado.
Well sir, General Chase, he ordered our camp destroyed, he didn’t hold no hearing nor investigation, he just went ahead and ordered the only lodgings for poor and hungry men women and children destroyed, cause one man had died someplace on company property. On April 10th the day after Easter, the National Guard appeared on the rim of the canyon. A lot of the Greeks was attending a funeral for a baby what had died the day before. Then Guardsmen appeared at the camp entrance, claiming we was a holding some fella against his will, but there weren’t no truth to it. Our leader, Louis Tikas asked for a meeting at the Ludlow train depot, less than a mile away with the head of the militia.