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The striking heroes gunned down 100 years ago

PETER FROST marks the centenary of the most violent strike in the history of the US

The date is April 20 1914. A few flecks of snow fall on the quiet campsite built by striking miners nestled at the entrance to a canyon in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The camp, with its many immigrant miners, is celebrating the Orthodox church’s Easter.

At around 10am a strange visitor creeps into the campsite. It is an armoured car and the six barrels of its Gatling machine gun suddenly break the silence as they pump bullets into the tents.

Other men empty cans of paraffin on to the flimsy dwellings and set them alight. On this day here in the coalfields of southern Colorado, 18 innocent men, women and children died in what became known as the Ludlow massacre.

Coal miners in Colorado and other western states had been trying to win the right to join the union for many years.

By 1913 many had joined the United Mine Workers (UMW) and had started what would be a 14-month strike to increase their wages and the right to belong to a union.

The employers, led by the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company owned by John D Rockefeller Jnr, fought back violently. His father John D Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil, was the richest man in the world.

Capitalists like Rockefeller did all they could to keep wages and conditions for their workers at rock bottom and were perfectly happy to employ and pay local police, the state or National Guard or private armies of thugs and strike-breakers to achieve their obscene profits.

They were happy with a situation that saw their workers not just without a union but also living in company-owned houses and paid in company scrip that could only be spent at the company store with its high company prices.

Thrown out of those company houses at the beginning of the strike, the Colorado miners and their families had set up a tent colony on public property outside the town.

The massacre was a carefully planned, 14-hour attack on that tent colony by Colorado militiamen, coal company guards and other thugs hired as private detectives and strike-breakers.

The Baldwin Felts Detective Agency was a well-known private army that made its money as violent strike-breakers all over the US.

It had been employed to break the strike. It brought an armoured car mounted with a Gatling machine gun — strikers called it the “Death Special.”

This bosses’ army shot and burned to death 18 striking miners and their families. Four women, two of them pregnant, and 11 small children died holding each other in the trenches under the burning tents.

The miners had dug foxholes in the tents so the women and children could avoid the bullets that were randomly shot through the tent colony by company thugs.

Labour historians believe as many as 200 people lost their lives in the terrible strike.

Not one of the bosses or their perpetrators of the slaughter were ever punished, but scores of miners and their leaders were arrested and blacklisted, never able to work in the coal industry again.

The massacre caused protests outside Rockefeller’s New York mansion. Public opinion decided that Rockefeller’s methods were unacceptable. Rockefeller’s spin doctors worked overtime to try to clean up his image, but public outrage led to congressional inquiries and limited new labour legislation.

Woody Guthrie was later inspired to write a song about the incident. It is still sung today on picket lines and at union events.

A monument erected by the United Mine Workers of America stands today in the ghost town outside Ludlow, Colorado, in remembrance of the brave and innocent souls who died for freedom and human dignity a century ago.

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