Friday, April 18, 2014

100th Anniversary of the Ludlow Massacre: Teaching Workers' Rights

This Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the Ludlow Massacre. Although this event should be an essential component of any U.S. history unit on industrialism, it is rarely taught in schools. Moreover, the 100th anniversary has not been widely covered in the mainstream media (although the Nation did recently run this excellent article).

The Ludlow Massacre showcases the poor conditions for workers at the turn of the 20th century and the importance of workers unions. John D. Rockefeller's Colorado Fuel and Iron had a major mine in Ludlow, Colorado. The ethnically diverse miners (mining rules were posted in 27 languages) and their families lived in a company town and survived on items purchased at the company stores, housing provided by the company, and medical attention from company doctors. Their lives were controlled almost completely by their employers and they lived in a state of wage slavery. Additionally, work conditions were extremely dangerous. Across the country, over 3,000 mine workers were killed in accidents between 1880 and 1910. Compounding these dangers, Colorado had only two mine inspectors

Yet, mining was a very profitable business for the owners. As such, owners had no interest in losing profit for the increased benefit and welfare of their employees. For instance, Rockefeller was worth $900 million in 1913 (Coincidentally, in that same year, he used $100 million of his wealth to create the Rockefeller Foundation for the "well-being of people throughout the world").

In September 1913, the Ludlow mine workers went on strike. They demanded the right to form a union, an 8 hour day, and an hourly wage. The striking workers and their families were forced from their homes and subsequently formed a tent city outside the mines. Labor activist Mother Jones even visited striking workers to support their cause and was jailed. To continue operations, Rockefeller brought in replacement workers or scabs. Families were dramatically strained. After months of striking, tensions were high. Rockefeller claimed the strike was illegal and the workers had no right to their jobs. If the strikers used violence, the governor Elias Ammons might have the authority to clear the camp.

The historical record is unclear who fired first, but on April 20th, 1914, shots were fired between the armed soldiers and strikers. Initially, eight people were killed (five strikers, a child, a bystander, and a soldier). The Colorado National Guard used machine guns to fire on the tent city for almost 14 hours and they eventually burned the camp. As a result, 2 women and 11 children hiding were burned to death in the fire. By the end of violence, 26 people were dead. In response, miners attacked nearby coal company facilities. Woodrow Wilson would later send in the U.S. Army to protect the coalfields. Although the strike would continue into the fall of 1914, lack of funds weakened the strike.

The aftermath included more calls from Progressives to reform labor laws. With the outbreak of World War I (and the U.S. entrance into the war in 1917), the important workers rights legacy of the Ludlow Massacre faded. However, it can even be argued that the Ludlow Massacre would later influence the New Deal policies of the Depression.

In teaching this event to students, I would suggest the following as the inquiry question: Was the Colorado National Guard and Rockefeller Company justified in breaking up the Ludlow Strike? 

I have created this inquiry-based lesson plan for teachers interested in teaching the Ludlow Massacre:


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