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PETER FROST marks the centenary of the most violent strike in the history of the USA and pays tribute to a real working class hero.

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.

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Other men empty cans of paraffin on to the flimsy dwellings and set them alight. Today here in the coal fields of Southern Colorado 18 innocent men, women and children will die in what will always be 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 fourteen 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, Jr. 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 house 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 USA. They had been employed to break the strike. They 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 randomly were shot through the tent colony by company thugs.

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Labour historians believe as many as two hundred 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 black-listed 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 enquiries 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.

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A monument erected by the United Mine Workers of America (above) 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

 Mary Harris – Mother Jones

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Mother Jones was simply one of the most famous American female labour leader of the nineteenth century. Indeed the term Mother Jones is still a by-word for left-wing opinion in the USA. She played a key part in events at Ludlow.

Mary Harris, fled famine struck Ireland with her family. She became teacher and then a seamstress in Chicago.  In Memphis in 1861 she married George Jones an ironworker. George introduced her to the embryonic American Labour movement.

The couple had four children before the 1867 yellow fever epidemic killed both husband and children.  Mary would wear nothing but black for the rest of her life.

She moved to work in the sewing sweatshops of Chicago but again disaster struck and she lost everything in the great Chicago fire of 1871.

Rather than mourn she plunged herself into Trade Union work joining the Knights of Labor. From now on she dedicated herself to improving life for working people.

The USA had discovered rampant and aggressive capitalism. The greedy few became obscenely rich while more and more Americans, many recent immigrants, found themselves dirt poor with low wages and long hours – if they could find a job at all.

Unemployment stalked the land. Workers had no union rights, no pensions, no health care, working conditions were appalling.

The bosses used private armies, or state militias to stop workers coming together in a union.

Brave organisers like Mother Jones, Joe Hill, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and many more roamed the country spreading confidence and political understanding among the workers involved in strikes and struggles.

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Bear in mind that many of the key working class organisations did not exist at this time. The International Workers of the World, the famous Wobblies would not become a reality until 1905, the Communist Party of the USA not until 1919.

Much earlier, in Pittsburgh during the great railroad strike of 1877 the legend that became Mother Jones was born. Mary demonstrated both her inspirational talent as a speaker as well as well honed organisational skills.

She was part of the strikes that led to the Haymarket riot in Chicago in 1886 – the birth of May Day as a workers’ celebration.

In Birmingham, Alabama, she worked the textile mills of the Deep South, leading an important strike in 1894. She organised a famous march of children to protest about child labour.

Amazingly she found time to pen two important books; The New Right in 1899 and a two-volume Letter of Love and Labor in 1900 and 1901.

Much of her efforts went on organising miners, firstly in the coal fields of West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

She moved about, sometimes employed by the United Mine Workers. She lodged mostly with supporters and lived on food and a little money from grateful supporters.

In 1903, she split from UMW when the right wing national leadership refused to support a strike in the Colorado coal fields.

Mother Jones stayed in the West for the next ten years, organising copper miners in Idaho and Arizona.

In 1913, aged 83 she was sent to jail for 20 years for her part in a violent West Virginia strike. Huge public outrage demanded and won her freedom and Mother Jones headed for Colorado and the Ludlow strike.

After the Ludlow Massacre she led the national crusade to get justice for the victims.  That campaign forced Congress to investigate the Massacre and the strike. Its report, published in 1915 opened the way to child labour laws and an eight-hour working day.

Mary went on to help found the IWW and was a leading Wobbly organiser. She told her own story in the Autobiography of Mother Jones published in 1925.

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Mother Jones died in 1930, she had just celebrated her hundredth birthday although sources vary on her date of birth. She is buried in the Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois, alongside miners murdered in the 1898 Battle of Virden – working class martyrs she always called ‘her boys’.

Mary Harris – Mother Jones will never be forgotten.

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“Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living”.
Mother Jones’s famous battle cry.

Mother Jones was already aged eighty-three when the judge sent her down for twenty years in prison. 

This article first appeared in the Morning Star 19 April 2014. 
 

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