Sunday, August 5, 2007

Reviewed: Martelle, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West

"The right to bargain collectively has been enshrined in federal law for decades," Michael O'Donnell writes in a review of a new book in today's San Francisco Chronicle. "But the Ludlow Massacre nevertheless serves as a cautionary tale about unregulated labor markets, not to mention an intense and dramatic moment in American history."

O'Donnell reviews Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West (Rutgers University Press) by Scott Martelle. He writes, in part:

The photograph shows two straight lines of mourners marching over fresh snow, snaking back through the rugged company town toward the mountains. The picture was taken almost 100 years ago, but you can still see the cold: The gray sky moves by hugely overhead, and chimneys blow smoke; the men - they are almost all men - wear hats and slump at the shoulders, and the horses' glistening flanks give off steam. The mourners follow a carriage bearing the body of Louis Tikas, a Greek union organizer who helped lead coal miners on a failed 15-month strike against the Colorado Fuel and Iron Co. in 1913 and 1914. Tikas was captured by company thugs during a gunbattle, disarmed, cracked in the skull with a rifle butt and shot in the back three times....
The Colorado miners had more to avenge than one fallen rabble-rouser. For seven months they had been on strike and in a state of more or less open insurrection. Kicked out of their company homes when they walked off the job, they built a tent colony for themselves and their families. But after months of guerrilla war and shootouts with the Baldwin-Felts detectives hired to protect the mines and the strikebreakers, the miners were rousted from their camp. Company men machine-gunned the tents and then set the place ablaze. Two women and 11 children who had been hiding underneath a tent in a foxhole that doubled as a birthing parlor suffocated as the fire overhead sucked up all the oxygen. Tikas was killed later that day....

More than 75 people died during the coal strike in Colorado (more than half of them company guards), making it one of the most violent episodes in American labor history. Too frequently, events surrounding the Ludlow Massacre have been the subject of one-dimensional folklore rather than serious analysis. Howard Zinn, for instance, wrote admiringly of "the undeterred spirit of rebellion among working people" who rose up against their oppressors and fought hard against the company. To Scott Martelle, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, the miners seemed anything but valiant as they mobbed in their hundreds around a strikebreaker's wife, throwing rocks and screaming imprecations. Or when they assassinated company men at point-blank range....
If Martelle's book, "Blood Passion," refuses to give a free pass to the Ludlow strikers, it is by no means a shill for management. The company hired hundreds of unsavory men who baited the strikers, searched their tents without warrants and tortured prisoners held without charge. Colorado Fuel and Iron was a Rockefeller concern, and the absolute refusal to recognize the union or hold negotiations came from the top.

To continue reading, click here. A review of another recent book on Ludow is noted here, with photos and links.