In September 1913, workers— including thousands of Greek immigrants— in one of America’s most lucrative industries decided they weren’t being treated humanely by their bosses.
About 11,000 miners in southern Colorado went on strike against the powerful Colorado Fuel & Iron Corporation (CF&I) to protest low pay, dangerous working conditions, and the company’s autocratic dominance over the workers’ lives. The CF&I, which was owned by the Rockefeller family and Standard Oil, responded to the strike by immediately evicting the miners and their families from company-owned shacks.
With help from the United Mine Workers, the miners moved with their families to canvas tent colonies scattered around the nearby hills and continued to strike.
The first families began moving into the tent colony on September 23-24, 1913.
Times were different then. Instead of picket signs, strikers carried pistols. Most were armed as conditions and safety in the brutal mining towns meant they had to protect themselves and their families. Furthermore, most of the men hailed from parts of Greece— Crete and the Mani in the southern Peloponnese, known for their lawlessness and love for weapons.
The work stoppage would result in the most violent chapter in the bloody history of American labor relations — the Ludlow Massacre.
One of leaders of this band was a young Greek immigrant from Crete named Louis Tikas. Three years earlier, when he was 24, Tikas was part owner of a Denver coffee shop. He left that life behind when he was recruited as a replacement worker, a scab, during one of the many coal strikes plaguing the region.
By 1913, he had switched to the labor side, seeing for himself the conditions imposed on his fellow workers, many of whom were his countrymen from Greece.
The United Mine Workers Association, the union that had been active in Colorado since 1900, made seven demands, aimed at correcting deplorable working and living conditions.
Safety standards were barbaric — a miner was twice as likely to die in Colorado as anywhere else in the country. With 12-hour days the norm, a key union demand was a reduction to no more than eight hours.
Still, despite the grueling schedules, the coal diggers could barely scrape by. “Dead work,” the term for those essential tasks that kept the mines from collapsing, such as shoring up walls, was unpaid. Miners got cash for coal, and coal alone.
Even worse, the men who controlled the scales, company employees, frequently cheated the miners. And back “home” in company-owned towns where miners and their families were forced to live, the companies charged high rents on squalid conditions and forced employees to buy from company-owned general stores.
What little money these workers collected— not even in U.S. dollars but in what was called “company scrip”, which came to about $3.50 a day, was whittled down by a third for blasting powder and other supplies, which miners were required to buy on their own.
Company-hired thugs kept watch to make sure the miners followed company rules.
When the evictions failed to end the strike, the Rockefeller family hired private detectives and thugs that periodically attacked the tent colonies with rifles and Gatling guns.
The miners fought back, and several were killed throughout the course of the 14-month long strike.
During the strike, management hired more thugs to terrorize the tent cities and brought in strikebreakers— many from the same regions of Greece where the strikers hailed from— who waged a campaign of terror, murder, and visits by a unique automobile known as the Death Special. This was an armored car, outfitted with two machine guns that would randomly spray bullets at the tents in the middle of the night.
When the tenacity of the strikers became apparent, the Rockefellers approached the governor of Colorado, who authorized the use of the National Guard. The Rockefellers agreed to pay their wages.
By the Spring of 1914, two National Guard companies had surrounded the tent colony. Lieutenant Karl Linderfelt, known for his brutality, was in charge of the U.S. government troops at Ludlow.
On April 20, 1914, the day after Greek Orthodox Easter Sunday, violence erupted. A woman had contacted the National Guard, insisting that her husband was being held captive at Ludlow. Linderfelt dispatched soldiers to check it out.
Tikas, who had been the liaison between company interests and the strikers, said that the missing husband was not there. Linderfelt returned with reinforcements and a machine gun.
It’s unclear who took the first shot. Witnesses later recalled hearing three blasts of explosives and then bullets flying wildly. Women and children fled the camp or took refuge in bunkers that the strikers had dug under their tents.
That strategy turned tragic when fire broke out. No one can say for sure exactly how it started, but some witnesses said they saw soldiers with torches. Soon the entire colony was ablaze. Two women and 11 children who had been hiding underground perished in the flames, dying in what has become known forever as the Death Pit.
Linderfelt and his men stormed into the inferno and captured Tikas. The story Linderfelt told was that he was forced to shoot Tikas because he tried to flee. Witnesses told a different tale, that Linderfelt took his rifle and whacked Tikas over the head with such force it broke the gunstock and left a wound that exposed the victim’s skull. Then he ordered other soldiers to shoot him.
At least 20 people died at Ludlow that night, more perished in violence fueled by revenge in the 10 days that followed.
Still, the strike continued until December, when the exhausted miners gave up.
The Ludlow tragedy is mostly forgotten today, but its impact is felt throughout the world. John D. Rockefeller Jr., was subjected to such condemnation that he turned to Ivy Ledbetter Lee — a newsman turned expert in the infant field of public relations — to improve his image, thus giving birth to the modern era of spin.
And, for workers’ rights, Ludlow put labor struggles in sharp focus, and is a key reason why Americans now enjoy an eight-hour day.
Tikes was a hero to the miners. Thousands turned out for his funeral— in a single file procession that was said to be “several miles long.”
An award-winning documentary called “Palikari: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre” was produced to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Ludlow Massacre. Purchase a DVD here.
Several books have been written on the topic, the most comprehensive being Buried Unsung: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre by Zeese Papanikolas.