In September 1913, workers in one of the United States’ most lucrative industries decided they were getting a raw deal and voted to strike. Most of the strikers were immigrants from the Greek island of Crete and their leader was a man named Louis Tikas.
The conditions for the workers, most of whom spoke no English, were atrocious and and their American corporate bosses took advantage of them on a regular basis. Tikas and his strikers demonstrated against the horrid conditions.
Colorado had one of the worst mining death rates in the country but only two mine inspectors. About 3,000 workers were killed between 1880 and 1910 mining the coal that fed railroads and heated people’s homes.
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 and a complete ban on child labor.
The Colorado Fuel and Iron Co. responded by evicting more than 1,000 strikers and their families from company housing near the mines.
They set up a make-shift camp just outside the gates of the company. Within weeks a tent-city had been created as other workers joined the strikers, in protest against the Rockefeller-owned company.
An entire winter would pass with the strikers holding out— living in tents with nothing but the hand-made fires to keep them warm from the brutal Colorado winter. They armed themselves to protect their families from roaming gangs of brutes that were sent into the tent colony by the company bosses to harass and intimidate the strikers.
As the striking miners and their families celebrated Greek Orthodox Easter Sunday in April 1914, the governor of the state of Colorado sent in the state militia and planted them in the hills surrounding the Ludlow tent city — at the request of the company bosses.
On April 20, 1914, the day after Easter, violence erupted. No one knows who fired the first shot at Ludlow but violent machine gun fire began to rip indiscriminately through the camp from the militia, sending the camp into chaos. The miners fought back but were eventually overpowered.
Witnesses recalled bullets flying wildly. Women and children took refuge in bunkers that the strikers had dug under their tents.
Tikas, who throughout the day was seen helping women, children and the wounded, was captured by the American militia. He was found shot in the back three times and his body was left unburied for several days. The battle ended only with the arrival of federal troops and a complete burning of the camp.
At least 20 people died at Ludlow that night, more perished in violence fueled by revenge in the 10 days that followed. The events — largely unknown and not taught in most American schools, are known as the Ludlow Massacre.
The scorn of the nation was heaped on Rockefeller and his son. As a result of these miners’ strike and Tikas’ sacrifice of his own life, John D. Rockefeller, Jr was forced to accept reforms and better conditions for workers.
A U.S. Federal Commission on Industrial Relations conducted hearings in Washington DC and a subsequent 1,200 page report led to the implementation of many reforms sought by the unions, including the establishment of a national eight-hour work day and a ban on child labor. The Ludlow Massacre evolved into a national rallying cry for labor reform and eventually helped lead to New Deal labor laws.
Historian Howard Zinn called Louis Tikas’ murder the “culminating act of perhaps the most violent struggle between corporate power and laboring men in American history.”
Tikas, who only a few years earlier had become a naturalized American citizen, was laid to rest on April 27, 1914, in a funeral attended by hundreds of his fellow miners in a procession that was miles long. He is buried in an unassuming grave in Colorado.
A DVD was produced called “Palikari: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre” to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Ludlow Massacre.
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