America’s dark history of coal

Watching the events unfold around Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch coal mine the last few weeks created an uneasy sense of deja vu. And it had less to do with 29 miners’ bodies below ground than with power plays and corporate hubris above it.

The deadly West Virginia mine explosion came four days after the 100th anniversary of the start of a lengthy Colorado coal strike that eventually led to open guerrilla warfare between miners and the Colorado National Guard. The nadir of that showdown was what came to be called the Ludlow Massacre when, at the end of a daylong gun battle on April 20, 1914, National Guardsmen torched a strikers’ tent colony where 11 children and four mothers were hiding in a large pit beneath the wooden floor of one of the tents. All but two of the mothers perished.

Few people these days have heard of the Ludlow Massacre. Fewer still know about the circumstances in which it occurred. In the face of abject regulatory failure, at least 75 people were killed over a seven-month period during the strike, as several thousand coal miners openly rebelled against a corrupt local political and economic system.

West Virginia has its own history of violent mining confrontations, including the 1921 march on Blair Mountain when 13,000 armed miners faced off against mine guards, local militia and government troops. Sixteen men, most of them miners, were killed before the U.S. government sent in one of its newest weapons — planes — to intimidate the miners into retreating. It worked.

But there had been no defusing the conflict in Colorado, where the mine owners — led by the Rockefellers’ Colorado Fuel & Iron Co. — were so powerful that they effectively created their own laws, stole elections at will and installed mine superintendents to rule small fiefdoms enforced by hired thugs.

As if short-circuiting democracy wasn’t bad enough, the coal operators ignored government safety regulations, considering them an intrusion on their right to make a profit. In the eyes of the Rockefellers’ man in Colorado, Lamont Montgomery Bowers, the miners had a simple choice: Work under the operators’ terms or find another job, safety be damned.

Don Blankenship, who runs Massey Energy, would have fit right in among those Colorado coal barons. Media reports have detailed Blankenship’s efforts to dominate state politics, including trying to stack the state Supreme Court as it was considering cases involving Massey.

Other media reports have detailed widespread safety violations at Massey mines. In one internal memo, Blankenship warned mine managers that they were to ignore any directive “to do anything other than run coal. … This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills.”

Bowers would have been proud.

The Colorado strike began in the northern mines on April 1, 1910. After it faltered, the United Mine Workers expanded the strike in September 1913 to southern Colorado, covering the eastern foothills of the Rockies. Most of the miners’ demands were already required under Colorado law, including that they be paid for “dead work” they had been doing for free — namely, shoring up mine roofs with timbers so they wouldn’t collapse and kill them.

“The companies created a condition which they considered satisfactory to themselves, and ought to be to the workmen, and jammed the workmen into it, and thought they were philanthropists,” Ethelbert B. Stewart, a top investigator for the new Department of Labor, wrote at the time. “That men have rebelled grows out of the fact that they are men.”

The expanded strike was a nasty, brutal affair, and after a series of attacks and murders on both sides, Gov. Elias M. Ammons sent in the National Guard as peacekeepers. At the same time, state budget problems began delaying paychecks, which led many of the Guardsmen to walk away. The hated private mine guards took their places, and the peacekeepers morphed into the miners’ enemy.

Then came the deaths at Ludlow on April 20, 1914. Over the next 10 days, amid a national union “call to arms,” thousands of marauding miners and their supporters went on a rampage of retribution. At least 30 people were killed as the makeshift guerrilla army seized control of 275 miles of the Colorado Front Range.

Unable to stem the insurrection, Ammons sought help from President Woodrow Wilson, who sent in the Army to supplant the National Guard. The miners, with their immediate enemy gone, laid down their arms on May 1, and the fighting was over, with the miners winning the war but losing. It would take another 13 years and the Wobblies to gain union recognition there.

Yet much of the political and economic oppression in the region ended. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, a little revolution wasn’t a bad thing for the miners of Colorado. Let’s hope it doesn’t take the same kind of action to redress the very deep grievances in West Virginia.

Scott Martelle is the author of “Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West.”