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On April 20, 1914, the Colorado National Guard used fire and machine guns to kill at least 20 people in Ludlow, Colorado.
These people must have committed some heinous acts to prompt the Colorado National Guard, right? Their crime? Striking for safer working conditions.
As we celebrate this Labor Day with alcohol, sales and celebrations of America, let’s also take some time to recognize what this holiday is about. Let’s recognize the struggles faced by organized labor to win the important protections we have today and recognize the work that there still is to be done.
Unions and the organized labor movement afforded us the 40-hour workweek, the eight-hour workday, overtime pay, increased workplace safety standards and other essential work-place protections. But these victories were not just handed over. These workplace protections were resisted tooth and nail by business people and politicians and won only through worker solidarity, collective action and yes, bloodshed.
What was life like before organized labor won these rights that we now take for granted?
Pay was incredibly low, with women and children being paid especially low wages. Yes, young children worked; employed from the factories to the mines. Workers generally worked six, rather than five, days per week and could work well over 12 hours per day. Safety regulations were practically nonexistent and rarely enforced where they existed. If someone got sick or injured, there was rarely medical leave or workers’ compensation. Things didn’t just happen to be this way. Historians recognize that “it was dangerous particularly for reasons of economics: owners were under no regulations and did not have a financial reason to protect their workers.”
Unsurprisingly, things didn’t just improve on their own. Neither business owners nor politicians decided to make changes out of the goodness of their hearts. While some reforms were passed by Congress, they were weak and rarely enforced to their full potential. It simply wasn’t in the interest of those with political power who were in the same class as owners of industry, to enact radical, necessary change. The Sherman Antitrust Act – one of the more major reforms on capitalism’s power over trade – was famously used against workers. President Grover Cleveland used this act to squash a railroad strike, calling the protest a “federal crime.” This led him to send in 12,000 federal troops, who not only broke the strike but killed at least a dozen workers. This happened less than a week after he signed the bill to make Labor Day a national holiday.
Now let’s bring it back to Colorado and the Ludlow Massacre.
Colorado was a coal mining state around the turn of the Nineteenth Century, with up to 10% of the workforce working in the industry. Conditions in and around the mines were incredibly dangerous; it wasn’t uncommon for over 100 people to die in the mines each year. And when the workday was through, these miners had very little to show for it. Not only did miners generally live in small homes without indoor plumbing, but they also lived in “company towns” where their bosses had power over not only the workplace but even the workers’ home lives. This could include owning the homes where workers lived as well as owning local businesses. This monopoly kept power strongly distributed towards the bosses and many such towns were built specifically to undermine worker power. And while the specifics have changed, company towns are still with us today.
As Tennessee Ford sings in his lyrics in “Sixteen Tons”:
You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store
With conditions like these, what else could they do but revolt?
In 1913, coal miners across Colorado went on strike to gain representation by the United Mine Workers of America and to force the mining companies to follow state mining laws. The response from the bosses was violent, including the use of the Colorado National Guard. Before Ludlow, injustices included jailing alleged radicals without charges or bonds and assaulting workers, all to keep the mines running for the bosses.
It was the Colorado National Guard that killed not only the striking workers at Ludlow on April 20, but also burned two women and 11 children to death at the miners’ camps. In response to the strikers killing one attacking soldier, they executed strike leader Louis Tikas the next day.
And while Ludlow was a pivotal event, it was not the end. Mineworkers across Colorado armed themselves and attacked mines in an attempt to keep the strike going, leading to many more deaths over the next ten days. By the time the strike was officially called off, dozens of people had been killed.
Nothing was immediately won after Ludlow and the following violence. But this episode of anti-worker attacks entered the public consciousness. No one said that standing up for your rights is always easy.
Nonetheless, the labor movement fought on, benefiting workers across the country.
Today, unions help reduce the gender wage gap, which is still a blight on contemporary American society. Strong unions also make sure that not only the “skilled” workers are paid fairly; they help to reduce the inequality between “skilled” and “unskilled” workers. What’s more, unions also increase wages for non-union workers in the same industry by nearly as much as union wages.
Despite, or perhaps because of, these benefits, there continue to be significant attacks against unions and workers’ rights. “Right to work” laws put more power into the hands of the bosses, which leads not only to lower pay for workers generally but also to more inequality of pay.
With the weakening of workers’ rights and union membership – from roughly 30% of workers in the mid-1900s to roughly 10% now – it’s no surprise that the material condition of workers has remained relatively stagnant, while the material condition of the very upper class has risen dramatically. But we can fight back.
Arguably the most inspiring movement of the last several years has been that of our K-12 teachers, fighting not just for themselves but for their students as well. Over the last year, we’ve seen strikes across the country, leading to better pay and working conditions for one of our most critical professions.
Similarly, graduate workers on campuses across the country – including here in Boulder – are fighting against unjust working conditions, conditions that sometimes require them to go hungry as they teach their undergraduate students. Most even have to pay their employer to even be allowed to teach. Even the Washington Post, owned by labor-opponent Jeff Bezos, recognizes this absurdity. As a labor organizer myself, I say it’s pretty absurd to have to pay to do your job.
We must empower and support organized labor in all workplaces across this country. We must also learn the lessons of collective action and solidarity to better our conditions in domains beyond the workplace.
High school students are taking a stand on global climate change by leading climate strikes across the globe. Closer to home, there was an attempt on this campus to force CU to divest from fossil fuels. This time we may have failed to enact change but now that our president is no longer an oil and gas executive, perhaps we could try again.
Speaking of college presidents: as many of you know, this campus recently led a charge against hiring a “mediocre ideologue,” as well as against the ridiculous process of our Regents. While again we failed, we’ve raised the awareness of the stakes and how the powers that be won’t listen to us just because we ask nicely.
We’ve also fought against the scourge of the contemporary college campus: sexual assault. Last spring saw multiple actions to pressure the university to take cases of sexual assault more seriously – 28% of women and 6% of men are sexually assaulted while students here, according to data from CU. Students have now begun to raise significant awareness about the depth of the problem.
In all of these cases, the powerful can change things, but they never seem to enact meaningful change. We can’t wait around for change, we must make it.
This Labor Day, do more than just take off a day of school and party with your friends. Recognize that, if we want to improve the world, we have to stand together and fight for justice. It won’t be easy, but together we can make the world a more just place. That is the lesson we must take this Labor Day.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Alex Wolf-Root at email@example.com.