In the 1920s, Colorado was known for its extra-deadly mines. Almost on a monthly basis, some explosion would kill some miners. Conditions were harsh in the mines. Children as young as 9 were working.
Miners were not paid for work deemed as “dead work” or work that did not yield coal. But, the dead work was very important. Since coal was pulled from underneath the mines, if the mines were not properly reinforced, the entire mine would collapse. Many coal towns resembled prisons more than living facilities for families. They were surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Miners were also cheated because they were paid by the weight of the coal they dug and companies would routinely undervalue the coal weight. Colorado miners had also suffered significant pay cuts in the recent years (for those lucky enough to be paid in US dollars).
This is a company scrip coin from Leadville Colorado
The mine in Columbine was located on a town called Serene. Serene had two public buildings: A school and city hall. Everything else in town was owned by the mining company.
The town was filthy and covered with smoke.
After the execution of the anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in August of 1927, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) called for a general strike in protest. Colorado had a violent history and a very pro-management government, IWW was cautious in calling for strikes. However, during the general strike, over 10,000 miners joined in solidarity with Sacco-Vanzetti. This surprised IWW.
Recognizing that the time was ripe for action, IWW organized a conference of miners from each of the Colorado mines to formalize the list of demands:
A daily wage of $7.50
A union-man check the weight of the coal
Recognition of IWW union at each mine in Colorado.
IWW sent these demands to the mining bosses and in order to comply with Colorado law that stated that picketers needed to give management 30 days notice, IWW set a strike date for October if the owners of the mines did not comply.
By November, 12 or the 13 mines in Colorado was shut down and the miners went on strike. One mine in Columbine had not only evicted the miners (making them essentially homeless) but they hired 150 scabs to keep that mine open.
Led by an amazing female organizer Flaming Milka, the mining workers of Colorado marched towards Serene.
They faced death threats! Management already hired “armed guard” and the governor deployed the national guard. While most of the miners were walking with their family, Colorado Fuel and Oil Co was busy hiring their own private mercenaries and the Governor of Colorado decided to send in the national guards. In fact, there were airplanes circling the miners.
It looked like a war zone.
The police ended up turning their machine guns on the miners who sought for higher wages in Columbine in 1927. At least six were killed and many others wounded.
The strike did end in 1928 with most of the miners’ demands met, but it was not without the blood of many peaceful miners. Sadly, this isn’t the only mining massacre in history. It is estimated that between 1900-1927 nearly 12,000 people died for their right to organize and unionize.
The most tragic part is that we have allowed many of these protections to be turned back. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled against unions in Janus, essentially gutting what little protections workers had. Nowadays with the gig economy, it seems we are back where we started. Workers are not paid for important safety measures. Workers are paid very low and get retaliated for unionizing. The most frightening thing is that this time the scabs will be automation.