- Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War
On April 20, 1914, unionist forces engaged in a day-long gun battle with the militia in the coalfields of Colorado. The site was a tent colony in Ludlow occupied by strikers who had been evicted from their company homes. Late in the afternoon, a fire of unknown origin swept the tent colony. When the smoke cleared, eighteen strikers were found dead, including two women and eleven children in a pit dug beneath a tent as shelter from the bullets. The incident, which rapidly became known as the Ludlow Massacre, was the pivotal event in what became the Ten Days’ War, as unionists fought back with a ferocity that resulted in more than thirty deaths and the intervention of the U.S. Army.
Thomas G. Andrews uses this conflict as the starting point for Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War, winner of the Bancroft Prize as well as five other prestigious awards. In this book, Andrews marries environmental history with labor and industrial history, arguing that an event such as the Ludlow Massacre—its highly charged nomenclature indicating its partisan narrative—calls for a much broader context than this one tragic event has received. Accordingly, he places this coalfield conflict in a broad environmental history in which the nation’s desire for fossil fuels is as culpable as the Rockefeller interests that controlled the largest coal company. In his account, Andrews discusses overarching environmental and industrial forces, synthesizing them into a compelling yet somewhat detached narrative.
Andrews begins with the gun battle of April 20, examines its one-sided reputation in leftist lore (i.e., “massacre”), and then introduces the reader to the rest of the story—the subsequent carnage of the Ten Days’ War. Rather than parse the rights and wrongs of this polarizing conflict, though, Andrews spends the first six chapters of his book developing the environmental, labor, and corporate-paternalism stories. Only in the last and seventh chapter does he return to the strike of 1913–14.
The environmental story is wrapped up in the importance of coal for industrializing America. Although railroads are often identified as the force that opened up and developed the nation, Andrews points out that it was coal that not only fueled railroad engines but also provided energy to fabricate the thousands of miles of rails. Coal was also used to mine coal itself, powering the steam engines necessary for fans, hoists, pumps, and hauling. More significantly, coal shaped urban growth, making electricity and streetcar lines possible, fueling industry and [End Page 117] smelters, helping produce brick and steel for buildings, and, not incidentally, casting a thick pall of pollution over the landscape. Coal also affected rural areas, providing energy for the railroads that took produce to market, mills that processed grain, and elevators that stored and moved the grain.
The labor story is connected to the nature of the work. Andrews devotes a chapter to the working conditions of the coal miners, especially underground. He introduces the term “workscape” to analyze the relationship between workers and the natural world—as it is changed by them and as it changes them (125). The workscape is particularly important in understanding the inherent danger in coal mining, from falling coal to explosions, noxious air, and fire. On average, about sixty men died each year in the Colorado coalfields, which employed about 15,000 in the early twentieth century. Another significant aspect of coal mining was the basic independence that colliers had because they worked for tonnage rates, not wages, and on their own schedule, not by the clock. This control of their workspace underground combined with the omnipresence of danger on the job, helping fuel the desire for an autonomous union.
In November 1913 Governor Elias Ammons brought representatives of the three big coal companies together with three union representatives in a private meeting. Andrews devotes several pages to this pivotal session, in...