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Fire in the hole

Blood Passion The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West Scott Martelle Rutgers University Press: 268 pp., $25.95

August 19, 2007|Mark S. Luce | Mark S. Luce lives literature in Kansas City, Mo., where he teaches at the Barstow School. He also teaches at the University of Kansas.

IT'S never been certain who started shooting first in the southern Colorado mining town of Ludlow on April 20, 1914, but by the next morning 20 people were dead, including two women and 12 children.

Quickly named the Ludlow Massacre, it was the most infamous event of the Colorado Coal Strike of 1913-14 and has served as a rallying cry for workers' rights ever since. A bloody symbol of the avarice and ruthlessness of owners, the day has been recounted in song, poems and countless books.

The facts, though, as recounted in the engaging, scrupulously balanced book "Blood Passion," by Scott Martelle, are not so clear-cut. The rogue Colorado National Guard outfit that shot up the strikers' tent city, then torched the tents, was unaware that the women and children were hiding in underground pits beneath the tents' plank floors. They suffocated from the smoke. The guardsmen did execute at least three strikers in chilling fashion immediately after the battle.

The strikers responded with a campaign of aggression against the mining camps, burning several in retaliation as well as killing 23 strikebreakers, mine guards and National Guardsmen in a span of nine days after violence erupted in Ludlow.

The author, a staff writer for The Times, doesn't take sides; instead he pushes for clarity about an incident that drew such heated reaction on both sides that truth "was an early victim." During the course of the labor war, striking miners killed a total of 37 strikebreakers, National Guard troops and mine guards -- nearly double their own losses -- and altered traditional notions of strikers as victims. To be sure, the book doesn't apologize for the mine operators; the striking miners "were fighting for their lives and livelihoods in a tableau established by mine operators, and against an overwhelming system of corporate feudalism in which the U.S. Constitution was trumped by greed and prejudice," Martelle writes.

Viewed through the lenses of class, industrial transformation and nationality, "Blood Passion" turns the worker-versus-owner tale into a character-laden social history with texture, complexity and intelligence. The strike was about more than trying to win a contract and fair wages; it was an ideological and class-based clash in which governmental incompetence, corporate refusal to obey laws, frontier justice by strikers, and bad seeds aplenty came together in a seven-month battle of spin, half-truths and round after round of high-powered ammunition.

Martelle deftly weaves together the history of mining in Colorado, the rise of industrial titans, attempts to organize workers and labor unrest leading up to the strike that began in 1913. The United Mine Workers of America and the coal companies had locked horns before; this time, the union was determined to make its point in Colorado, where mining conditions were as dreadful as they were unsafe. The largest employer, John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s Colorado Fuel & Iron, along with other mining companies, scarcely heeded safety regulations and paid workers in company scrip that could be redeemed only in the camps. Miners weren't paid for down-time work, such as clearing cave-ins, or given fair weighs (vital for men paid per ton of coal each has extracted).

In the two Colorado counties that were flash points for the strike, Las Animas and Huerfano, the companies had complete control of politics and law enforcement, and never hesitated to use every lever of power to ensure that union agitators were dealt with quickly and brutally. Martelle gives us a pair of crooked sheriffs, Jefferson B. Farr (Huerfano County) and James S. Grisham (Las Animas County), who would make Hank Quinlan, Orson Welles' corrupt police captain in the 1958 film "Touch of Evil," seem fair-minded and quaint. The duo presided over their counties with unchecked power, deputizing anyone who hated unions or union men and letting those deputies run roughshod over the rule of law.

The miners were being pushed by outside labor organizers but they also were tired of the treatment they were getting from the mining concerns. They demanded an eight-hour workday, recognition of the union, pay in real dollars, fair weighing of the coal and a 10% pay hike. Indeed, once the strike started, the workers erected tent colonies and made a habit of harassing strikebreakers and stockpiling arms. They were accused of causing accidents at the mines, of beatings and, in one case, ordering a hit on a deputy. Because so many of the strikers were immigrants from southern Europe, bigotry played a part.

"Blood Passion" captures the tension and distrust between the two sides, sometimes reading with the ferocity of a Martin Scorsese movie. There are broad-daylight murders, beatings with canes, bodies left on train tracks and gun butts upside the head. Bullets rip through abdomens, strike a jaw, sever a spinal column. Another "tore off a large piece of [a] boy's skull and brain, killing him instantly."

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