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Quite the World, Isn't It?

What I said at Ludlow

It was hot in Ludlow yesterday. Fortunately the United Mine Workers of America, which maintains the memorial site, built a roof over the picnic area a number of years ago. So for the 2 1/2-hour gathering we had shade, and a nice breeze. And more than 100 people.

I saw some familiar faces, and met folks I've come to know through Facebook. The themes of the speeches, as one might suspect, focused on labor, and the benefits of unions, and the continuing assault on the right to collective bargaining.

Among the speakers was Annaliese Bonacquista, the great granddaughter of a 1913-14 Colorado coal striker, who passed along some emotional stories about her family history, and the legacy of Ludlow. The keynote was by Marty Hudson, a key figure in the United Mine Workers, who talked about how the coal barons of the past aren't necessarily gone. His brother was among those underground when the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia blew up last year. The brother narrowly missed joining the 29 men killed that morning (I wrote an op-ed on that theme last April).

I talked a bit about the history of Ludlow, and how it remains relevant today -- even if most people have no idea what happened in Colorado nearly a century ago. My prepared comments are after the jump.

Good morning. Thank you all for coming down here today, and thank you to Bob Butero and the United Mine Workers for again hosting this memorial event, and for working so hard to keep the memory alive. Because people do forget. I’m a writer, as you know. A week or so ago I proposed an essay about this event to an online politically progressive publication, based in Washington, D.C. The editor turned me down, in part, she said, because “this is too unknown an event for an anniversary” article.

Too unknown. Why is that? Twenty-one people were killed here on that Monday morning 97 years ago. A dozen of the dead were children, eleven of them perishing in that pit right over there. The deaths here that day were part of a seven-month-long spasm of violence that killed at least 75 people. It was guerrilla war between workers and the agents of their bosses. It was class war, and all that that phrase entails.

Yet it is “too unknown” for an article in today’s media. Why is that? I have my theories. One is that it happened out here, in the West, while our collective national memory is East Coast-centric. And I say that as someone born in Maine and raised and educated in Western New York. I came pre-programmed with an East Coast bias. But after more than a dozen years living in California I’ve come to recognize that, in a historical sense, the nation tips Eastward. It’s a defensible bias, I think. The United States began in the east, growing out of those famous 13 colonies. And the two westernmost members of the union were admitted within the span of my lifetime (barely). The bulk of our nation’s formative history lies in the east, so that’s where our memory is focused. Our cultural history – well, that’s another matter. National histories are framed around politics and economics, not around people – unless, of course, Howard Zinn wrote it.

But the more significant reason Ludlow is “too unknown,” the reason it has faded from our national consciousness, is because it involved labor. The events here dissolved into guerrilla warfare, but it began as a labor strike. Think about that for a moment. Less than a century ago, more than 75 people were killed here in Colorado because workers wanted to be treated like human beings, and their bosses wanted to treat them like serfs. Neither side would budge over the central issue, the coal miners’ desire to be represented by a union. So they went on strike, the workers’ last resort. And then the violence took over.

My book on the Ludlow Massacre, and my understanding of what happened during the coalfield war, differs a bit from others. The conventional view is that the coal miners were victims of corporate arrogance, of Rockefeller money, and a corrupt state militia. And that’s true to a certain extent. But the coal miners who made their livings back in those canyons weren’t exactly the shy and retiring types. Of the 75 people killed during that strike, 37 were National Guardsmen, mine guards, or scabs. The coal miners themselves lost 19 men in the battles. So these victims of corporate aggression in reality won the shooting war, even if they lost the strike. They stood up against a corrupt political and economic system, and in that regard emulated the nation’s birth in ways that the Tea Party can only pretend to do.

This history still lives on in the lives of the families of the strikers, as we just heard from Annaliese. But it needs to live on in the lives of more people. The first time I visited this spot, seven or eight years ago, I had the place to myself. There was a persistent wind whipping down out of the mountains, and I could hear the grass whisper. It was a little eerie, to be honest, to lift the cover of the hole in the ground over there by the statue. It was chilling to look down where the dead once laid in a suffocated jumble. Two of the four mothers who had sought refuge in that hole survived. One, Alcarita Pedregone, told a reporter a couple of days later about those last minutes for the eleven children. “The tent over us caught fire and blazed up big and the smoke commenced to come down on top of us,” she said. The mothers began to pray as the children squirmed with fear. “Then the bigger children tried to climb up out of the cellar, and they took hold of the burning floor, and their little fingers were burned, and they fell back on top of us.” As the fire raged, it sucked the oxygen from the chamber, and one by one the 15 women and children slipped into unconsciousness. Only two awoke, Pedregone and Mary Petrucci, surrounded by the bodies of their dead children. Disoriented, they crawled out of the death hole into the ashes of what had been their home village. Imagine the shock, and the emotions, of that moment. Your children dead around you. Smoldering ruins where your home and your friends’ homes had been just the day before. Surprised, probably, to find yourself alive.

That moment is still all around us. On my first visit here, I spent some time walking around – most of these displays outlining the history hadn’t been put up yet. I stepped over the fencing at the back here, beyond the parking lot, and walked out onto the prairie. At my feet I noticed little flecks of ceramic, and glass, and wondered – are these the shards of the strikers’ lives? Are these the relics of that violent, yet inspiring past?

Listen to some of the names of the dead from that labor war: Louis Tikas. The Petrucci children. Charles Costa. Frank Bartolotti. Chris Kokich. Luka Vahernik. These were immigrants, or the offspring of immigrants, who came to southern Colorado to pursue a dream, but encountered a nightmare. The strikebreakers, the scabs, were similarly trying to make a living, and some of the dead bear mentioning. Kenneth Ito. Telsugi Hino. Geohei Murakawi. Mosuchi Niwa. These were Japanese laborers who had been enticed to scab, and they died just south of here, at the Forbes camp, during a fiery gun battle a few days after the massacre. Their graves are in Trinidad, in the same cemetery where Louis Tikas is buried. In life, the bosses were able to pit those working men against each other, for the bosses’ gain. That the workers – union and scab alike – lie dead in the same cemetery should tell us something about who bears the costs in these struggles. John D. Rockefeller Jr., I should point out, died in 1960, more than 45 years after the events that transpired here. He’s buried at his family estate along the Hudson River. He paid little for the crimes that were committed in his name.

“Too unknown.” If the 75 people killed here had died in a race riot, the events of the coal field war would have been seared into our national consciousness. If they had died in a terrorist attack, we’d have waged another kind of war in their name. But no, they died fighting over the right to collective bargaining. And so the nation forgets.

I think it’s willful, this forgetting. And that’s a serious problem. I don’t have to tell you about the dire straits in which private sector unions find themselves these days. From the Reagan era on, federal policies and court decisions have nibbled away at the few protections available for labor. Nowadays about one in ten private sector employees belongs to a union. The usual canard is that unions are no longer necessary. Or they’re corrupt. Or they make it hard to do the job because of feather-bedding work rules. That’s all a bunch of crap. It is true that some union leaders have put themselves ahead of their members. Where there’s money, there’s greed, and where there’s greed, well, take a look at the crimes of Wall Street, and match those against the history of the union movement. The worst of the occasional thieves in the union fold are nothing compared to Bernie Madoff, or the invisible hands that led to the housing collapse. Need I remind you of Enron? Lincoln Savings and Loan? And the anti-union folks choose to focus on a few bad apples in the labor barrel – which is as opportunistic as the crimes committed in boardrooms every day.

We’re also to believe that work rules make it hard to do a job with flexibility. No, they make it harder for workers to be killed or maimed on the job. Massey Energy showed us the repercussions of nonunion mines in West Virginia, where corporate hands are drenched in the blood of their miners. Work rules cannot be left to the imagination of the employers. The federal government has shown that it is powerless to enforce its own rules meant to save the lives of working men and women. Unions help fill that void, acting as a watchdog to make sure safety standards are met. To make sure corners aren’t cut. To make sure that staffing levels are sufficient to do the work safely.

It was the fight for these kinds of protections that led to the deaths of the people whose names are carved into that monument over there. In every strike there are surface issues, and here those issues included such things as the right to an honest weighing of the coal the workers dug, and for which they were paid by the ton. But the key issue, the choking point that led to the strike, and that prolonged the strike, was the workers’ demands that they be represented by a union. The demand for collective bargaining.

That has become such a tired phrase, collective bargaining. It’s shorthand. And kind of boring shorthand, at that. It just sounds like meetings and agendas and glacial progress, doesn’t it? But what is it? It is the name for the process that is crucial for working men and women. It is the shorthand for the process under we stand together in our workplaces, and say this is how we want to be treated. This is what we think our labor is worth. There are the conditions under which, Mr. CEO, we will let you use our labor to enrich yourself, and your shareholders. Collective is how we keep corporations from dividing us, and conquering us. And collective bargaining is one of the principals over which working men and women died here 97 years ago.

You all know what collective bargaining brought us. Eight-hour work days. Living wages. Health coverage and retirement plans. Collective bargaining gave us the middle class, and it should be a surprise to no one that the collapse of the modern middle class has come along with the shrinking numbers of union workers. Yet some would have us believe unions are no longer necessary. Ah, the lies people spin. Unions are as necessary today as they were 97 years ago, when the blood seeped into this very ground. As I wrote in the first part of my book, “Coal once was king here, but now emptiness reigns, and it doesn’t take much of a romantic flight to hear the footfalls of the dead.”

But it is the footfalls of the living that we need today. I don’t know about you, but I’m heartened by what we saw in Wisconsin earlier this year. Not the policies and power grab by the corporate governor, but the response of the workers. Nearly a century after the battles here at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, we find ourselves once again with a society severely split between the haves and the have-nots. A piece in the New York Times on Friday said that last year out of nearly seven billion people in the world, 103,000 people controlled more than one-third of the world’s wealth. And that percentage had risen from previous years. North America alone had 40,000 people whose individual net worth exceeded $30 million each. And the gap between the super-rich and average Americans seems to broaden by the hour.

The rich of today – like the Rockefellers of the past – have managed to set a table in which workers are throwing rocks at fellow workers. It’s a classic divide-and-conquer scenario. How many of you have heard people argue that public employee union members SHOULD have their benefits reduced? The line usually is something like, well, my private sector employer makes me pay more for my health coverage. Or my boss makes me pay more for my retirement. So the public employees should pay more, too.

I see the logic in that, the whisper of fair play. When so many of us are struggling, why should our tax dollars go to making lives easier for others? That carries a certain logic. But it’s just a whisper of fair play. An insinuation that does nothing but help corporations profit at the expense of their work force, and of the communities in which they live.

So flip it around. The solution to our problems isn’t to take from workers who still have benefits that keep them from bankruptcy when they’re sick, or from eating cat food when they’re old. The solution is to press private-sector employers to RESTORE the benefits they’ve cut. Bring them up to parity with the public sector. Or to adopt government programs to fill in that void. You don’t rebuild the middle class by forcing more people out of it.

You rebuild the middle class by helping raise workers from low-wages and high co-pays. You rebuild the middle class by adopting policies that protect jobs here, in the United States, not policies that reward corporations for firing American workers only to exploit workers elsewhere in the world. You rebuild the middle class not by fealty to our unofficial national religion, the unfettered free market. You rebuild the middle class by pursuing policies that benefit workers, and communities, before they benefit the corporate overclass.

And you rebuild the middle class by reversing this decades-long national mood of anti-unionism. We need to seize control of our own narrative. We need to encourage workers to fight together, to challenge the political system that works against them, not for them. We need to encourage our unions to work together to challenge this system. And you don’t win those fights in the courthouses. Or, from what we’ve seen, in the halls of Congress. You win them in the streets. Let’s let Wisconsin be the starting point for a new energy in the union movement. And let’s hope that the bloody past that we’re remembering here today doesn’t repeat itself.

Let’s work together to ensure that Ludlow is no longer “too unknown,” and that the people who were killed here did not die in vain.

Thank you.
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