Blogs > HNN > Robert D. Parmet. Review of Thomas G. Andrews, Killing for Coal: America's Deadliest Labor War (Harvard University Press, 2008)

Mar 31, 2010 5:09 pm

Robert D. Parmet. Review of Thomas G. Andrews, Killing for Coal: America's Deadliest Labor War (Harvard University Press, 2008)

Robert D. Parmet is Professor of History at York College, The City University of New York

The writing of history creates discomfort by retelling and revising our understanding of the past, often recasting heroes and villains and separating fact from fiction. The story of the Colorado coalfield war of 1913-14 is such a case. Told many times, notably by George S. McGovern and Leonard F. Guttridge (1972), Zeese Papanikolas (1982), and Patricia Long (1989), it tells of workers in hopeless conflict with John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, which triumphed with the support of troops of the Colorado National Guard and the U.S. Army. As traditionally interpreted by historians, according to Thomas G. Andrews, working people in quest of “equality, fairness, and justice” can best hope to realize it “not through collective uprisings from below, but rather through the intervention of national unions, the Democratic Party, and the federal government.”

Andrews moves “beyond the standard history of the Colorado coalfield wars.” He expands it into the story “of more than half a century of bitter struggle between capitalists and mineworkers.” However, his book is much more than an account of an epic battle. It is a masterfully written account of the Colorado coal industry, including the centrality of coal to economic development, and the roles played by entrepreneurs as well as workers in developing the industry and the West. He begins by studying a pioneering, visionary entrepreneur, William Jackson Palmer, who asked why coal could not transform Colorado’s economy the way it had Britain’s. Greatly impressed by Britain’s Wigan cotton textile mills, Palmer understood “the new potential that coal could unleash” in America. Railroads, Andrews then emphasizes, transformed coal-mining into a major industry. “Coal-powered railroads changed the way people experienced their world.” Denver had “multiple transcontinental [railroad] lines,” and Pueblo became the “Pittsburgh of the West.”

Even more interesting than the coal were the people who removed it from the ground, and their interactions with what Andrews calls “mine workscapes,” the subterranean worlds in which they worked. Coal miners were highly skilled and sensitive to their surroundings. Toilers in “prodigiously lethal places,” they closely related to all the elements around them, including those that were animate, including rodents and mules. Diminutive alarm systems, rodents even became pets, often serving as lunch companions. Mules were movers of coal. Powerful and stubborn, they had personalities, and could be “infuriating,” but had to be controlled, in good part because they were “rebels with a kick.”

The culture of the colliers also included immigrants. As a “nation of nations,” the U.S. was never more so than in the Colorado coalfields. Though Andrews is not the first author to take notice of their militancy, it is still refreshing when he points out their unity, despite management attempts to divide them on the basis of background and skill, in four strikes between 1884-85 and 1913-14. “By 1890 . . . a mine workforce of remarkable diversity” had come into being, and though inexperienced immigrants, such as “nuevomexicanos” at Engleville, might initially serve as scabs, or strike-breakers, they would quickly learn to withhold labor to defend their own interests.

Andrews also describes the above-ground operatives, the leaders of labor and management. He is critical of both sides, citing the “accommodationist president John Mitchell” of the United Mine Workers of America, who sometimes undercut the militancy of his members, and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., whose indifference to worker grievances was problematic. Andrews describes how the latter, warned in a letter of an impending strike in southern Colorado, regarded that possibility as “irrelevant.” As Andrews writes, Rockefeller, operating out of Lower Broadway in New York City, was “more concerned with financial results than labor relations,” and left problems of labor militancy “to the crotchety LaMont Bowers,” the Rockefeller family’s right-hand man in Colorado. When a strike broke out, it took Rockefeller two weeks to acknowledge it.

What finally resulted was the Ten Days’ War, the aftermath of the destruction by the Colorado National Guard on April 20, 1914 of a tent colony of striking miners and their families. Usually called the “Ludlow Massacre,” it is perhaps best remembered for the deaths of eleven children and two women by asphyxiation in a cellar hideout when the tent above them was set afire, which was followed by an uprising of enraged striking miners. U.S. troops restored order, and management afterward instituted policy changes. However, as Andrews writes, this affair was “the most destructive uprising by American workers since southern slaves had fought for their emancipation during the Civil War.” Buttressed by impressive primary research, and presented on a grand scale, he explains it exceedingly well.

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