Ludlow, Greek Americans in the Colorado Coal War

“A film that highlights through rare archival material, an unknown facet in the history of the American labour movement, with focus on the role of the Greek immigrants”.

To arrange screenings, contact the producers at ApostolisBerdebes@gmail.comLUDLOW_English_A3.indd

 

The documentary narrates the story of Greek immigrants at the beginning of the last century, who ended up in distant Colorado working under deplorable conditions in the coal mines of Rockefeller and his fellow mine owners, and who together with immigrants from 22 other countries wrote a proud page of American labor history, known as the Colorado Coal War.

Press Release 3.3.2016

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HOW THE GREEKS AND OTHER SOUTHEASTERN EUROPEANS WERE BROUGHT TO COLORADO

Indenture Certificate, 1738

Indenture Certificate, 1738

We heard the term indentured servitude from Judge Chris Melonakis, when he talked to us about the system of injustices faced by the miners in the early 1900’s. The term is not well known in Greece and we had a difficult time finding its translation. We finally found a good interpretation in a translator’s forum where the term had raised much discussion.

In Wikipedia, we read that “Indentured servitude was a labor system in which people paid for their passage to the New World by working for an employer for a fixed term of years… It was a way for the poor in Britain and the German states to obtain passage to the American colonies. … unlike slaves, they were guaranteed to be eventually released from bondage. ” … read more

A similar method was used to bring workers to Colorado from Southeastern Europe.

After a big strike in 1903, the Coal Companies decided that, in order to avoid strikes and reduce labor cost, they should alter the makeup of their English speaking work force by hiring non-English speaking cheap labor. They sent their agents to find and enlist good candidates, strong healthy young men, from the poorer countries of Southeastern Europe but also from the large port cities of the East, such as NYC, where new immigrants looking for work were abundant. Their passage was paid and they were promised good work and a home, but what they found at their destination were conditions that can only be described as bondage.

 


HOW THE GAME WAS STACKED AGAINST THE MINERS

Τα σπίτια της εταιρείας

Company homes

What they found at their destination was a miserable hut, in a guarded camp called "company town" and dangerous, hard work in the mines with which they would repay their debt and be free to leave. Their debt, however grew continuously ...

Εταιρικό κατάστημα, το διαβόητο Company Store

The infamous Company Store

From day one, they had to buy on credit from the company store their overpriced work supplies - pickaxes, shovels, hats, lights, ropes, even dynamite for the blastings - but also food and wood or coal for the stove in their hut. And of course, there was always the rent.

Απλήρωτη εργασία - υλοτομία

Unpaid "dead" work - timbering

In order to get paid, the miner had to deliver a ton of coal. All the work that went into the preparation for mining coal, such as timbering for the support of mine roof and walls, was considered "dead" work, and was not paid.

Μεταφορά άνθρακα με τα μουλάρια

Transporting coal with mules

Furthermore, they had to clear the work area from stones and often water, lay the tracks for the coal wagon, load the coal on mules or the wagons, and carry it to the tipple to be weighed. All this was "dead" work.

Ζύγισμα φορτίου άνθρακα

The check weighman at the tipple

A different set of problems faced them at the tipple. The weighing scales were fixed to register only a percentage of the coal delivered. Their coal was sometimes accused of having stones and impurities and their load was rejected. Often at the end of the month, the miner saw on his pay slip the detested "snake", the symbol tilde ( ~ ) used by company employees to indicate no earnings.

fifty cent scrip
five cent scrip

More importantly, when they had earnings, they were paid in scrip, company issued money which could be used only in the company store. The use of scrip sealed their bondage.


THE COLORADO COAL WAR OF 1913-14 IN A FEW WORDS

Η Μάχη του Virden, Ιλλινόις, 1898

The Battle of Virden, Illinois, 1898

The Coal Wars refer to a series of armed labor conflicts in the United States, roughly between 1890 and 1930. Although they occurred mainly in the East, particularly in Appalachia, there was a significant amount of violence in Colorado after the turn of the century. The Coal Wars were the result of economic exploitation of workers during a period of social transformation in the coalfields.


Ένοπλοι απεργοί στον Πόλεμο των 10 Ημερών

Armed strikers during the Ten Day War

The Colorado Coal War of 1913-14 refers collectively to three important events, the Ludlow Strike (September 1913 - December 1914), the Ludlow Massacre (April 20, 1914), and the Ten Day War (April 22 - early May 1914).

Γελοιογραφία της εποχής με τίτλο “Η γνωστή ιστορία”

Period cartoon titled “The same old line up”

The two sides in the conflict were on the one hand the miners union, United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and on the other the coalition of several coal companies led by Rockefeller, with the National Guard.

pin-umwa-8-hour

The coal companies, in order to thwart the unionization of their work force, had hired workers from 22 countries, speaking as many mother tongues and no English. The Union, however, found a solution: they hired bilingual organizers from every ethnicity present in the mines. They became the channels of communication between the union and the workers. For the Greek miners, that role was played by Louis Tikas (Elias Spandidakis) from Crete.

20ο Συνέδριο UMWA 1909

20th UMWA Annual Convention, 1909

It took ten years from the previous strike of 1903, for the miners to organize again into a union. In the fall of 1913 the UMWA presented seven demands to the coal companies:
1. Recognition of the union as bargaining agent
2. Enforcement of the eight-hour work day law
3. Compensation for digging coal at a ton-rate based on 2,000 pounds (Previous ton-rates were of long-tons of 2,200 pounds)
4. Payment for "dead work" (laying track, timbering, handling impurities, etc.)
5. Weight-checkmen elected by the workers (to keep company weightmen honest)
6. The right to use any store, and choose their boarding houses and doctors
7. Strict enforcement of Colorado's laws (such as mine safety rules, abolition of scrip), and an end to the company guard system
The coal companies refused to negotiate with the union and the miners had no other option but to strike. The strike began on September 23rd 1913.
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Tent city near Walsenburg

Tent city near Walsenburg

Company guards forced strikers families out of their homes. Ten thousand people left the company towns in the canyons and came out in the open planes, where the union, anticipating the strike, had built eight "tent colonies" with thousands of tents.

Strikers in the tent city of  Ludlow

Strikers in the tent city of Ludlow

One of them was Ludlow, with 1200 residents, among them many Greeks, mostly Cretans. With them, was Louis Tikas, who during the strike emerged as a capable and popular union representative and soon became the leader of the tent city. Everyone knew him as Louis, the Greek.

Το Ludlow, κατεστραμμένο

Ludlow, after the Massacre

The Ludlow strike was violent from the start. The companies had the upper hand in terms of arms and military power, but the miners, who were resourceful and brave, were able to strike some blows, mainly to the despised company thugs.
The violence of the coal companies culminated in the Ludlow Massacre, on April 20th, 1914, when the National Guard summarily executed Louis Tikas and two other union organizers and set fire to the tents of Ludlow, resulting in the death by suffocation of two mothers with eleven children who had taken refuge under a tent.


Η κηδεια του Λούι Τίκα

The funeral of Louis Tikas

Public opinion in America was shocked by the Massacre. The miners gained everyone's sympathy and Rockefeller faced public outcry for his relentlessness. Everyone thought he was responsible for the deaths.
In Ludlow, however, the miners anger over the deaths could not subside. As soon as the Massacre victims were buried, the Union issued a Call to Arms, the strikers responded and the Ten Day War begun.


Camp Beshoar - Στρατιωτικο αρχηγείο απεργών

Camp Beshoar - military headquarters of strikers

Within a few days, the union army, mostly Italian and Greek miners using guerilla tactics, forced the National Guard out and took military control of Southern Colorado. The government of the United States had to send the Federal Army to restore Governor Ammons' control of his own state.

Ανθρακωρύχοι με κρητική ενδυμασία σε αναμνηστική φωτογραφία

Miners from Crete in traditional outfits

In the Ten Day War, the contribution of Greek miners was significant. The Greeks, mostly Cretans, knew how to use arms and were trained in guerilla warfare from their struggles against the Ottomans. In the Denver Post of 4/28/1914, we read that "The Greeks are the bone and sinew of the strike [army]" and "the 500 Greeks don't know fear and have nothing in life to lose". Jim Peros, son of Jim Perakis who fought in Ludlow, tells us that "many lives were saved because the Greeks were armed". And it is true that in the Ten Day War, the miners side did not suffer any losses where the other side had more than 30 dead. Τhe strikers' objective was to hurt the companies by stopping coal production and to that end they destroyed company buildings and blew up mine entrances. There, they often found resistance by company guards and scabs and in the ensuing battles the military superiority of the strikers is indisputable.

This film was produced by  Apostolis Berdebes Non Profit Company

contact us at apostolisberdebes@gmail.com