In the meantime, The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) had been founded in Ohio and in 1890 began large-scale efforts to organize coal miners in the Rocky Mountains. In 1894, CF&I faced its first strike when workers walked out for four months seeking improvements such as recognition of the union as bargaining agent for coal workers in Colorado and New Mexico, adjustment of the system of weighing coal, accuracy of checkweighmen, semimonthly payment of wages in money, abolition of scrip, and strict enforcement of state laws relating to underground safety. These actions and demands would continue to be a part of miners’ protests throughout the next two decades leading to the Ludlow Massacre.
More strikes would occur in the during the first decade of the 20th century which provided area miners with some concessions from the mining companies. However, the companies refused to recognize the union.
In 1910, to prevent a strike, CF&I agreed to increase wages, abolished scrip, pay its workers on a semi-monthly basis, and adopted an eight-hour workday. However, the company still refused to recognize the union as a method of resolving miners’ grievances.
In August 1913, UMWA officials arrived in Trinidad, Colorado believing that only through acceptance of the union could workers gain improved working conditions and enforcement of existing state laws. In early September, labor activist Mary “Mother” Jones, described as a “militant crusader for the rights of the laboring man” and “an idolized leader of the United Mine Workers of America,” arrived from West Virginia to assist with preparing the miners for a potential walkout.
The union scheduled a convention of miner representatives in Trinidad on September 15, 1913 with many of the same issues of the previous UMWA walkouts, including: recognition of the union as the miners’ bargaining representative; a 10 percent increase in wages on tonnage rates; payment for “dead work” such as timbering in abandoned workings, cleaning passages, and track laying; the right of miners to elect their own checkweighmen; semi-monthly paydays; the right to make purchases at any store, live in any house, and visit any doctor of their choosing; enforcement of existing Colorado mining laws; and an end to the system of mine guards. September 23 was selected as the date miners would walk off their jobs, and the union had already stockpiled necessary provisions for the strike.
However, CF&I President Jesse F. Welborn refused to meet with the union miners and said that any dispute “would be a strike to the finish.” In the end, both sides vowed to hold to their position over the long term, resulting in an industrial dispute that would be one of the most violent and emotional in American labor history.
About 9,000 miners walked off the job, protesting low pay and abysmal working conditions in the coalfields of Colorado. The striking miners were then evicted from the homes in the CF&I company-owned towns. However, the union had predicted this and established a number of tent colonies in the area, the largest of which, housing about 1,200 strikers, was located about ½ mile north of the railroad town of Ludlow. The Ludlow Tent Colony was made up of tents built on wood platforms and furnished with cast iron stoves. The colony was equipped with a telephone line to facilitate communication.
Some people began making their way out of the mining camps on September 21, when wagons, trains, and interurban cars in Trinidad were loaded with families of miners. The Rocky Mountain News reported that thousands of coal miners laid down their tools the following day, and it predicted almost every coal mine in the state would be idle within two days.
Mary Thomas, one of the refugees, reached Ludlow on September 22, before most of the strikers arrived. She found carpenters “working feverishly in the rain” to get things ready for the massive influx of people expected and described the scene the next day as “a beautiful new city of white tents.” On September 23, the mass exodus of miners began, with most of the strikers at Ludlow coming from the CF&I operated properties at Berwind and Tabasco in Berwind Canyon and the Victor-American Fuel Company towns at Hastings and Del Agua.
Pelting rain and snow accompanied the strikers to the tent colony and Don MacGregor, a reporter for the pro-union Denver Express and the only journalist on the scene, described the scene as an “exodus of woe, of a people leaving known fears for new terrors, a hopeless people seeking new hope, a people born to suffering going forth to certain new suffering.”
With all of their personal belongings the miners and their families arrived throughout the day, most of them “soaked to the skin.” In the beginning, there were not enough tents and hundreds of single men without families camped out in the storm during the first night, while others found shelter in the homes of union sympathizers in nearby Ludlow. Piles of furniture were scattered across the prairie. After five days, Ludlow was described as a “white colony of a thousand souls” housed in 200 tents.
The UMWA paid the strikers a stipend of three dollars per week for each miner, one dollar for each woman, and fifty cents for each child. Tents, coal, food, and clothing also were provided by the union, which bought supplies from independent merchants and nearby ranchers. The union later reported it sent between thirty and forty thousand dollars each week to the strike zone.
With little to do during long hours of free time, the strikers volunteered their services to keep the camp functioning, including providing first aid, removing trash, guarding the site, and keeping the public areas of the colony clean. A baseball field was established where games were played in good weather and a large “circus-like” tent was utilized for mass gatherings and entertainment such as concerts, dances, meetings, and church services.
Both sides of the dispute prepared to use arms to defend their interests. The coal operators employed an estimated 300 armed guards to protect their mine properties and guards escorted new and non-striking employees between the railroad stations and the mines. Some of the guards were hired through the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency of New York and West Virginia, which specialized in working on the side of management during strikes. Many of the guards were also were sworn in as deputy sheriffs.
The violence began before the tent colonies were even established. On August 16, union organizer Gerald Lippiatti died in a gunfight with a Baldwin-Felts operative and a company guard, who was subsequently himself killed by union miners. On September 24, the CF&I camp-marshal at the Segundo coke ovens was killed while attempting to make an arrest.
After the tent colonies were established, the mine operators initiated a campaign of harassment against the strikers which took the form of high-powered searchlights playing over the colonies at night. Albert C. Felts designed a vehicle miners christened “the Death Special,” an automobile shipped from Denver that was modified with sides of steel plates fabricated at the CF&I mill in Pueblo. At the top of the car was a specially-designed compartment held two machine guns which periodically sprayed selected colonies with machine-gun fire. As a result, the colonists dug pits beneath their tens to shelter from gunfire.