Why Labor Day Is Important

By Judy Perry

As we approach this Labor Day, we might pause to reflect upon the currently trending political demonization of unions, especially public employee unions as the ill that almost single-handedly is bankrupting the country.

I am a part-time state university instructor and, as such, am a member of my public employee union.  I thank it every time I buy a parking permit that, due to the collective bargaining process, costs me roughly one-fourth what my students pay; I thank it every semester there is a course for me to teach that must be offered to me instead of a lower-paid and less-experienced contender.

Mostly, though, my union helps to keep alive the rights of the American worker over corporate attempts to union-bust, outsource American jobs to people who don’t pay US taxes, while at the same time embracing their “right” of corporate personhood and purchasing wholesale the democratic elements of this republic.

And so it is this day that I remember my grandfather, a life-long blue collar union member who survived one of the earliest onslaughts of corporate interests against American workers.

John Edgar Perry was my grandfather, born in 1902 in what was then the Oklahoma Territory. His own father had died a few months before his birth, the victim of a virulent influenza epidemic.

My grandfather was also witness to and survivor of what has been described as one of the most brutal attacks on organised labour in North American history, namely, the infamous Ludlow Massacre.

He was 12 years old. He’d been working in the mines from the age of seven.  And this was nothing out of the ordinary. My own boy is ten. I cannot begin to fathom my child working in one of the most dangerous coal mines in the country, much less his possibly being mowed down by a Gatling gun by the Colorado National Guard at the mine owner’s request. But my grandfather witnessed that and more.

Child coal miners in 1908

The Ludlow, Colorado, site was home to the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Corporation. Workers there earned $1.68 per day. However this was issued in scrip, not cash; scrip could only be spent at the company’s supply store which charged considerably more for items than did regular merchants. Fatalities in Colorado’s mines at the time have been estimated as being between two to three times higher than the national average. Living conditions were abominable and morale low:

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?

Another day older and deeper in debt.

Saint Peter, don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go

I owe my soul to the company store.

If you see me comin’, better step aside

A lotta men didn’t, a lotta men died

One fist of iron, the other of steel

If the right one don’t a-get you

Then the left one will

–Lyrics from “Sixteen Tons”.

[Johnny Cash singing 16 Tons interspersed with video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tfp2O9ADwGk]

Unionizing attempts led to the 14-month long Colorado Coal Strike as the Ludlow miners, adults and children alike, sought to unionize. The result? They were evicted from the company-owned housing they were forced to rent. In winter. Men, women, and children, including infants. They were forced to erect tent cities in which to live for the winter. Financed by the Union. BTW, Colorado gets fairly cold in the winter.

As Mother Jones noted,

No one listened. No one cared… Men in the steam heated luxury of Broadway offices could not feel the stinging cold of Colorado hill-sides where families lived in tents. Then came Ludlow and the nation heard. Little children roasted alive make a front page story. Dying by inches of starvation and exposure does not. On the 19th of April, 1914, machine guns, used on the strikers… were placed in position above the tent colony of Ludlow… Immediately the machine guns began spraying the flimsy tent colony, the only home the wretched families of the miners had, riddling it with bullets. Like iron rain, bullets upon men, women and children.

My grandfather never liked to talk about his youth. His mother remarried, to a “scab” or union breaker who crossed strike lines to the detriment of workers like my adolescent grandfather, who ended up being the chief wage earner of his now larger family of his mother, his full sister Vera, and, by 1922, nine half-siblings . He never finished school. He worked in the mines and hunted so that his family wouldn’t starve to death.  At my grandmother’s funeral, several church members spoke of deer meat mysteriously appearing on their doorsteps, deer meat my grandfather gave them during times of hardship. Memories of “The Company Store” and useless scrip likely contributed to his refusal until nearly the end of his life to place his money in a bank.  To the end of his very long life, he slept with a loaded gun by his bedside.

I only recall his telling the Ludlow Massacre story once; my father was fortunate enough to get it on tape. My grandfather said that the workers knew the massacre was coming and that, despite the fact that my 12 year old grandfather was a striking mine worker himself, the older miners sent him with most of the women and older children up to a grainary or mill removed from the strike zone. It was from that vantage point that he witnessed the ensuing slaughter: (memorialized by Woody Guthrie):

It was early springtime when the strike was on,

They drove us miners out of doors,

Out from the houses that the Company owned,

We moved into tents up at old Ludlow.

I was worried bad about my children,

Soldiers guarding the railroad bridge,

Every once in a while a bullet would fly,

Kick up gravel under my feet.

We were so afraid you would kill our children,

We dug us a cave that was seven foot deep,

Carried our young ones and pregnant women

Down inside the cave to sleep.

That very night your soldiers waited,

Until all us miners were asleep,

You snuck around our little tent town,

Soaked our tents with your kerosene.

You struck a match and in the blaze that started,

You pulled the triggers of your gatling guns,

I made a run for the children but the fire wall stopped me

Thirteen children died from your guns.

I carried my blanket to a wire fence corner,

Watched the fire till the blaze died down,

I helped some people drag their belongings,

While your bullets killed us all around.

I never will forget the look on the faces

Of the men and women that awful day,

When we stood around to preach their funerals,

And lay the corpses of the dead away.

We told the Colorado Governor to call the President,

Tell him to call off his National Guard,

But the National Guard belonged to the Governor,

So he didn’t try so very hard.

Our women from Trinidad they hauled some potatoes,

Up to Walsenburg in a little cart,

They sold their potatoes and brought some guns back,

And they put a gun in every hand.

The state soldiers jumped us in a wire fence corners,

They did not know we had these guns,

And the Red-neck Miners mowed down these troopers,

You should have seen those poor boys run.


We took some cement and walled that cave up,

Where you killed these thirteen children inside,

I said, “God bless the Mine Workers’ Union”

And then I hung my head and cried.

[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XDd64suDz1A; a Guthrie recording accompanied by related period photographs]

The next day, the New York Times (4-21-1914) reported:

The Ludlow camp is a mass of charred debris, and buried beneath it is a story of horror imparalleled [sic] in the history of industrial warfare. In the holes which had been dug for their protection against the rifles’ fire the flames swept over them. One pit, uncovered [the day after the massacre] disclosed the bodies of ten children and two women.

One of the women was pregnant. She died. The Union cemented in their bodies and erected a statue to their memories that, if you are to visit Ludlow, you’d have a hard time finding.  Rockefeller and the industry continued on, remorseless. My grandfather watched it all happen. And he survived to tell the tale.

It is a tale that we MUST remember and must retell every Labour Day.  We are not as removed from this sort of corporate abuse as the politicos would like for us to believe.  We’ve simply outsourced the abusive working conditions to countries like India and China to which we’ve also outsourced American jobs.  We abuse our migrant workers, who, like Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, die as pregnant women in the fields of heatstroke after being denied access to water and shade.   We use semi-indentured servitude sold as “jobs training for the unemployed” to provide free labour for big businesses.  Software titans like Bill Gates continue to issue vague threats to pull their companies out of the US if the federal government refuses to increase the number of H-1B visas that allow them to use lower-paid foreign programmers than the body of US programmers qualified for those jobs.

For these and many other reasons, today I remember my grandfather.