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Getting the shaft; today's miners battle the same enemy their grandfathers did - the press release.

Getting the Shaft

Here's a quick current-events quiz: Recently the United Mine Workers (UMW) signed a contract with Pittston Coal after a bitter strike lasting nearly a year. Why did the miners strike? Choose one: a) they wanted more money; b) they were trying to protect job security and health-and-retirement benefits; c) they remembered the Ludlow Massacre of 1914.

If you choose a), you didn't follow the news coverage of the strike. Pay was not an issue. Wrong answer. No credit.

If you choose b), you were paying attention. News stories did say the miners were striking because Pittston was demanding the contractual right to shift production from union to nonunion mines and was refusing to contribute to multi-employer funds that provide health insurance and pension benefits to retired UMW miners. And the news stories were right -- as far as they went.

You didn't choose c) by any chance, did you? If you did, give yourself extra credit for understanding something important about why coal miners still go out on strike in an era when nearly everyone else seems to think that strikes don't work.

Preposterous, you say. How could the average coal miner of today possibly know or care about something that happened in 1914? Anyway, how could a long-forgotten footnote to American history have any bearing on a current economic dispute?

Fair questions. This book (*1) provides some clues. Where the Sun Never Shines is by no means a first-class work of history. But it's must reading if you want to understand the legacy of mistrust that still haunts the coalfields.

Miner details

Ludlow is indeed little more than a footnote now, a flyspeck on the map of Colorado, down near the New Mexico border. Not many people would want to live in the environs of Ludlow, but throughout the winter of 1913-1914 more than a thousand miners and their families did live there--and lived in tents, because they had been evicted from nearby coal camps. The camps were owned by the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company, which also controlled just about everything else in those parts--the coal, the railroad, the schools, the stores, the sheriffs, and the deputies.

CFI operated a bit steel mill at Pueblo, and most of the economic activity of Southern Colorado was dedicated to meeting CFI's needs. CFI in turn was controlled by the Rockefellers; 40-year-old John D. Jr. was becoming known for his philanthropy but was still preoccupied in those days with accumulating as well as dispensing his wealth.

For several years the miners who dug the coal to make the Rockfellers' steel had protested against their conditions of employment, without effect. The company declined to spend money on ventilating fans, so miners choked on coal dust and became incapacitated by pneumoconiosis while still young. They also died in mine fires and explosions. Safety precautions were deliberately ignored.

Miners were not apid for "dead work"--timbering, drilling, cleaning up--but only for the weight of the coal actually produced, and they were cheated at the company's scales. The cost of tools and blasting powder came out of a miner's pay, and he had to buy his family's food and clothing at the company's store. After all the deductions had been totted up, a miner did well to take home $5 a week. The Rockefellers salted away that much every minute, but if the disparity caused them discomfort they kept it to themselves.

Indeed, when the miners finally balked in September 1913 and demanded changes--including recognition of the UMW as their bargaining agent--the Rockefellers did not respond. Instead they gave their right-hand man on the scene, Lamont Montgomery Bowers, authority to settle things as he saw fit. To Bowers, a hard-boiled New Yorker extravagantly proud of his toughness, that meant refusing to discuss any of the miners' demands. And when they walked out, he had their families evicted from the company's camps.

Bowers confidently told his principals that the strike would be short-lived. He underestimated the strikers--and ther wives, who played key roles in organizing and administering the tent colonies, making sure no one froze or starved, walking the picket lines, teaching school, organizing social events, and keeping morale up.

Tents moments

CFI brought in trainloads of strikebreakers and assembled a small army of gun-toting mine guards and company-paid sheriff's deputies to protect them. The guards taunted the strikers and, when they could get them alone or in small groups, beat them up. From the surrounding hillsides, snipers preyed on picketing miners. The miners soon began stockpiling weapons and retaliating in kid, so Bowers bought some machine guns for his guards.

After a series of skirmishes, including one in which three mine guards and a strikebreaker were killed, Governor Elias Ammons called out the Colorado National Guard, ostensibly to restore peace. But many of the guardsmen were mine guards and deputies who merely changed uniforms.

The conflict exploded on the morning of Monday April 20, 1914. Nobody has ever determined who fired the first shot, and it hardly matters anymore. What matters is that shots were exchanged, men on both sides were killed, the Guard commander called in reinforcements, and a day-long battle ensued during which Guardsmen repeatedly fired upon the tents, many of which were still occupied by the miners' families.

Some tents caught fire, and at nightfall, according to the National Guard's own investigative report, "men and soldiers swarmed into the colony and deliberately assisted the conflagration by spreading the fire from tent to tent . . . beyond a doubt it was seen to intentionally that the fire should destroy the whole of the colony." It did. It also killed two women and 11 children, who had been hiding from the gunfire in a pit under one of the tents.

Publicity is a Mother

Fighting continued through the night and for many days thereafter, and the death toll climbed to 46--most of the later deaths were mine guards killed by avenging miners--before President Wilson sent in federal troops on May 1 to restore order.

Up to this point, Ludlow might not seem markedly different from other bloody confrontations between capital and labor that had been erupting periodically ever since the first days of the Industrial Revolution. But Ludlow now brought to the world of industrial conflict a new idea: public relations. Spin control.

Facing a storm of criticism--muckrakers rushing into print, demonstrators marching otuside his New York headquarters, Wilson ordering a federal investigation, Congress announcing hearings--Rockefeller called in Ivy Ledbetter Lee, a young man on his way to becoming a legend as the most adroit of the new breed of corporate public relations men. Rockefeller told Lee he felt "much misunderstood." Lee's mission, he said, was to fix that.

The strike leaders never really knew what hit them. Ivy Lee managed to convert an industrial war into a market-research exercise. He identified different "audiences" and targeted propaganda at each: miners' wives (pamphlets about the joys of living in company-built homes and healthy union-free coal camps); the voters of Colorado (advertisements, planted stories, and pamphlets about all the good things CFI had done for the state and all the dreadful things unions were doing elsewhere); and other specific subgroups (e.g., personalized letters to every clergyman in Colorado). He also mailed an assortment of "objective" information to designated opinion leaders nationwide, with the assistance of luminaries such as President Eliot of Harvard (a Rockefeller Foundation trustee)--generally with no indication of the actual source.

Lee covered all the bases. HE ghostwrote letters for Governor Ammons to send to President Wilson, and articles for Lamont Montgomery Bowers to send to sympathetic magazines. He made the flinty Bowers sound like a lifelong Rotarian. He created photo oppurtinities for John D. Jr., bringing him to Colorado, dressing him in workman's garb, taking him through a coal mine, and arranging for a miner's child to be dandled on the plutocratic knee while shutters clicked. He even orchestrated a meeting between Rockefeller and Mother Jones, the firebrand union organizer, who emerged to tell reporters that in her newly revised opinion Rockefeller was "a much misunderstood young man."

Ivy Lee's damage control after Ludlow was remarkable, but more important in the long run was his vision of how to keep unions at bay. He urged Rockefeller to adopt a plan that would anticipate and minimally address miners' grievances: "Such provision would not only take the wind out of the union's sails, but would appeal, I am confident, tot he soundest public opinion." Bust the unions, in other words, but do it with a smile--using company unions to give workers just enough of a voice to minimize the risk of serious trouble.

Mine wars ever since have been fought not only with bullets but with press releases, and they have been won and lost in the media as well as on the merits. True, the scenery shifts: big draglines strip the western coal now, the company towns are gone, the pay is good, fewer miners die needlessly on the job. But the gap between reality and imagery still exits. Pittston's link to Ludlow may seem tenuous, but it's there if you look. Pittson's chairman, Paul Douglas (son of the late senator from Illinois who ironically was an early champion of the UMW health program), seeking to shave a few bucks off the price of coal in order to accomodate some tough Japanese buyers, turned to the most logical place: labor costs. He could of course, have set an example by first trimming his own $600,000-per-year-plus-perks salary, but he didn't.

The strike turned bitter, of course, nd before it was over Pittston had reportedly spent more than $20 million on security--almost three times its annual payment to the health and retirement funds. The settlement allows Pittson to buy its way out of the funds with a one-time lump-sum payment of $10 million; the company got most of the changes in work rule sit had sought.

The UMW fought resourcefully, running expensive newspaper and TV ads and organizing demonstrations on Wall Street and at Pittston's headquarters in Connecticut. But in the end the winder was the ghost of Ivy Lee.

(*1) Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America's Bloody Coal Industry. Priscilla Long. Paragon House, $24.95.

Thomas N. Bethell is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly and a former research director for the United Mine Workers.
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Author:Bethell, Thomas N.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Apr 1, 1990
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