The Ludlow Massacre and the Birth of Company Unions

By Stephen Millies, in Workers World,
26 January, 1995

"God gave me my money."

John D. Rockefeller--the world's first billionaire--spoke these words in 1905. This is how the founder of the Standard Oil Trust--now known as Exxon, Mobil, Chevron, Amoco, etc.--explained the secret of his wealth.

Nine years after that interview, the bodies of two women and 11 children were dragged out from a cellar in Ludlow, Colo. They had choked to death when the Colorado state militia set the tent above them on fire.

Ludlow coal miners were on strike against the Colorado Fuel and Iron Co. Nine thousand miners had walked out of the company-owned camps on Sept. 23, 1913.

They struck against $1.68-a-day wages. They revolted against the CF&I; company stores, CF&I-controlled; schools, CF&I-censored;libraries and CF&I-bought-and-paid-for; ministers.

CF&I; was as much a Rockefeller property as Standard Oil was. Twenty million dollars of Rockefeller's loot were invested in it.

So the Colorado state militia was just doing the work of CF&I--and; Rockefeller--when it raked Ludlow with machine-gun fire on April 20, 1914.

Over 40 miners and their family members were murdered. Among them were the smothered victims found the next day.

The country was horrified. Enraged strikers in Colorado attacked mines being operated by strikebreakers.

Never had any plutocrat been so hated and despised as John D. Rockefeller.

Victor Berger--the socialist member of Congress from Milwaukee--got up in the House of Representatives and urged that every worker get a gun. The Cleveland Leader wrote, "The charred bodies of two dozen women and children show that Rockfeller knows how to win!"


The Mine Workers' strike against Colorado Fuel and Iron was crushed. But Rockefeller's son--John D. Rockefeller Jr.--knew that slicker and more effective methods--were needed to maintain the rule of the capitalist class.

Ivy Lee, one of the founders of public relations, became a member of the Rockefeller stable.

Lee put out bulletins claiming that the two women and 11 children died because of an overturned stove, not because of the Colorado militia's gunfire.

Upton Sinclair, author of "The Jungle," called this well-paid hack "Poison Ivy." Poet Carl Sandburg said Lee was "below the level of the hired gunman."

Over the years Lee was able to plant mountains of pro-Rockefeller material within the capitalist-owned newspapers and magazines. A particular triumph was getting the Associated Press to write a more favorable obituary for old John D.

"Crowds are led by symbols and phrases," said Ivy Lee.

This contempt for the masses is echoed in Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf." So it was natural that the Third Reich eventually hired Lee to present a more favorable face for the "New Germany" within the United States. Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels must have felt that if Lee could whitewash the Ludlow massacre he could perform a similar snow job for the concentration camps.


Something more than public relations was needed within the mines, however. Production--and thus profit making--could not be conducted simply through massacres.

Lee figured that to prevent real unions from being organized, phony unions would have to be set up.

To carry out this plan, William Lyon Mackenzie King was hired. King, a former Canadian labor minister, imposed a representation plan on the CF&I; miners in 1915.

A grateful John D. Rockefeller Jr. gave him a $100,000 gift. This was an extremely useful investment considering that King would later serve 21 years as Canadian prime minister.

CF&I; had one of the first company unions ever organized. It was an example for the rest of industry.

By the end of the 1920s nearly 1.5 million workers were enrolled in these plans. Company unions were particularly strong in utilities and streetcar companies--industries that felt more vulnerable to union organizing drives.

Not every capitalist agreed with this approach. There was additional expense involved. Company unions were usually accompanied by some small concessions, particularly on safety issues.

Many industrialists didn't want to concede the right of any of their employees to discuss wages and working conditions--even within the totally rigged apparatus of a company union.

This was United States Steel's attitude in the 1920s. Yet faced with a labor upsurge, the firm signed a contract with a real union in 1936.


Although company unions were formally outlawed by the 1935 Wagner Act, they continued under the name of "independent unions."

The Peninsula Shipbuilders Association at the vast Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. is a notable example. Getting rid of this company union was the object of a workers' rebellion in 1967.

The Steel Workers union finally drove it out in 1979 after a six-month strike.

Another example was the Telephone Traffic Union, which was the AT&T; company union for the terribly underpaid and overworked telephone operators.

Operators across the country drove this outfit out in the late 1970s as they joined the Communications Workers. One leader of this fight in New York was Susan Steinman, a Workers World Party member who died in 1985.

Today the successor of former Canadian Labor Minister Mackenzie King in pushing company unions is U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich. Except they're now called "labor-management teams."

Nineteen years after the Ludlow massacre--and after years of a phony company union--the Rockefeller-controlled Colorado Fuel and Iron Company was forced to sign a contract with the United Mine Workers in 1933.

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