Grim-faced Walsenburg strikers in front of IWW hall where two Wobblies
were killed by state police an hour earlier, January 12, 1928. Detail
from photo below. Photo courtesy Wayne State University, provided by
The 1927 Strike
by Richard Myers
In 1927 the Industrial Workers of the World called a general
strike to protest the execution of anarchists
Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo
Vanzetti. Compliance with the walkout on the part of Colorado's coal
miners surpassed all expectations.
This occurred in the state that had given us the Western
Federation of Miners, Big Bill Haywood, Cripple Creek, and the 1914 Ludlow
in which the lives of women and children were sacrificed to corporate
greed. Colorado had seen discontent and uprisings by coal miners over
a period of some fifty years. For many, Ludlow seemed a watershed, an
worldwide attention to the state's policies of industrial feudalism.
Ludlow ushered in Rockefeller's company union and the birth of the public
relations industry to repair John D.'s reputation. But Colorado's coal
operators were not yet finished spilling the blood of workers.
Conditions in the mines were desperate. Miners complained that coal
bosses didn't give a damn about their lives. They observed that mules
used to haul the coal were treated better than the men. It cost money
to purchase and train mules; men could be hired for nothing, and then
forced to pay their own expenses.
Miners were not paid for "dead work" such
as timbering that kept the mines safe. They had to pay for
their own tools and blasting
powder. Miners were cheated at the scale that weighed their
coal. Many coal companies paid in scrip redeemable only at
Coal towns were armed camps surrounded by barbed wire. Perhaps
Colorado coal miners had suffered significant pay cuts in recent
Slaughter in Serene: the Columbine
Coal Strike Reader
Book signing with authors and editors.
The Thursday, January 12 book signing at the Lafayette
Public Library, the third in a series, drew 130 people— miners,
their families, historians, students, and folks interested in the history.
Thanks to all who made
it a wonderful
With little consideration given to safety, Colorado coal miners had
been dying by the hundreds. A decade before the Columbine Mine Massacre,
121 miners died in an explosion in the Hastings mine. In 1919, 31 were
killed by explosions in the Oakdale and Empire mines. 1922 and 1923 saw
27 killed at Sopris and Southwestern. These were only the big events;
were dying individually almost every day.
Colorado miners honored the Sacco-Vanzetti general
strike because they were unhappy about conditions on the job. Recognizing
their discontent, the Wobblies organized a coal strike. Striking miners
of the 14
coal mines in northern Colorado except for the mighty Columbine, situated
north of Denver in the small company town of Serene. The Columbine normally
employed 500, and they successfully lured 150 scabs to work during the
strike by granting a fifty cent per day raise.
Throughout the state 12 mines were still operating
on November 1, the fifteenth day of the strike, while 113 mines had
been closed. The Denver Morning Post reported
that 1,750 miners were working, while 8,450 laid down their
frequently portrayed the strike as faltering, dutifully parroting
the company line that "many miners are expected to return to work on
Monday." But strikers systematically demonstrated that
mass rallies in the Southern Field could bring out the miners.
after week the Denver
Morning Post repeated the phrase, "The backbone of the strike
appears to be broken," even within the same column that
detailed additional mines closing down. Caravans of strikers
goods, and car loads of enthusiasm to support local union
efforts. Many miners simply had to see with their own eyes
that the strike
Colorado had an anti-picketing
law which prohibited any sort of speech with persuasive intent
many arrests simply for picketing, and police locked up anyone
they could identify as an organizer. In Huerfano and Las
activists were arrested on vagrancy charges as soon as they
appeared in public. In Walsenburg "agitation of strikers"—speaking
to miners on strike—was considered a crime.
Because the Columbine was a large mine that continued to work, it was
a focal point for the strike effort. It likewise became ground zero for
a plan by coal company operators and the state of Colorado to break the
strike. The mine was owned by Rocky Mountain Fuel Company, a corporation
in the midst of change. Josephine Roche, daughter of the recently deceased
owner, insisted that rights of the strikers be respected, but she was
not yet in full control of the company. Officials of other coal companies
maneuvered behind the scenes to orchestrate a bloody confrontation that
would bring Colorado's notorious National Guard into the field.
Colorado militia searching cars during the Wobbly strike.
Photo credit Rocky Mountain Fuel Company, provided by Eric Margolis
Roche held liberal views which
had led her to a career in social work and a stint as Denver's
She patrolled Denver's bustling "entertainment
district" where prostitutes plied their trade. She was no
stranger to the strife of coal miners and their families, having
in an investigation of Ludlow, and she ultimately went to work
for the United Mine Workers union after Rocky Mountain Fuel Company
Women powerfully influenced the struggle on both sides of the picket
line. In the Columbine Coal Strike Reader Eric Margolis writes,
As was typically the case
in mine strikes, the wives played an important role. [Coal
miner] Louis Bruger
laughed and said: "They
didn't know any more about mining coal than the hog knew
about Sunday, but they'd
be right up there giving the men hell for not fighting
On November 8 the Denver Morning Post headlined, "WOMEN MARCHING
AS PICKETS TURN BACK BEFORE GUNS". They didn't always turn
back; when bullets flew, some of the most seriously injured were
Headlines of another Post story
Control Passes Into Hands of Women—Hordes of Amazons Storm Jail Demanding
to See Deported
Sons and Husbands; Mexican Mother Assumes Leadership With Fiery Speech." The
Leadership of the I.W.W. strike at Walsenburg today passed into the
hands of the women with an Indian halfbreed, Mrs. Felix Arrellano, at
"If we were asking for diamonds we wouldn't deserve
began her morning address. "But we are asking for
And the women are behind her. Their enthusiasm, slow to catch fire at
the start of the strike, was fanned to a brisk flame by this wobblie
Joan of Arc.
Historian Joanna Sampson chronicles triumphs and travails of women on
the picket line, including Colorado's own rebel girl, Flaming Milka:
The fistfight was bad enough, but when the women in the strike line
entered into the spirit of the ruckus, it was humiliating for the police.
Amelia (Milka) Sablich
was the IWW "girl in flaming red." She
and Sadie Romero were in fine fighting form that day. With
fists flying and screaming curses at the police, they both
was no stranger to the picket lines. She had already been
arrested several times and
once after a fight.
On October 28, Milka
Sablich led 250 strikers on a march at the CF&I
Ideal Mine in Huerfano County. That morning twelve
gunmen met them with drawn bayonets, and there were
horseback. Accounts of the incident are contradictory.
The guards swore that an unruly horse knocked Milka
down, breaking her
possible internal injuries. The miners, however,
reported that one mounted guard leaned out of his saddle,
woman, and galloped
down the road, dragging her behind his horse.
When authorities arrived at the hospital with the injured girl, her
red dress torn and dirty, her body covered with bruises (and slated for
jail as soon as she was patched up) they discovered that she was 19 years
old, beautiful and, like a caged wild cat, spitting hatred at her tormenters.
Newspaper reporters immediately drew comparisons between Milka and famous
Mother Jones (who looked like a prayer meeting leader, but could hold
her own with any army muleskinner). They decided Milka packed a meaner
Flaming Milka, Colorado's IWW rebel girl preferred jail over
capitulation. Photo credit Industrial Solidarity, provided by Joanna
When Milka was offered liberty in return for a promise
to stay away from strikers' meetings she flatly refused, preferring jail
to walking away from
her sisters and brothers.
More about Milka
Activities in the south—where John D. Rockefeller's
Colorado Fuel and Iron (CF&I) was located—included police padlocking
union halls, fist fights, picket line altercations, and intimidation.
organizers were moved from jail to jail in a shell game to prevent access
by IWW lawyers. Many IWW supporters were taken to the state line or left
gazing at Colorado's snow covered peaks on an isolated stretch of prairie—a
practice known as "white capping" since the Cripple Creek "reign
of terror" days—and warned never to return.
But imprisoned Wobs didn't give up the fight. Seventy-five IWW members
locked up in the Trinidad jail held a jailhouse demonstration which featured
bonfires. In the north a strike committee was formed by Lafayette prisoners.
When they were offered freedom they surprised their jailers by refusing
to leave. They anticipated that if they vacated the premises the marshal
would lock up other strikers, and since they had become acclimated to
the jail they might as well stay to prevent such an occurrence. It took
a week, and finally a suggestion that he was through locking up strikers,
for the Lafayette marshal to convince them to vacate the jail. Another
group of Wob prisoners in the town of Erie persuaded their jailers, much
to the chagrin of their boss, Marshal Will Lawley, that if they formed
a deputies' union they would obtain better working conditions and higher
In Colorado the plight of the miners
had long been ignored, and newspapers focused on the impact of
the strike rather
than the working conditions
of the strikers. Winter was coming and coal stocks were dwindling. "Coal
is available in small quantities, but prices are high, due to the fact
that most of it has been shipped in from outside the state," lamented
the Denver Morning Post. No one had expected the Wobblies to successfully
shut down Colorado coal.
Not content to report the news, leading publications
such as the Boulder Daily Camera and the Post blatantly
demanded state violence to discipline
the Wobblies. The Post declared that it was time for
the state to unleash the "mailed fist", to "strike
hard and strike swiftly..."
The Post faulted the IWW even when a demand from the governor to cease
picketing had been followed:
I.W.W. pickets were ostensibly
withdrawn from the southern Colorado mines, but actually
they were merely transferred
from the mines to the
miners’ homes. The wobblies have substituted
war on women and children for browbeating
and bullying men...
But if I.W.W. pickets
again appear at the mines today, there is nothing to do but
the full might of
authority to answer their sneering defiance.
The law and good order of Colorado will be upheld,
and the I.W.W. will learn that a patient
man, like Governor Adams, when aroused, strikes
hard and strikes
With considerably less inflammatory rhetoric the
Rocky Mountain News characterized the visiting of
miners' homes as "canvassing in the
interest of the strike." But cheered on by apoplectic editorials
in the Post, police arrested strikers for this covert "picketing." The News noted
bluntly that two of the men arrested for this practice "are
Prejudice against minorities or foreign born workers played a significant
role in public attitude toward the strike. There was mock dive-bombing
of union rallies by National Guard aircraft in the weeks before the massacre,
and the pilots who engaged in the harassment expressed views in the Post that seem typical:
"We hope we are not called upon to reap destruction," the
officers said, "but unless the strikers use a little
common sense we may be ordered into action.
"We are not opposed
to union labor but we are opposed to the wobblies. They are
prominently, but that means nothing
unless there are American citizens behind the
"The only safe place for them if martial law is declared is to
dig a tunnel under the Spanish peaks where we can’t
E. H. Weitzel, Vice President and
General Manager of CF&I, vilified
the IWW at every opportunity. "If you look up the records of your
leaders," Weitzel told a group of strikers, "you will
find that every one of them with the possible exception of one
have criminal records and are undesirable citizens..."
The Morning Post promoted
the idea that the miners had no right to strike because they
7 they referred to strikers
as "Mexicans, Italians, Bulgarians, Slavs, Negroes, Austrians, Americans,
and nondescripts whose nationality was not apparent... Speeches were
made in every language except pure English." The Post criticized
their spelling, their speech, their dress, their personal hygiene,
their values, and even mocked one organizer's lack of skill with
IWW leaders were called "tramps with their pants pressed." Three
days before the massacre the Post quoted unnamed officials
warning that a thousand of "the foreign element will enter the state" as
a result of an appeal for footloose rebels published in Industrial
Meanwhile the company union at
CF&I brought to the table two issues:
a request for a dollar a day higher pay, and a resolution passed unanimously
by the "employees' representatives" that the company fire any
IWW members currently employed. CF&I granted a $.68 per day wage
increase and agreed to fire Wobs discovered on the payroll. The company
trumpeted these agreements as proof that the post-Ludlow company union
was preferable to a strike by a "criminal" organization
like the IWW.
Class collaboration is a conspiracy
in which workers sacrifice their integrity for short term gain.
coal strike, any pay
increase at CF&I would have been laughed off the
table by the haughty architects of the Ludlow victory.
recently cut wages.
Condemnation of the Wobblies by the company union provided
with political cover for attacks on yet another group
of workers. The straw bosses in Rockefeller's company
remnants of their honor for a pay raise. The emptiness
of the charade became more apparent in 1931; with the
the wage increase was rescinded.
Ironically the miners found picket duty more forthright
and pleasant at the Columbine Mine in the north. There had been confrontations
arrests, but there were also good memories. Historian Sampson reports
an eyewitness account of the picket line from George Ychelich, a boarding
house operator in Erie:
I went over there about every morning to see the fun: the women went
along and they sang; the music was beautiful; the girls clapped their
hands and sang their songs.
Years later the children of the strikers vividly recalled mugs of hot
coffee and huge stacks of doughnuts which many believed were provided
to the strikers at the direction of Josephine Roche.
Band, Lafayette, Colorado
On Wednesday the Denver Morning Post reported
that a machinegun had been taken to the Columbine. The paper
number of additional deputies and state officers are expected
to re-enforce the peace squad
which has been on duty at the Columbine."
Thursday's Boulder Daily Camera ominously blared the arrival of the
"MACHINE GUNS ARE
THE BEST ANSWER TO THE PICKETERS. POSTED AT THE COLUMBINE
WORKERS GO TO WORK
PICKETERS SLINK BACK.
MACHINE GUNS MANNED BY WILLING SHOOTERS ARE WANTED
Early the following Monday the strikers arrived, expecting another peaceful
Five hundred miners and their families
were met at the outer gate by Weld County Deputy Sheriffs Louis
Beynon of Frederick
and William Wyatt
of Greeley. Beynon warned the strikers not to enter the Columbine
property. The strikers argued that Serene had a public post office—and some of
their children attended the Columbine school—so they had
a right to continue holding strike rallies there.
Beyond the gate the miners were
surprised to see a new group of men dressed in civilian clothes
Head of the state police
Louis Scherf shouted to the strikers, "Who are your leaders?" "We're
all leaders!" came the reply. Scherf announced the strikers would
not be allowed into the town, and for a few moments they hesitated outside
the fence. There was discussion, with many of the strikers asserting
their right to proceed. One of the police taunted, "If you want
to come in here, come ahead, but we'll carry you out." Longtime
Lafayette resident Lewis Starkey, then a miner from Erie, recalled
later that he thought it was a bluff.
There was a sudden scuffle, with the police beating popular strike organizer
Adam Bell about the head. Gravely injured, Bell collapsed to the ground,
and the miners surged through the gate to protect him. The police retreated,
then opened up with deadly fire directly into the crowd. In the early
dawn light the miners scattered under a hail of lead. Twelve remained
on the ground, some writhing in agony while others lay still. At least
six died; more than sixty were injured.
Thirteen wounded strikers were taken to this doctor's office;
crowds of concerned coal miners gather outside. Photo credit UPI, provided
by Eric Margolis
Significantly, no police or mine
guards were shot; the standing order in the IWW was to leave all weapons
at home or at the union hall, so the miners carried no guns.
In a 1944 memorandum Miss Roche
Jesse Welborn as primarily responsible for the circumstances
leading to the massacre. The company had closed mines
and laid off
3,000 steel workers due to the strike. But the violence
did not end
with this massacre.
striking miners were killed by the state police in Walsenburg
a few weeks later. Union halls were ransacked and shot up,
their windows smashed.
The slaughter of miners at the Columbine Mine marked the
last significant industrial action of the period conducted by the IWW,
but it also became
the catalyst for change in Colorado's coal mines. Rocky Mountain Fuel
Company shocked the other coal operators by announcing that the strike
had been caused by conditions. After gaining control
of the company in the aftermath of the massacre, Josephine Roche
that it was time
to recognize a union—any union, that is, except for the
Industrial Workers of the World.
Although miners had been brutally
murdered at the Columbine Mine, the IWW successfully averted
any violent reaction.
Union organizers counseled
angry miners with Joe Hill's words: "Don't mourn, organize." But
preventing a violent response to the massacre apparently didn't
endear the IWW to union-friendly Josephine.
As happened so frequently in the first half of the twentieth century,
the workers were not allowed a free choice. Indeed, they were not even
consulted. Roche declared that the union at Rocky Mountain Fuel Company
must be affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. She ultimately
invited the United Mine Workers to return to Colorado.
The United Mine Workers happened to be the very union whose members
just five years earlier had engaged in the largest civil insurrection
since the Civil War. That action in West Virginia came to be called the
Battle of Blair Mountain.
Just over a decade earlier members
of the UMWA had launched Colorado's own Ten Days War, blowing
up mine camps and killing mine guards as a
response to the Ludlow Massacre. (And after their wives and babies were
murdered, who could blame them for their anger?)
I do not seek to criticize the UMWA for their
members' collective response to violence. It just seems ironic that the
with ten thousand miners armed with thousands of rifles, liberal
use of dynamite, and even their own machine gun, having engaged in outright
war during two previous coal strikes, ultimately proved less threatening
to Rocky Mountain Fuel Company than the non-violent wobblies, who believed
and preached the radical notion that labor is entitled to all it creates.
ABOUT THE BOOK
There is a lot of fascinating information
in the book that cannot be found on any website.
Slaughter in Serene: the Columbine
Coal Strike Reader features
the writings of Eric Margolis, Joanna Sampson, Phil Goodstein,
and Richard Myers. Much of this material has never before been
is available now. Availability from the
Industrial Workers of the World is anticipated, price $19.05
plus shipping and tax if applicable. For information contact
IWW General Headquarters, or the Bread and Roses Workers'
c/o P&L Printing, 2298 Clay St., Denver 80211, or call
303-433-1852, or email email@example.com
For more on the Columbine Mine Massacre, see the
Also see coal
mining in Colorado
Click on image for enlargement, use scrollbars
Walsenburg strikers in front of the IWW hall where
two Wobblies were killed by state police
an hour earlier, January 12, 1928. Photo
Wayne State University, provided by Eric Margolis
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