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The Bush Administration's War on Labor

On the morning of April 20th, 1914, near Ludlow, Colorado, the Colorado National Guard used machine guns to attack a tent colony made up mostly of striking coal miners' families. Later, someone set fire to the tents.

At least 25 people died that day, including 11 children. Many of the children suffocated in a pit under a tent where they hid to escape the flames. The aptly named "Ludlow Massacre" remains one of the most violent incidents in American labor history.

This tragedy caused outrage throughout the world. It shined a spotlight on the difficult conditions miners faced in Colorado's coal camps -- low pay and poor mine safety to name just two. It also helped bring public attention to similar labor problems throughout the United States.

The Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, which employed most of the striking miners, changed its entire labor policy to prevent the need for military intervention in subsequent labor disputes. Indeed, efforts to blame the tragedy on John D. Rockefeller, the renowned industrialist whose family owned most of the company at this time, almost single-handedly ruined the family's reputation and made this incident even more famous.

On Memorial Day, 1918, the United Mine Workers union dedicated a monument to the victims of that tent colony. It is located approximately 75 miles south of Pueblo, Colorado, near the site of the pit where many of the victims died. It stood for almost 85 years without incident.

Some time between the evening of May 7, 2003 and the next morning, someone or some people vandalized the granite statues of a coal miner and his wife at the base of the memorial. Vandalized is actually too mild a word for what happened. Somebody decapitated them - took their heads clean off. The arm of one statue is also missing, as well as a small vase that sat in a corner of the monument.

Had someone desecrated a war memorial in this manner, there would have been a huge outcry. However, since the vandals struck a worker's monument, there has hardly been a ripple. Newspapers in Pueblo and in Denver covered the incident briefly, inside their local news sections. Other than the History News Network, I know of no national coverage of the incident at all. The best story I've seen was in the Colorado Springs Independent, a local alternative weekly. (This article also includes information if you want to donate towards the restoration of the monument.)

A likely reason for this lack of interest is that few Americans, even Colorado residents, know what happened at Ludlow. I polled my survey classes and of 75 students (most of whom grew up in Southern Colorado), only four of them had even heard of it. This is because labor history is seldom taught in secondary schools, even if it happened in your own back yard.

Sadly, people in other countries appreciate this aspect of American history better than we do. One historian, writing about the vandalism on the discussion network H-Labor, recalled reading the guest book at the memorial during her visit in 1985: "People from all over the world had stopped at Ludlow, even though few high school students in the US had ever heard of it. Those people from so many other countries knew about it and had taken a special effort to get to the site."

However, people should understand this as much more than a curriculum issue. Ignorance of labor history simplifies the Bush administration's efforts to destroy achievements that took the labor movement decades to win. For example, proposed changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 would cause 2.7 million workers -- reclassified as exempt professionals -- to lose their right to overtime pay even though their jobs and wages would stay the same.

The Denver Post, in a rare article that considers the administration's war against labor in its entirety, offers many more examples of "Significant changes in labor law made by President Bush." These include: "Stopped action on 29 worker-safety regulations;" and "Required federal contractors to post signs telling workers that they did not have to join unions. Signs do not tell workers they can join unions if they desire."

My favorite from the Post's list: "Abolished the Bureau of Labor Statistics' monthly report documenting plant closings and layoffs of more than 50 workers at any workplace." That pretty much sums up the Bush administration's attitude towards workers' rights right there. If they don't recognize what's happening to them, they won't complain.

While some media outlets are beginning to wake up to the war on labor today, understanding labor's past would help students put labor's present in context. They would recognize that years of struggle went into getting the Fair Labor Standards Act passed, and they would be outraged, as the journalist Greg Palast explains, that wholesale changes to it are being made without fanfare on page 15,576 of the Federal Register.

Students should understand what life was like in the American workplace before workers' protections instituted during Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal as President Bush aims toward the elimination of these rights. I half expect the return of legal child labor to come any day now.

Joe Conason, in the introduction to his new book, Big Lies, writes, "If your workplace is safe; if your children go to school rather than being forced into labor; if you are paid a living wage, including overtime; if you enjoy a forty-hour week and you are allowed to join a union to protect your rights-you can thank liberals." This is part of a longer passage that has already received a fair share of ridicule from right-wing critics on the Internet.

If these authors had learned anything about the Ludlow Massacre in school they might have known that Conason is absolutely right. The men, women and children who died at Ludlow sacrificed their lives for the good of every American, just like the soldiers who have fought in our country's wars. Their memory, like their monument, deserves our respect and our pedagogical attention.