Wednesday, April 30, 2008

It's dark as a dungeon way down in the mine...

In the past 2 weeks I've finished 2 excellent books both dealing with the plight of miners in Colorado in the early 20th century. The first book was Upton Sinclair's "King Coal", a novel that Sinclair wrote as to expose the mining industry in much the same way The Jungle targeted the meat packing industry. It's a powerful book which follows it's bourgeois protagonist, Hal Warner, on a journey into a mining camp. Hal begins his adventure as a summer break sociological exercise, becomes sympathetic to the miners plight and eventually becomes a fierce advocate on their behalf. His advocacy runs smack into political reality but the book is nevertheless inspiring.

What struck me as I began to read Scott Martelle's "Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class Warfare in the American West", a history of the 1913-1914 Colorado mine strike, was how closely Sinclair's book tacked to the actual history of the times. I had wrongly assumed that Sinclair had taken some creative license in order to produce a more effective piece of propaganda. Little propaganda was apparently needed.

To put into perspective what conditions workers were facing lets look at their list of pre-strike demands,
  1. Recognition of the union as bargaining agent
  2. An increase in tonnage rates (equivalent to a 10% wage increase)
  3. Enforcement of the eight-hour work day law
  4. Payment for "dead work" (laying track, timbering, handling impurities, etc.)
  5. Weight-checkman elected by the workers (to keep company weightmen honest)
  6. The right to use any store, and choose their boarding houses and doctors
  7. Strict enforcement of Colorado's laws (such as mine safety rules, abolition of scrip), and an end to the dreaded company guard system
That's hardly a list of outrageous demands. In fact much of the demands were rights that were already guaranteed to the miners by law but which the mine companies simply choose to ignore and the state choose not to enforce.

Martelle's book is a well researched history and documents the atrocities carried out by the miners as well as those carried out by the mine operators. On a more trivial note much of the book takes place in Denver and surrounding cities like Lafayette, I find those details to be particularly interesting. For example the offices of the Rockefeller's Colorado Fuel & Iron Company were located in The Boston Building which still stands today at 17th and Champa (it's now called The Boston Lofts).

Whether you support labor unions today or you are an avowed anti-labor man (or woman) I think understanding the history of the labor movement is essential to understanding the debate today. It's eye opening to see what conditions workers faced some 90 years ago right here in Colorado. Sadly miners are still fighting against negligent mine owners and still losing their lives due to said mine owners and absentee regulators.

For your listening and viewing pleasure check out this version of Merle Travis' "Dark As a Dungeon" by Guy Clark. Note the young Jerry Douglas on the dobro as well.

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