Tents I

13 Jan

Joanie Mitchell. Occupy Tents, 2011. Digital print, 26 x 18 in. (On view at Expressions Gallery, Berkeley, through March 2nd).

“The evils that are permitted to generate, unmolested in industry, must always, sooner or later, assert themselves in politics.” — Ethelbert Stewart to Louis Freeland Post, U.S. Department of Labor, November 21, 1913, Records of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Archives, quoted in Martelle, Blood Passion, page 33

Tents are intrinsic to the landscape of American history, especially its history of political redress.  The Occupy movement continues the noble tradition of placing citizens’ concerns within a public dialogue through the bodily occupation of public space.  It cannot be otherwise.  The radical ideas under circulation at this time regarding social equity, public good, and material property can only be argued free from the restraints of preexisting structures.  The goals of corporations are antithetical to the concerns expressed through this movement.  The interests of non-profit centers can address these concerns in piecemeal fashion, but the broadly articulated critique on the ills of American society must be broached beyond the doors of any particular institution.  The ideals of such a movement can be utopian, as we can see in Mitchell’s drawing of circles of discussion during an Occupy Oakland day.  The utopian vision is reinforced by the cluster of tents at the top of the drawing suggesting a city of brotherly/sisterly accord.  The makeshift dwelling of the tent is suitable to a people’s movement and symbolic of the loss of home epitomized by today’s failed home mortgage industry.

So it was in Ludlow, Colorado when coal miners struck in September 1913, that tenting and political redress merged.  Ludlow was one of the sites in the southern fields of the state’s mining industry.  Miners were paid by the ton of coal brought up from the mines, where they were often cheated at the scales.  Often, they were not paid for the work required to set up excavation, such as bolstering underground roofs or laying tracks for coal cars.  Mining companies ignored state mine safety laws.  According to historian Scott Martelle, “organized mines, particularly those in states where unions dominated, had 40 percent fewer fatalities than nonunion mines, such as those in Colorado” (see Martelle, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West, Rutgers University Press, 2007, page 19).

Here, towns were few and far between; many coal seams were remote from human civilization.  As a result, mine owners established camps, where low-grade housing was erected, in the words of Martelle, “little more than shanty towns in some cases.”  The structures were usually frame, while the more recent vintage were made from brick or concrete block.  Martelle notes the closed economic system that a typical camp comprised, where workers “were paid in company scrip, forced to live in company houses (or at least on company land in jerry-built shanties), shop at the company store, worship in the company church to sermons uttered by the company-hired minister, and drink in the company saloon…” (Martelle, 27).

The United Mine Workers of America secured tents for the strikers evicted from company-owned homes.  These tents were placed on leased pasture land, the strikers’ main settlement situated east of a railroad line connecting Trinidad to Denver, and north of Ludlow, a string of buildings that included a post office, saloon, store, and “a small cluster of houses” (Martelle, 68).  Following a gun battle between mine owner’s guards and tent colony residents on October 7th, trenches were dug beneath tents and a “deep underground bunker” was dug for the purposes of providing a birthing chamber for the colony’s pregnant women (Martelle, 89).

Living conditions were harsh in the tent colony, given that winter had set in.  But the residents made what they could of comfort.  Union meetings were held outside in good weather.  During rain or snow, a big tent with a potbellied stove in the middle was used for gatherings.  There were makeshift picnic tables and clotheslines outside the tents.  Old linoleum was used to cover cracks in floorboards to guard against the winter’s cold.  There were tables and chairs for some, and orange crates in service as stands for storage.

According to Zeese Papanikolas, as many as 1,300 people lived in this colony (see Papanikolas, Buried Unsung: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre, University of Utah Press, 1982, page 83).  To diffuse tension following an October 17th machine gun attack by men of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency against a strikers’ tent colony at Forbes Junction, union man John Lawson organized Ludlow colonists into squads, with work organized around grounds, building, sanitation, and other useful preoccupations; a police force was organized with an effort to provide enough squad members who could service the 22 languages spoken in the camp (Papanikolas, 92).  (Like a modern-day Academi, previously known as Xe Services LLC, Blackwater USA and Blackwater Worldwide, Baldwin-Felts was a private Virginia-based police force for railroads, mine operators, and other businesses, whose apparent purpose during the Ludlow strike was to provoke violence from the strikers in order to force the governor of the state to send state militia.)

As much as the strikers tried to keep peace, their efforts did not stop a state militia from being formed to command the strike zone under undeclared martial law.  And before the year ended the same militia broke the governor’s promise to keep the mining companies from importing labor during the strike.  The state would draw down militia forces, but within this vacuum was formed a local troop, a “hastily-assembled collection of mine guards and pit bosses armed and paid by the [mine] companies…one hundred and thirty men or more, unorganized, without uniforms, scarcely drilled.”  Additionally, a Lt. Karl E. Linderfelt, already relieved of militia duty, remained with 34 men, “nursing his anger at his superiors and the ragged foreigners in the tents” (Papanikolas, 211).

On April 20, 1914, following orders from a Major Pat Hamrock to send troops to the tent colony, an all-out attack ensued in which machine guns ripped through tents during a ten-hour gun battle.  Under orders from Linderfelt, tents were burned while militia men ransacked strikers’ property.  Eight men died in the battle.  The next day, the bodies of two women and eleven children were found in a trench below a burned tent, having asphyxiated during the marauding fires set above them.  The seven-month strike remains one of the bloodiest capitalist-labor battles in our history.  Little was accomplished following the strike.  At least John D. Rockefeller, Jr., unlike his father, paid attention to the costs of the struggle by developing a “company union” for Colorado Fuel & Iron Co., which sought to put in place a model that would preclude the need for worker-organized unions.  The model became popular enough, and workers would wait until the 1935 Wagner Act established the National Labor Relations Board, banning company unions and protecting workers in their choice to join independent unions.  Rockefeller also hired Ivy Ledbetter Lee to present the company’s version of strike events at Ludlow, who created what may have been the first “major public relations spin campaign” (Martelle, 214).

While worker-organized unions remain viable today, despite sustained attempts by capitalists and their paid political representatives in Congress, the courts, and the executive branch to eviscerate the power of the working class, so does the deceptive spin issued from advertising offices via corporate media.  The battle is not over, no matter what lessons were learned.

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