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From Redstone to Ludlow: John Cleveland Osgood?s Struggle against the United Mine Workers of America

Author(s):Munsell, F. Darrell
Reviewer(s):Doetsch, Ethan

Published by EH.NET (June 2009)

F. Darrell Munsell, From Redstone to Ludlow: John Cleveland Osgood?s Struggle against the United Mine Workers of America. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2009. xi + 392 pp. $37.50 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-87081-934-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Ethan Doetsch, Department of Economics, University of Utah.

Until the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 established the institutional and legal frameworks for collective bargaining, labor disputes between miners and operators in the Rocky Mountain West often resulted in both parties engaging in open violence. In a series of disputes in 1890s Couer d?Alene, Idaho, dynamiting and shooting were regular. To the South, copper operators forcibly deported over one thousand suspected IWW miners from Bisbee, Arizona in 1917. The violence of these examples, however, is eclipsed by the 1913-14 labor dispute in the Colorado coalfields. Resulting in the Ludlow Massacre and ten-day Coalfield War, this United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) strike shook the foundations of the existing regime of labor relations in the region and across the United States.

In his new book, F. Darrell Munsell (Professor Emeritus, West Texas A&M University) gives us a chronological telling of the labor policies and events leading up to the 1913-14 strike, the events of the strike itself, and its aftermath. He focuses on the role of a heretofore overlooked player, coal baron John Cleveland Osgood. For Munsell, Osgood?s harsh reactionary ideology tempered his approach to industrial relations and shaped the character of industrial relations in the region. The subsequent labor relations regime ultimately resulted in the violent confrontations of 1913-14.

The first few chapters give us background information important in understanding the context of the 1913-14 strike. They detail Osgood?s rise to prominence in the Colorado coal industry, his antiunion attitudes, and his flirtation with welfare capitalism. Osgood?s industrial philosophy is essential to Munsell?s story. Arrogant and insensitive testimony before a state legislative committee after a 1901 strike betrays Osgood?s paternalistic and dismissive attitude towards his workers. He was uncompromising in the views that management alone represented the best interest of workers and that unionization represented a very real threat to American civilization. He seems to have openly preferred serf-lord relations to modern labor-management relations in his testimony and policies. Thus, the reader may wonder if this is a crude caricature of Osgood or if Osgood was an out-of-touch true believer. The weight of Munsell?s evidence, drawn from newspapers, state and federal legislative testimony, letters, and diaries suggests the latter.

On the back of the 1894 and 1901 strikes at his mines, Osgood adopted a campaign of industrial betterment. Welfare capitalism was in vogue at the turn of the century, and Osgood saw it as a way to placate workers and combat the threat of unionism while avoiding bad press. The crown jewel of his industrial empire was the new Redstone village, built not out of economic motivations, but to model his ideals regarding industrial relations. Ostentatious Cleveholm Manor, overlooking the rows of worker cottages, conveyed the image of a baronial fiefdom and revealed Osgood?s hierarchical industrial ideals. Osgood not only provided employment to his workers, but housing, medical care, education, social outlets, entertainment, and restricted saloons with the purpose of social assimilation and moral improvement. Munsell aptly contrasts the antiunion policy of enlightened paternalism to Osgood?s later willingness to use violence and intimidation during the 1913-14 strike.

Osgood eventually gave up his experiment with welfare capitalism after the Rockefeller-Gould takeover of his Colorado Fuel and Iron (CF&I). The new ownership quickly abandoned welfare capitalism at CF&I, and Osgood never adopted such policies in the remainder of his Colorado coal holdings. Rather, Munsell argues that Osgood?s legacy in Colorado industrial relations became the use of violence and intimidation against union members and organizers, the use of racial and ethnic diversity to prevent labor solidarity, the use of unskilled (mainly immigrant) labor with no union experience, operator solidarity, and company domination of local government. The oppressive and controlling closed town system pioneered by Osgood and the operators? open disregard of state mining regulations, both well-documented by Munsell, underlie the inevitable movement towards the 1913-14 confrontation.

The balance of the book narrates the story of the 1913-14 strike, resulting violence, and the aftermath. Where possible, Munsell focuses on the behind-the-scenes machinations of Osgood. Rather than placing blame for the breakdown industrial relations at the feet of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.?s absentee ownership, as many contemporaries did and current authors do, a fair share of the blame is assigned to Osgood. Munsell?s contribution is in highlighting the importance of Osgood in directing the operators? strike policy.

Osgood dominated the operators? policy committee during the strike. The paternalistic coal baron used this position to enforce his control over the production process with machine guns and the state, rather than industrial betterment. It was Osgood who was instrumental in pressuring the Governor Ammons to send in the National Guard and arranging the financing of its operation. Osgood spearheaded the propaganda blitz against the strikers. After the strike ended, Osgood pressured the courts to prosecute strikers and even stalled Rockefeller?s reform proposals. Rockefeller would later insinuate that Osgood was manipulating the strike to attempt to regain personal control over the Colorado fuel industry by embarrassing Rockefeller into unloading his Colorado holdings.

Central to the book is Munsell?s argument that Osgood?s obstinate approach exacerbated tensions on both sides and failed to prevent the Ludlow Massacre. Having laid the basis for industrial relations in Colorado, Osgood adopted a strategy of non-compromise to keep the old regime in place. Osgood and his fellow operators had many opportunities to negotiate (the UMWA was even willing to give up the demand for union recognition), but for reasons of ideologically-driven principle he repeatedly refused to enter into talks with the union or submit to government arbitration. Had the operators agreed to negotiations or arbitration, the strike could have been ended quickly, avoiding tragedy. Instead, the operators? intransigence dragged the conflict out, allowing hatred on both sides (the armed strikers and the militia) to boil over into bloody armed conflict.

Munsell has provided us an interesting and engrossing book that spotlights the institutional and ideological context of the dispute?s varied participants. Rather than merely retelling the events of Ludlow, it gives us a detailed glimpse into the character, motivations, and actions of an instrumental man forgotten to history.

Ethan Doetsch is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Economics at the University of Utah. He is writing his dissertation on the role of market integration in the rural antebellum U.S. fertility transition.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII