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"IWW File, 1927" Walsenburg, Colorado. Left to right: Nick Mavroganis, Frank Medas, A.S. Embree (also inset), Alberto Martinez, Tom Garcia, Nenesio Adilla, John J. Maes, Pula Martinez, Paul A. Seidier, John Nariega, A.K. Payne, Gumersando Ruiz, Walter Chatterbouk, Jose Villa. The sign in the window reads: "Strike Notice has been served on the Industrial Commission. Strike called for October 8." Courtesy CF&I Corporation

The 1927 Colorado Fuel and Iron Strike

The 1927 strike at the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company emerged from the unstable relationship with the companies’ Industrial Representation Plan. The ongoing labor struggles and conflicts between managers, employees, and independent labor unions in the Colorado coal mines and the Minnequa Steel Works resembled similarities to previous strikes in Colorado, particularly the Ludlow Strike in 1914. The specific and familiar demands by the workers involved wage increases, reduced working hours, safer working conditions, and union recognition. However, it was the entry of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) into the conflict that became a peculiarity to the 1927-28 strike. The organizing powers of the IWW created a fear of communism eventually leading to bloodshed and government placed militia in the mines and company towns, reminiscent of the violence of Ludlow.

Over a period of twenty years the Employee Representation Plan had an enormous impact on the labor movement in the United States. Brought into effect after the Ludlow Massacre it served as a model for company unions established by American businesses between World War I and World War II. The plan, devised by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Canadian Mackenzie King provided a substitute for an independent union such as the United Mine Workers of America –the prominent opposing force in the Ludlow Massacre. The plan was aided by actions in the Colorado state legislature as a response to the violence at Ludlow that put a black mark on the state’s reputation. The IRP served an important role to complete unionization but on the company’s own terms. It brought the miners gains in welfare, medical care, housing, recreation, and education in a paternalistic way but did not allow the employee representatives the power of decision when it came to wage increases, personal grievances, or choice of union representation.

The roles of elected employee representatives and company managers became part of the day to day functions with the key to the plan being open communication between employees and management. However, communication would not be heard among the immigrant workers, who found it difficult to understand the English language let alone communicate their grievances. They were not allowed a voice in any of the decision making processes. In other words, the plan did not represent all of the workers but became a way for the company to keep tabs on the unskilled immigrant population by presenting them as part of an “industrial family” treating them as the stepchildren. Through co-operation workers would be represented, otherwise the situation would become a “work or starve” threat by the company. In the CF&I Company towns neither freedom of association in an independent union nor freedom of speech were allowed. Employees were often blacklisted for showing interest in independent unions. The plan created a subservient work force and those who complained might lose their jobs.

The miners seemed desperate for leadership outside the paternal company. The IWW offered them leadership by representing the minorities in the Southern and Northern fields of Colorado. The IWW leaders concluded that the time was right for a sympathy strike for all workers to protest in solidarity the verdicts of Sacco and Vanzetti who were executed for their political views. Success of the demonstration and the ability of the strike leaders to gain support of the miners led the groundwork for the four month struggle against the coal operators directed by the IWW which began in October. Violence continued in the mines as the State police moved into the camps. On November 21, six strikers were killed and dozens injured at the Columbine mine in the northern fields. Governor Adams ordered the National Guard and State police to patrol the Colorado mining communities. It took a massacre for public opinion to push for settlement.
In February 1928, the strike ended and the workers returned to work with the only wage increase in the entire coal fields across America. The 1927 strike marked a significant turning point in the plan as labor problems ensued in spite of the fact that the company reported that their employees were completely satisfied. The IWW strike became one of the most successful since the Ludlow Massacre and established some of the first collective bargaining that prevailed. As far as the CF& I was concerned the 1927 strike was over union recognition and nothing more. Colorado miners would strike in defiance of state laws for improvement in pay and working conditions, they blamed wage reduction on the IRP.The Rockefeller Plan ended in 1942 as a result of the pressure from the Wagner Act of 1935 and an increase of production because of World War II.