Louis Tikas, the Greek-American who became a symbol of the struggle for labor rights in the United States, was the leader of the Ludlow miners who went on strike over the inhumane working conditions at the Rockefeller mines.
He was assassinated by the Colorado National Guard, the bloodiest event of the attack, on April 20, 1914. Nineteen people died during the massacre, including two women, eleven children, and a member of the National Guard.
Ilias Athanasios Spantidakis was born in Loutra of Rethymno, Crete in 1886. At the age of 20, he immigrated to the U.S. never to return to Greece. He lived in Denver where he worked in the steel mills.
Spantidakis became an American citizen in 1910 and opened a cafe on Market Street in Denver, a “Greek town” with 240 Greek residents. Next to his cafe, was the head office of the local organization of the “Industrial Workers of the World,” the “Wobblies,” and he became fascinated by their cause.
By the end of 1912, he was an organizer for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA); in between; he worked as a miner-strikebreaker in Colorado’s Northern Field but ended up leading a walkout by 63 fellow Greeks at the Frederick, Colorado mine.
Tikas was chased from the field, shot and wounded by Baldwin-Felts detectives as he escaped through the back door of a boarding house in Lafayette.
Ludlow miners’ demands
On September 23, 1913, the great strike in Ludlow began with the participation of 13,000 miners. The strikers demanded that they be free to shop from any store of their preference, as well as be allowed to freely see any doctor of their choice rather than being restricted exclusively to company doctors. In addition, strikers requested union recognition in conjunction with the establishment of an eight-hour workday and the enforcement of Colorado mining safety laws.
Finally, miners demanded the abolishment of the script and the system of guards of the company that allowed workers’ camps to function much like concentration camps. Heads of the strike were John Lawson and Louis Tikas, supported by Cretans who worked at the mine.
The strikers set up tents in the area at a strategic point in order to prevent the strike-breakers from entering the mines. In October, the strike camp functioned as a city comprised of five hundred men, three hundred and fifty women, four hundred and fifty children, a Greek bakery, and a Greek coffee shop.
The company had requested the intervention of the National Guard and the Governor of Colorado had agreed. The conflicts thus turned violent.
The Rockefeller family, the owners of the mines, had people of their own go to the mines in National Guard uniforms and interfere in the strike along with the National Guard. The governor agreed to this too. However, strikers did not surrender.
By April 1914, the cost of maintaining the troops led to a reduction in the National Guard presence, resulting in increased violence. On Sunday, April 19, 1914, the National Guard encircled the Ludlow camp and deployed a machine gun on a bluff overlooking the strikers.
Although no one knows exactly what instigated the violence, certain accounts suggest that officers of the National Guard demanded that miners turn over at least one individual, possibly a striker or even a hostage that they were holding; the miners, however, refused.
The National Guard then opened fire on the camp, initiating a pitched battle that lasted throughout the day.
According to accounts, Tikas had been lured out to discuss a truce. He went to meet the head of the National Guard, Captain Karl Linderfeld, holding a white flag. The two met on the hill and talked for a while.
Then, eyewitnesses report that the officer hit Tikas in the head with the butt of his rifle. The rifle broke in two smashing Tikas’ skull. Men of the National Guard then shot Tikas’ lifeless body.
The troops opened fire at the camp and a real battle ensued. As the strikers ran out of ammunition, they retreated from the camp into the surrounding countryside. Women and children, hiding from the bullets that strafed the camp, huddled in cellars that had been dug underneath their tents. In the evening, the National Guards soaked the tents in kerosene and set them on fire.
In one cellar, eleven children and two women were found burned to death and suffocated. In all, 25 people were killed during the Ludlow Massacre, three of whom were National Guard troops.
When miners returned to their burned camp several days later, Louis Tikas’ body was discovered. His funeral took place on April 27th with thousands of workers following the procession.
In retaliation for the massacre, miners attacked anti-union town officials, strikebreakers, and the mines, taking control of an area about fifty miles long and five miles wide. There were as many as fifty casualties during the Ludlow Massacre.
To avoid further escalation of violence, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson sent in federal troops to restore order. Unlike the National Guard, the federal troops were impartial and kept strikebreakers out of the coal mines. The strike ended on December 10, 1914. The heroic struggle of Ludlow miners won the UMWA 4,000 new members.
The Greek workers’ hero, Louis Tikas
Today in Trinidad, Colorado, there is a statue honoring the heroic Greek mine worker that was built next to the Southern Colorado Coal Miners Monument on June 23, 2018.
The statue was built on the initiative of the Foundation of Hellenism of America with the financial support of Greek Americans. “The Greek immigrant Louis Tikas changed the course of American history and labor laws,” says the official Foundation of Hellenism of America website.
The documentary “Palikari: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre” by director Nikos Ventouras and scriptwriter Lambrini Thoma released in 2014 tells the story of the brave Greek American who played a vital role in the fight for improved U.S. labor laws. The documentary can be accessed below.