Home / General / This Day in Labor History: November 21, 1927

This Day in Labor History: November 21, 1927


On November 21, 1927, Colorado state police massacred six striking coal miners at the Columbine Mine in Serene, in what was just one of so many instances in American history of government using police forces as the private strikebreaking army of employers.

Colorado miners, both in coal and hard-rock, had helped define American labor history for decades before 1927. The Cripple Creek strike in 1894 was one of the only times in the Gilded Age when the state came down on the side of the workers and thus, they won. As there are almost no examples of major strikes in American history succeeding when the state and employers unite against them, this intervention was crucial. Yet, just a few years later, a new governor significantly changed the state’s position and helped out the mine owners at the Leadville strike, crushing the Western Federation of Miners. That led the WFM to be the critical group in forming the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905. Then, in 1914, the massacre of the Ludlow miners in southern Colorado demonstrated to the world the awfulness of capitalists’ treatment of workers, leading to John D. Rockefeller Jr. being hauled before the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations to be grilled, the first time this had ever happened to a capitalist, leading him to forestall more incidents like this by engaging in company unionism and welfare programs during the 1920s. But that hardly stopped the tensions between Colorado miners and their employers.

On October 18, 1927, the IWW called for a strike for miners across Colorado. While the IWW was basically dead in most of the country in the aftermath of the Red Scare and the official repression Wobblies faced during and after World War I, it could pop up from time to time as it was really wasn’t a centralized organization. In the West, where it had always had more consistent success by organizing the brutal extractive industries, it still had residual strength at the grassroots, even if the central office was a disaster of infighting and ineffectiveness, soon to be completely outclassed in organizing industrial workers by the CIO. There was a larger ideological goal of supporting the memory of the recently executed Sacco and Vanzetti, but also the continued unsafe conditions at the mines led to a lot of discontent about local issues. Every coal mine in northern Colorado was shut down except for at the company town of Serene. 150 scabs were brought in and housed inside gates there. For the first part of the strike, it went pretty peacefully. The mine’s owner had recently died but his daughter who was now running the operation, Josephine Roche, actually had the strikers served coffee and doughnuts every morning. That hardly means the strike around the state itself has been peaceful–the papers whipped up hatred against the IWW and company mines gave token raises in exchange for firing all the IWW members. But at Serene, things had remained relatively calm.

But on November 21, as about 500 miners and their families marched to the mine gates while holding American flags, they were confronted with the state police, also known as the Colorado Rangers, wearing civilian clothes but also fully armed with their state-issued guns. Behind them were armed mine guards. The head of the Rangers, Louis Scherf, shouted “Who are your leaders?” They shouted back, “We’re all leaders!” The two sides began to argue. Scherf said he would not allow them into the town. The strikers said they had a constitutional right to go there. Moreover, some of their children were in the Serene school. Scherf said he would forcibly remove any striker who entered the town.

Adam Bell was a strike leader. He grabbed the gate to open it. One of the Rangers whacked him with a club. Then one of the Rangers grabbed a banner from a striker. They fought over it. Strikers moved toward the gate. And here came the tear gas from the police. Bell and a few other scaled the gate. The cops started beating him viciously. A physical battle ensued as miners sought to protect his prostate body. When Elizabeth Beranek, a mother of 16 and the wife of a striker, sought to protect Bell with her banner, the cops started beating her just as bad.

Miners fought back. One broke the nose of a cop while another cut the hand of a cop with a knife. The strikers rushed through the gate. The cops retreated and formed two lines about 120 yards away. When Scherf fired a round into the air, the cops opened fire on the strikers. There was some question whether machine guns were used. Two or three were available. The strikers believed they were exposed to that withering fire. The police denied it. In any case, 12 strikers were shot badly enough to be unable to get up and six died. John Eastenes a married father of six, died instantly. Nick Spanudakhis lived only a few minutes. Frank Kovich, Rene Jacques, and Jerry Davis died that day in the hospital. Davis was carrying an American flag. It had been shot through 17 times and was stained with his blood. Mike Vidovich died a week later. Probably sixty miners sustained some sort of injury.

Josephine Roche was embarrassed by all this. She was willing to have a union in her mine, but she sure as heck wasn’t going to allow the IWW in the mine. Instead, she reached out to the United Mine Workers of America and they made a deal to settle the strike, even without the worker’s approval. They made small improvements in pay and working conditions, but really didn’t radically change the lives of workers. From the UMWA’s perspective, this would help establish them in Colorado and bring responsible unionism to the workers instead of irresponsible radicalism. Under John L. Lewis, who was no radical despite his somewhat cynical use of communist organizers in the 1930s and early 1940s, was more than happy to make this compromise. This, along with all the other repressive actions in the various Colorado mines, did basically end the IWW in that state.

It goes without saying that no one associated with the mine or the police ever faced any punishment for murdering the strikers. Josephine Roche, on the other hand, became possibly the third most powerful woman in the federal government during the New Deal, only behind Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins, as FDR named her Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in 1934 after she lost an election to become Colorado’s governor. She was deeply passionate about setting up a national health care system in the United States, which of course she never succeeded in accomplishing. In 1948, she was named one of three people to run the UMWA’s retirement fund, though she stepped down in 1971 after evidence of mismanagement showed up as part of the general investigation into what had become an incredibly corrupt union.

This is the 288th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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