Louis Tikas was a Greek immigrant from Crete who worked as a miner in Colorado. He joined thousands of Greeks lured to the Rockies by the promise of earning more money than they ever dreamed of at home. By one estimate about 40,000 Greeks worked in the mines, mills and on the railroads of Colorado, Utah and New Mexico before World War I . Coming to America was a culture shock for these unmarried young men and the Greek kafenions or coffee houses were an oasis. Tikas, who learned English, ran a kafenion and he helped fellow immigrants with complicated English documents and sending money home. Greeks were used as strikebreakers since they had no tradition of unions back home, however, soon they started to join the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) union in droves.
The struggle between labor and the "robber barons" who ran American industry began with the railroad strike of 1877, the first strike in American history when American troops fired on American working men. For decades thereafter, a war was waged for America's soul and the story of Louis Tikas would become only the latest manifestation of that conflict. Tikas became an organizer for the United Mine Workers and eventually lead a walkout of 63 Greek minors at a Frederick Colorado Mine. He was eventually chased by the hired detectives of the company who shot and wounded him as he escaped through the back door of a boarding house. Many of the miners with families resented the Greeks who were unmarried and were more apt to take risks. Nevertheless, after a special convention in Trinidad the UMWA issued its demands and called a strike of the Southern fields of the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company owned by mogul John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller thought it was cheaper to replace workers than to buy enough timber to shore up the mines. Nearly all of the miners demands were on the statue books of the State of Colorado but had been ignored by the company. CF&I immediately evicted almost thirteen thousand miners and their families from company housing.
An exodus occurred and moved down into makeshift tent camps set up by the union. The tent city at Ludlow under Tikas' leadership was the largest of these, home for nearly a thousand people, including most of the Greek workers. They would spend the next six months there as Colorado underwent one of its worst winters. The company brought in new workers, hired the Baldwin Felts Detective Agency to break the strike and persuaded the Governor to send the state militia. The massacre at Ludlow, described as one of the most shameful episodes of American history, began as the colony celebrated Greek Easter. Machine gun fire began to rip indiscriminately through the camp. The miners fought back but were eventually overwhelmed. Louis Tikas who throughout the long day had heroically helped women children and the wounded escape the carnage was captured. He was found later shot in the back three times. His body was left unburied for days. Two women and eleven children died in the camp. After Ludlow, the miners fought back savagely and the war came to a halt only with the arrival of Federal troops.
Although the UMWA failed to win recognition by the company, the strike had a lasting impact both on conditions at the Colorado mines and on labor relations nationally. The scorn of the nation was heaped on Rockefeller and his son. John D. Rockefeller, Jr was forced by the resulting furor to accept reforms that included paved roads and recreational facilities as well as worker representation on committees dealing with working conditions, safety, health, and recreation. There was to be no discrimination of workers who had belonged to unions, and the establishment of a company union. The Rockefeller plan was accepted by the miners in a vote. A United States Commission on Industrial Relations, headed by labor lawyer and Democratic activist Frank Walsh, conducted hearings in Washington, collecting information and taking testimony from all the principals, including Rockefeller. The commission's 1,200 page report suggested many reforms sought by the unions, and provided support for bills establishing a national eight-hour work day and a ban on child labor. Tikas was laid to rest on April 27, 1914, in a funeral attended by hundreds of his fellow miners.
Don't miss the new documentary by producer Lamprini Thoma and director Nikos Ventouras. “Palikari” is not so much a documentary as it is a historical document, bringing together lively expert accounts of a story that deserves to be heard by a wide audience. In an effort to achieve this, Ventouras and Thoma plan to make the documentary available for free.
“Anyone can visit their website – palikari.org – and ask for permission to arrange a screening of the film,” says Thoma. “We don’t want money, we just want it to be seen by as many people as possible. Whether it’s unions, schools or any organization, we’re happy to help.” Read the review in Kathimerini newspaper here.