Rocky Mountain low

Oct 17, 2007 at 12:00 am

Writer and L.A. Times journalist Scott Martelle first learned of "the Ludlow massacre" in the early 1990s. He was floored to read a mere footnote recounting how, in Colorado in 1914, more than two dozen people had been killed when National Guardsmen and company detectives opened fire on a tent village of striking copper miners' families. "How did I not know about this?" Martelle recalls thinking. "I just started poking into it."

The curiosity grew into an obsession, culminating in a new book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West (Rutgers University Press; hardcover; 266 pp.; $25.95) that brings the former Detroiter back to town this week.

Describing the confrontation that pitted striking copper miners against scabs, a corrupt press, private detectives, powerful corporations and even the Colorado National Guard, he paints a picture as brutal as they come, with summary executions and torture. In fact, the tale of labor conflict is reminiscent of Frank Norris' The Octopus — right down to the period map that the book opens with.

Blood Passion tells of a labor war in which the Constitution was suspended by a local corrupt political culture, and was so bloody that it altered the labor landscape.

In a phone interview with Metro Times, Martelle explains, "This was protracted guerrilla war that went on for several months. This was a long-running series of pitched battles." Months of skirmishes, shootouts and melees ended in the "massacre" on April 20, 1914, which sparked a national call to arms, touching off a 10-day guerrilla war along 200 miles of the Colorado Rockies.

The struggle, Martelle says, is notable not for being the bloodiest, but the last of its kind. "This was one of the last real confrontations between management and labor. They became more organized in a battle for public opinion, and the American public lost its tolerance for gun-toting thugs."

For all Martelle's naturalistic neutrality, the reader gets the sense of a society skewed in favor of power: Corporations get full political rights and international markets, whereas workers get "closed economic systems" and cannot assert their rights as American citizens. Drawing parallels between then and now is tempting.

That said, the book is not a polemic, and Martelle is a newsman, not a radical. Born in Maine and raised in western New York state, the author says his book is a work of history, not influenced by any class consciousness. Rather than citing influences like Michael Parenti or Howard Zinn, he instead speaks reverently of politically astute novelist John Dos Passos.

But Martelle has personal experience on one side of a strike. After growing up with a newspaperman father heading a union household, he wound up working at The Detroit News in the 1980s, eventually becoming a general assignment reporter in the features section, writing about books. He found himself in the thick of it when the unions struck the papers in 1995. Suddenly he, his wife, and his two young kids were thrust into the fray, fighting the Detroit dailies for a year and a half before leaving for California. But, despite getting a beating on the picket line ("It happened often enough that everybody got their chance"), the journalist and historian says, "It's not like that radicalized me or anything. You just do what you do under those circumstances."

"I don't see myself as a radical person. I'm a journalist. I've been a journalist since I was 16."

But, Martelle adds, "What was kind of interesting about the strike was you have to stay outside of something, and that was the one time I was able to get in the middle of something and fight for what I believed in."

In Blood Passion, Martelle takes an unflinching look at the ruthlessness of the captains of industry and an equally hard look at the destruction and death dealt by the workers. His conclusions are those of a more neutral historian.

"I think it is an objective history. My intent in doing this book was to establish the historical record of events. These guys went out and fought for their livelihood. ... Of the people who were shot to death, the strikers killed more than they lost; they won the shooting war but they lost the labor war."

Scott Martelle appears Thursday, Oct. 18, at Book Beat (26010 Greenfield Rd., Oak Park; 248-968-1190) and at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 19, on the campus of College for Creative Studies (201 E. Kirby St., Detroit; 313-664-7400) with M.L. Liebler in conjunction with the annual North American Labor History Conference, in town at nearby Wayne State University.