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A Review of "Killing for Coal: America's Deadliest Labor War"

Larry Slawson received his master's degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

"Killing for Coal: America's Deadliest Labor War"

"Killing for Coal: America's Deadliest Labor War"

America's Deadliest Labor War

Thomas Andrews’ book Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War explores the underlying causes and origins of the 1914 Ludlow Massacre in Colorado. Offering a unique and direct challenge to modern historiographical accounts on the subject of Ludlow, Andrews argues that the "Great Coalfield War" should not be viewed as a singular event with relatively simplistic causes (Andrews, 9). Instead, Andrews makes the point that the events at Ludlow were multifaceted and can be traced to the decades leading up to 1914; the years in which growth in capitalism and industrialization across America created and fueled a newfound sense of social conflict and struggle between workers and their employers.

What prompted this struggle in Colorado? Andrews demonstrates that coal served as the driving force of much of the social strife that occurred during this time since its extraction forced workers into dangerous (and often deadly) environments, all while industries and corporations exploited their hard labor for massive profits. Consequently, as mine workers became more aware of corporate exploitation and industrial negligence for both their safety and well-being, Andrews argues that the relationship between workers and their employees became tenuous, at best. After years of failed strikes led by workers to rectify these problems (as well as failures in promoting change through unionized efforts), Andrews argues that tensions between workers and their employers finally reached a high point in the early years of the twentieth century. By 1914, these tensions finally exploded in a wave of violence and dissent, as desperate workers sought frantically to amend their poor working conditions of years past.

Andrews attempts to explain this growth in hostilities by chronicling the development of coal industries from the mid-1800s to the early twentieth century. In doing so, not only does he explain the science behind “coalification” and the efforts of individuals such as William Jackson Palmer to emulate British industries in the United States, but he also discusses coal’s impact on immigration patterns from Europe, the extreme dangers associated with coal-mining, the causes (and effects) of early strikes and unions, as well as the coal industry’s later attempts to stymy organized dissent through the creation of mining towns that sought to eliminate strikers and union supporters. Andrews argues that each of these dimensions surrounding the coal industry, in one form or another, helped to create an environment ripe for hostility and oppression since they all promoted sources of great tension and agitation amongst the mining community; thus, setting the stage for bitter anger, violence, and destruction to occur in the years and decades that followed.

My Review

Andrews’ thesis is both well-written and compelling in its presentation. The author's decision to approach the topic of Ludlow from both an environmental and labor history perspective is both impressive and fascinating. The book is well-researched, as the author relies heavily on a multitude of primary sources to back-up his points, including memoirs, diaries, journals, magazines, interviews, testimonies, court records, annual reports from companies, and census data, letters, and newspapers. Combined with his reliance on secondary sources, Andrews is able to dramatically illustrate the story of Ludlow in a narrative-driven manner that is appealing to not only academics but general audiences as well. One clear shortcoming of the book, however, lies in its uneven distribution of analysis. Whereas the first half of the book is detail-oriented, Andrews’ book appears a bit rushed in its final chapters. This, in turn, slightly hurts his overall account since the Ludlow Massacre is only briefly discussed (even though it is featured prominently in the title of the book). This does not necessarily hurt his overall thesis, but a stronger rendering of the Ludlow Massacre would have been a welcome addition to this work.

Moreover, the lack of a proper bibliographical section is troubling as well since it is difficult to pinpoint particular types of resources used by the author. Andrews makes up for this deficiency, however, with the inclusion of highly-detailed footnotes that offer an impressive array of background information for particular sections of his monograph. The inclusion of highly relevant (and frequent) quotes from the individuals that witnessed coal’s transformation of America, first-hand, makes for an amazing piece of work that will continue to influence future interpretations on this subject many years to come.

All in all, I give this book 5/5 Stars and highly recommend it to anyone interested in the labor dynamics of the nineteenth and twentieth-century American history. Definitely check it out!

Questions for Further Discussion

1) What was Thomas' main thesis? What are some of the main points that Thomas makes in this work? Did you find his argument compelling? Why or why not?

2) Did you find this work engaging?

3) Who is the target audience for this piece? Can both scholars and non-academics benefit from the contents of this book?

4) What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of this monograph? Are there any parts of this book that Thomas could have improved?

5) What type of primary source material does Thomas incorporate within this work? Does this help his overall argument?

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6) What type of scholarship is Thomas challenging in this piece?

7) Did you learn anything from the contents of this work that you did not know before?

Works Cited

Andrews, Thomas. Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008.

© 2017 Larry Slawson


nipster on June 14, 2017:

I don't know much about that part of history but, it sounds strangely familiar to what's happening today. Lower wage employees are getting upset because they feel exploited as well.

I do however feel the motive is somewhat different. Back then it would seem they unsatified with the pay for their labor because it was dangerous. Now it seems that pay is disputed on the basis that it cannot allow one to keep up with the material standards of our society.

Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on May 12, 2017:

@Gilbert I'm glad that you enjoyed!

@Nathan I'm glad that you enjoyed reading as well! Yes, this is probably one of my favorite books, to be honest. It is very well-written.

Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on May 12, 2017:

Sounds like a very interesting book about a very interesting period in American history. Thanks for this thorough review.

Gilbert Arevalo from Hacienda Heights, California on April 22, 2017:

Well-thought out book review, Larry.

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