In their film, Palikari – Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre, director Nikos Ventouras and producer Lamprini Thoma chart the story of the great 1913-1914 coal miners’ strike and Louis Tikas’s murder, as it survives in oral and family traditions, as well as in official history.
They interview historians and artists, some of them direct descendants of those striking miners. Labor movement emblem Mother Jones and industrialist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. also make cameo appearances in this production of memory, struggle and deliverance. Tikas’ story can but reverberate in our time, in view of what is happening with the rights of workers and immigrants around the world.
At a time when Greece has neither heroes nor a labor movement, two passionate Greeks, journalist, radio producer, script writer and filmmaker Lambrini Thoma and director Nick Ventouras, crossed the Atlantic in an attempt to trace the life and the untimely but heroic death of Louis Tikas, a legendary figure of the American labor movement in the early 20th century.
His story is largely unknown to the general public in Greece today, or to that of the United States. Louis Tikas was an immigrant who left Greece in 1906 in search of a better life in the United States, but ended up becoming a leader of the striking coal mine workers of Colorado in 1913 and eventually one of the true heroes of the American labor movement, indeed a legend, when he was brutally and cowardly killed in the Ludlow massacre, by having his skull cracked opened while he was being held prisoner.
Still, his memory remains alive in the heart of American unions, and his bravery has been the source of inspiration for folk songs in the United States, all of which seem to have inspired Lambrini Thoma and Nick Ventoura to make a documentary film about Tikas’ life and the Ludlow massacre to keep the flame of radicalism burning at a time when global capitalism is causing massive damage and depriving the people who labor of even their most basic rights.
The film, titled “Palikari: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre” made its US debut in New York on September 19 and has already been shown in various cities throughout the United States and in Europe.
The filmmaker of “Palikari” is currently in the United States and was interviewed for Truthout by Greek journalist Vassiliki Siouti.
Vassiliki Siouti for Truthout: The Ludlow Massacre is a well-known incident in the history of the radical labor movement in the USA, but Louis Tikas is perhaps less well known. Who was Louis Tikas?
Lambrini Thoma: Louis Tikas, born Elias Spandidakis, was a Greek immigrant and labor organizer with the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) during the southern Colorado mining strike of 1913-1914. Louis, who was made a leader in the Ludlow tent colony and had the role of negotiator and peacemaker, was brutally murdered by men of the Colorado National Guard protecting the interests of the (Rockefeller-owned) Fuel and Iron Company. While Tikas commanded great respect from his fellow strikers, and his name was kept alive as that of a martyr for the labor cause, little biographical information was known about him until Zeese Papanikolas began his seminal research work in the late ’60s.
Why did you name your documentary the very Greek word palikari, and how would you translate it in English?
It is a word that comes from ancient Greek, whose meaning is a combination of brave, young and valiant. It also was the first word that Gus Papadakis, a co-striker with Louis who was interviewed by Zeese Papanikolas, used to describe him: “He was a palikari.” David Mason, Colorado’s poet laureate who wrote a great epic poem about Ludlow, used the same words (and in Greek too) to describe Tikas during our interview. We thought it fit Tikas perfectly and that we had to use it. To help explain it to foreign audiences, we start the documentary with a card showing the dictionary definition of the word.
The late Howard Zinn describes the Ludlow Massacre as “[perhaps] the most violent struggle between corporate power and laboring men in American history.” Is this really the case?
The numbers by themselves justify such a view. But, besides the exact death toll, which varies according to the source but is, in any case, very high, the Ludlow Massacre, including the “10 days war” that followed, was unarguably an extremely violent event. In fact, by Zinn’s own admission, it was learning about the Ludlow Massacre that changed his perception of US history and inspired him to write his wonderful “People’s History of the United States.”
The story of Louis Tikas is relatively unknown in Greece, his country of origin. What audience did you have in mind when you created this documentary, the American or the Greek one?
Even in the US, the story of Ludlow is more known than the story of Tikas. His story, and that aspect of the Greek immigration to the US in the early 20th century, was obscure until the ’80s, when the Zeese Papanikolas’ book, Buried Unsung, was published. But we feel that it’s a story above and beyond ethnic lines. It’s a story for any audience in the world that connects with the struggle of those people for a better life. Louis is a universal hero, but more importantly, what happened in Ludlow is a universal story.
That said, it was one of our goals to reunite him with his Greek roots, to make the story known in Greece. In this time of crisis, with the attack on labor and the rise of the far right, we need to remember men and women like him, who fought for our rights and for the people. We need to remember how to fight.
How did the idea of the documentary come about?
We started thinking about it in 2007, when we first visited Ludlow, Colorado, to do a magazine feature on the Ludlow events. Both I and Nikos Ventouras, the director, were moved by this great story and touched by the fact that we found people who fought to keep the memory of this event and of Louis alive. And not just Greeks: Americans, Italians, Mexicans . . .
As the centennial of the Ludlow Massacre was approaching, and with Greece in a financial crisis and under the IMF’s supervision, we began to see more clearly how this story, about immigrant workers and labor struggles, resonated with what was happening in our own country and in our own time. So we decided we had to do something for Louis and for our people, even if that meant maxing out our credit cards.
Where has the film been shown so far?
Our first screening was at the Thessaloniki International Documentary Festival, where Palikari, a DIY affair and our first foray into this medium, was part of the official selection. Since then, we have had over 40 screenings all over Greece, in labor centers, universities, squats and film festivals. We also had a screening at the Mother Jones Festival in Cork, Ireland; at the African Immigrants festival of Lisbon, Portugal; and since mid-September, we are in a screenings tour in the USA. We’re still amazed by the warmth and love with which our DIY self-financed, low-budget project was received. I think that a reason behind this acceptance is that ours is not an abstract historical documentary, that we strived to give voice to people’s memories and personal experiences, and to things that managed to rise above their circumstances and become universal symbols.
Why we do not have heroes like Louis Tikas in the working class movement anymore? Do we no longer have a need of heroes, or there are no reasons to fight anymore?
Oh, there are lots of reasons to fight. We in Greece know it very well; Southern Europe knows it very well. The US, with the OWS movement, the fast-food strikes, the Chicago school strikes, etc, knows it too. In Greece in particular, we were deprived of our rights, thrown to poverty and had our lives and dreams stolen – and all in the course of less than 5 years. We have lots of reasons to fight. And we are fighting back. Those in power do not allow it to be shown in the media (which is why Greece fell around 80 places below [where it had been] in the Press Freedom Index), but we do fight back, and, day by day, new heroes emerge, men and women who fight for a better future.
You are from Greece, a country which in recent years is in the IMF program and has had many labor rights squashed. The labor law professors in Greece, ironically, say that they don’t have a subject anymore, that labor law has been obliterated. Why did the Greek people allow the dismantling of labor law to the point that there are now no protections against this attack?
We didn’t really allow it, in the sense that nobody asked us. The government – which is a post-election coalition, not an elected majority party – forced those things upon us. And it all happened while the country was becoming less of a democracy every day. We are a “parliamentary dictatorship,” as a journalist put it after the unlawful shutdown of the national broadcaster. But, we do fight back. Do not think for a moment that we don’t. The people of ERT-3, the national broadcaster of northern Greece, are a great example of our fight, as are the workers in VIO.ME, Coca Cola Greece, the Steel industry, the cleaning industry and more. We also fight with our votes – where else did a left party of 4 percent become a 30 percent future government overnight?
So, I think, that the people do react; it’s just that their reaction is absorbed by these new mechanisms that the government has in place, in the labor unions, the media, etc. We are in an era when we have to discover our new ways to fight. The only one of our old weapons that would still be effective would be the general strike. But of course our corrupt unions would never call one . . .
Speaking of labor unions, what does the General Confederation of Greek Workers do?
It sleeps curled at the legs of its bosses, to use an old-timey lefty expression.
Why is that?
Because they have a corrupt leadership hailing from the previous years, when people didn’t really care about such matters and would vote according to party affiliation. That’s how our two major parties, which used to alternate in power and are now in the government coalition together, got control over the unions.
Did the General Confederation of Greek Workers assist you with this documentary?
We tried to get some help from the Confederation, and called their Workers’ History department to see if they were interested in co-producing. That is how we learned that the president of the Confederation personally controls and decides all money transactions himself. That is how far transparency and meritocracy goes.
In the documentary you mention Mother Jones. What is her relation to the Ludlow events?
She was present at Ludlow, organizing the miners, fighting, inspiring, talking, trying to help in all possible ways. An old Irish lady who was “on fire,” as one of our interviewees put it. A voice for the underdogs, a proud, intelligent and just woman. We learned that she was a personal friend of Louis, who was calling her “mother” too – not just “Mother Jones” – something which does not come easy for a Greek. Shows how much he respected her.
What do you see in comparing the history of the American and European labor movements?
The American labor movement shaped and inspired the international labor movement. The USA was the most advanced industrial nation in the world, and as such, the workers here were the first to fully taste capitalism and exploitation. From the 1st of May events and the activity of organizations like the IWW, to the ’60s, and onwards to the present day struggles, there have been wonderful examples of labor resistance and of course a huge labor-inspired culture, from Steinbeck and Jack London to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, a culture that’s still kept alive today in music, writing, movies and documentaries.