Today, we ride on the backs of those who fought for rights, for pay, for safe and fair treatment. You all will note that I’m a far piece from being a communist, but the labor movement had its day and it was hard fought at times.
Most of us were not born into sharecropper families in the antebellum South nor were we born into coal country in the late 1800’s. I grew up poor. Maybe poorer than any of you who read this blog. Maybe not. It’s difficult to measure, isn’t it. We were culturally rich – but in a poor part of a poor state, and I was raised by grandparents. However, nothing in the US in our lifetimes compares with what came before. There were coal mines about fifty miles away from the area where I grew up. A lot of the men worked there because it was a union (United Mine Workers) job with union pay and benefits — but still a coal mine. Hard dirty work.
In the 1800’s after the War of Northern Aggression in West Virginia, it wasn’t easy to be a coal miner. For starters, mining wasn’t just a job, it was a way of life — and a hard way of life. You lived in a company town, bought all your food and supplies at the company store, were paid in company script instead of cash. The coal company sent your kids to the company school, you read the company paper, obeyed the company-employed police, etc.
How would I have reacted if I’d been placed in that situation? How would you, dear readers? It’s worth thinking about it on May 1, which is not Labor Day in the US. Still rights were and are hard won, and we all benefit from it.
Usually these events are glossed over or avoided all together in institutions of higher learning, but there were wars. The Battle of Blair Mountain, for example, was — and still is — the most violent labor confrontation in history, in which union-supporting coal miners fought against local government and a coal company-funded militia, eventually involving the U.S. Army.
When nearly 10,000 miners finally went on strike, their protests were largely nonviolent. That changed when mine operators called in the notorious Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to break up the strike. Over 300 hard, armed men descended on the area on behalf of Baldwin-Felts. Beatings were common. Sniper attacks and sabotage were also used. Miners were forcefully taken from their homes and tossed into the street to live in tents. The tent colonies were soon subject to a new tactic from the company goons — a heavily armored train that the miners called the “Death Special” was sent through the tent colony, firing machine guns and high-powered rifles at tents.
A US Senate committee investigation followed. Mrs. Annie Hill, who limped into the committee room, told how she shielded her three little children from the bullets by hiding them in the chimney corner of her little home at Holly Grove when the armored train made it appearance. She said she had been shot through the limbs and the bullet had gone through the Bible and hymnbook on her parlor table.
Martial law was declared. Mary Harris “Mother” Jones
(a feisty union activist already in her 70s who had come to the area to help the miners) was arrested and imprisoned.
Six years later, unionized miners in other parts of the country were seeing huge victories — like a 27% pay increase. This inspired the miners around Matewan, West Virginia, to join the United Mine Workers of America in record numbers. By the spring of 1920, 3,000 Matewan miners had joined, but the Stone Mountain Coal Company retaliated by calling in in the Baldwin-Felts (or the “Baldwin Thugs,” as the miners knew them).
The two forces came together on the steps of the Chambers Hardware Store (now and then-right).
When the dust settled, the mayor was shot, seven Baldwin-Felts detectives were killed, and two miners were dead.
Sheriff Hatfield — who claimed credit for the deaths of two Baldwin Thugs — became a hero. This was the first time the seemingly invincible “Baldwin Thugs” had been defeated, which gave the miners hope.
In the spring of 1921, charges against Hatfield and his men were either dismissed or they were found not guilty. The enraged Baldwin-Felts crew swore vengeance, and just a few months later, they killed Sheriff Hatfield and his deputy on the steps of the county courthouse.
Nearly 2,000 people marched in their funeral procession. It wound its way through the town of Matewan and to the cemetery in Kentucky. As the rage built among the miners, it headed toward a final confrontation —the Battle of Blair Mountain.
Matewan was “a symbolic moment in a larger, broader and continuing historical struggle — in the words of Mingo county miner J.B. Wiggins, the ‘struggle for freedom and liberty.'”
It was just after the Matewan Massacre, and thousands of miners began pouring out of the mountains to take up arms against the villains who had attacked their families, assassinated their hero, and mistreated them for decades. The miners wore red bandanas around their necks to distinguish themselves from the company men wearing white patches and to avoid getting shot by their own troops. (referred to as ‘red necks’)
The sheriff of Little Coal River sent in law enforcement to keep the miners at bay, but the miners captured the troopers, disarmed them, and sent them running. The West Virginia governor also lost his chance for a peaceful resolution when, after meeting with some of the miner’s leaders, he chose to reject their demands.
The miners were 13,000 strong as they headed toward the non-union territory of Logan and Mingo counties. They faced Sheriff Chafin — who was financially supported by the coal companies — and his 2,000 men who acted as security, police, and militia. Chafin stationed many of his troops in the hills around Blair Mountain, West Virginia. From there, Chafin dropped tear gas and pipe bombs on the miners.
“FIGHTING CONTINUES IN MOUNTAINS AS FEDERAL TROOPS REACH MINGO; PLANES REPORTED BOMBING MINERS,” reported a New York Times headline shortly after Aug. 25, 1921, when the battle escalated to a new point in U.S. history — with tactics that have not been seen before or since.
The miners never made it through Chafin’s lines — and it’s hard to say what would’ve happened if they had. After 1 million rounds were fired (between a division of US Army infantry and the miners), the miners retreated. It was time to go home and fight another day.
Over 100 people had been killed — about 30 on Chafin’s side and 50-100 on the union miners’ side. Almost 1,000 of the miners were indicted for murder and treason, and many more lost their jobs.
(left) Federal troops standing with arms collected from the striking miners after surrender.
In the short-term, the defeat of the striking miners was devastating to the UMWA. Membership plummeted from 50,000 to 10,000 over the next several years. It took until 1935 — post-Great Depression and FDR’s New Deal — for the rest of the mines in southern West Virginia to become unionized.
Hard dirty work makes characterful men.
I am spending this May Day bank holiday watching Western documentaries. Look at that, would you! I could be in the pub but instead I have watched Calamity Jane, The Hatfields and McCoys and now I'm on the Alamo. AND I'm eating beans. Just sayin'
There's an awful lot of spitting going on these shows. Putting me off my dinner.
I seem to recall that the Sheriff Hatfield, mentioned above, was a member of the famous Hatfield family of feuding fame.
Times have changed and unfortunately so have many of the unions.
I've just read that their decendents have an annual holiday celebration.
Jim, it makes sense that it would be the case. The Hatfields were a large family with a lot of reach.
Watching Western documentaries may help you with your next book, but so might books – movies like "The Outlaw Josie Wales", the Unforgiven, True Grit, etc. Of course to get into character, you're going to have to chew plug tobacco. Get the chaw going and spit it into a brass spittoon so that it 'gongs'. Can you imagine Calamity Jane without a plug of tobacco in her mouth?
Ok on the beans, but you can't put them on toast or eat bangers with them if you want to feel Western. Though a root beer float may bring back thoughts of the old west when you're done chewing, spitting and eating beans (the musical fruit).
That was sort of the point of this blog post. The unions of today are not the unions that were formed then out of dire need and because of exploitive situations that led to death in many cases. At the same time, without those unions of yesteryear, we would be at a different place today.
There is a time and place for everything. The unions did great things that caused many laws to be enacted in support of the working man (excuse me, ‘person’ in the PC world). The got the childes and women out of sweat shops, etc. But, IMHO, they are outdated today. I have been through five union elections, both as peon and management, and only one election won. AT&T in Atlanta was split between union and non-union locations. The union used the easiest trick of all, they sent out ‘Interest’ cards. If you want more info on what we can do for you, fill out this card and we will let you know. In GA, that is as good as a vote and the union came in without an election. The first thing that happened was, the non-union section received a pay cut to put them in line with the union side. All I can see from unions is, they promote mediocrity and protect the lazy ones. I saw many of my co-workers being told to slow down or face grievance charges, because they were making the others look bad. No! I am not a union man in today’s world.
I'm not a union person (PC) today either, but it never hurts to look back at situations where they made a positive difference in people's lives. Just a matter of perspective.
Most people earn precisely what they're worth. That can be a wounding statement but it's true. Union membership acts as a parasitic element in today's world that does more to institutions – such as education – than it does to help it.
I think you would really enjoy this conference by Father Ripperger, who used to be our pastor, on How to Raise a Man. A quite brilliant man. It involves "work" as being essential to raising men.
It's an hour, but for all the little men in your family, it would be well worth their time (and your kids) to listen to it.
There's also a follow up Question and Answer session.
I'm obviously not raising little men at this time, but I thoroughly enjoyed listening.
Thanks for an interesting history lesson.
It's part of US history that is seldom discussed. Because it doesn't involve minority people, there is no drum beating to recall it and discuss it.
I will pass this on to my daughters, who are actually raising little men/tigers. Thank you.
In my state, it was the Ludlow Massacre.
A few years ago vandals decapitated several of the statues.
It's shocking to modern ears and eyes to see what was, and how things have changed for the better.
Interesting history lesson.
The days when unions were beneficial to the common man are gone.The changes they brought for the betterment of working conditions were good. Now the only ones benefiting are the big bosses.
And the unions are bitterly clinging to power – sort of like a dinosaur when its kind is dying off because the climate changed.
Exactly. Most unions have outlived their usefulness and are now the thugs they tried to protect their members from.
I don't believe I ever heard of this when I was in school back when. Thanks for a bit of history.
Bangers? Yes, please.
Some people say that there's two sorts of Americans, those who lived through the Depression and those who didn't. That may well be true and I count the old labor conflict as part of that.
Me? I'd have been on the side of the miners, lock, stock and barrel. Of course that's easy to say when there aren't bullets flying. But that was then, this is now.
Today's socialist is a Hollywood millionaire who votes for the wealthy commies that put West Virginia out of work so that coal company shares can be bought on the cheap by Democrat cronies, and the rest of it.
But maybe DJT will bring jobs back and make us all better off. If he doesn't… well, I'd say trouble's in the wings.
Soros put a lot of his money into coal when Barack put them out of business. Trump vindicated his purchase because the stock is up. Riddle me that one.
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