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.