The heights of solidarity at Blair Mountain

March 9, 2018

No one could miss the importance of labor history in the backdrop to the West Virginia teachers' strike. Elizabeth Schulte recounts one of that history's inspiring chapters.

WHEN WEST Virginia teachers organized their nine-day strike, one thing that many workers living in this "right-to-work" state made clear was that their struggle was part of a long tradition.

This was especially true for teachers from coal-mining areas in the southern part of the state. "When I was in diapers, he was involved in a mine strike," Justin Endicott, a fourth-grade teacher in Mingo County, told the New York Times, speaking of his father.

Teachers wore red bandannas, bringing with them a fight that went back to 1921 and the miners' struggle, called the Battle of Blair Mountain, one of largest and bloodiest labor battles in U.S. history.

For five days in August 1921 in Logan County, thousands of mine workers fought a pitched battle with Logan County sheriff's deputies who were trying to block their march to organize the mines in the area. Private planes were used to drop bombs on the miners' forces, and state and federal troops were sent in to try to quash the rebellion.

This wasn't the area's first battle between miners and the coal companies in the south of the state. The 1912 Cabin Creek strike revealed workers' resolve to unionize--and also the vicious brutality of the mine owners, who sent in armed agents from the notorious Baldwin-Felts security firms to put a stop to them.

Striking coal miners after the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia
Striking coal miners after the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia

Mineworkers worked in some of the most dangerous working conditions, with the coal companies dictating every aspect of their lives, inside and outside the mine. Workers paid the company directly for their housing, and they bought their supplies from the company store, where the prices were calculated to make a profit for the company, no matter how small the wages miners took home.

The company worked hard to prevent sentiment for a union from taking root. Union sympathizers were blacklisted and workers were forced to sign "yellow dog" contracts vowing not to join a union.

This, however, didn't stop miners from their drive to organize into unions to fight for better wages and conditions. In the lead-up to the standoff at Blair Mountain, workers' unrest was percolating around the whole country, including a general strike in Seattle in 1919. Many workers were radicalized by their experience in the First World War.

At the same time, the federal government whipped up suspicion and persecution of socialists and other radicals during the war--the witch-hunt trial of socialist Tom Mooney in 1916 was an example. That attempt to vilify radicals and unions continued.

THE SOUTHERN part of the West Virginia is one of richest coal areas in the country, and for the United Mine Workers (UMW), which had successfully completed a national campaign to organize the coal mines, it was critical to win in these holdout areas in Logan, Mingo and McDowell Counties.

The UMW set up headquarters in Mingo County in early 1920 in Matewan, where there was a pro-union mayor and chief of police--the town was immortalized by the fictionalized 1987 movie directed by John Sayles. Hundreds of miners turned out to the first meeting, and thousands signed up for the union within months of organizing.

The workforce was made up of whites who had been born in the region, Blacks who had migrated from the Deep South, and European immigrants. The coal companies knew they could strengthen their hand by pitting workers against one another along racial and ethnic lines, so it wasn't uncommon for there to be segregated housing to encourage these divisions.

However, it was difficult to keep miners who worked in such close proximity to one another--and who had to rely on one another under dangerous working conditions--very far apart. To combat any racism that did exist among some white miners, the UMW consciously took measure to address it.

The UMW concentrated on challenging racism because of the interracial character of the workforce--and because of the constant threat that bigotry would eat away at the workers' most important weapon: solidarity. This was unique, though, for much of the official labor movement of the time, which focused on organizing skilled, white workers.

As Sharon Smith explains in Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States, in comparison with the racist record of the American Federation of Labor, which refused to organize Black and immigrant workers, the miners' union was an important exception:

The miners' union was part of the AFL but was industrial in structure. By 1900, earlier segregation policies had been overturned, and the vast majority of UMWA locals were "mixed," bringing immigrants, Blacks and whites into the same locals. This was true even in the segregated South...

All told, by 1902, the UMWA could claim 20,000 Black miners as union members, between 10 percent and 15 percent of the total membership.

In the case of organizing in West Virginia, the union saw the importance of having Black organizers. An armed Black miner even led a group of white miners during the heavy fighting at Blair Mountain.

In many ways, workers' organizing in West Virginia were way ahead of the federal government policy, since only a few years earlier, Black soldiers in the First World War had to served in segregated units.

IN RESPONSE to the miners' attempt to organize, the mine companies followed their regular practice--they fired workers known to be union sympathizers, and evicted them and their families from the company homes.

But when Baldwin-Felts agents came to Matewan, they were challenged by the sheriff, Sid Hatfield, who refused to be bribed into supporting the company. During an attempt by the Baldwin-Felts agents to take over the town on May 19, 1920,the pro-company agents were defeated in what became known as the Matewan Massacre.

After this blow against the forces of company terror, miners flooded into the UMW, and miners redoubled their efforts, calling their members in Mingo County out on strike in July.

When it looked like the union would win, the governor declared martial law in September and sent in troops to occupy Mingo. The company brought in strikebreakers to work the mines while pro-union mineworkers moved into tent cities.

After months of skirmishes between company forces and the miners, including deadly attacks on the workers' tent colonies, one event brought the struggle to a head. As Sid Hatfield climbed the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse to face framed-up charges of organizing an attack on pro-company forces, he was shot down by Baldwin-Felts agents.

The miners responded with a rally in Charleston, with thousands turning out. Afterward, the UMW members planned an armed march to Mingo that would go through Logan County, where Don Chafin, a loyal servant of the mine companies, was the sheriff.

The miners, wearing as part of their uniform the red bandannas around their necks that would later identify them as "rednecks," began marching on August 24, 1921. As Lon Savage wrote in Thunder In the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War, 1920-21:

Their fury tolerated no slackers...They commandeered every form of transportation: automobiles, trucks, teams of horses and mules and trains....Near Charleston, they halted a truck with a piano in the back, set the piano out on the road and loaded it with miners and forced the driver to take them to Blair...Black miners pushed into Jim Crow restaurants and demanded food, and it was served.

Art Shields described the gathering army of some 10,000 workers in an article for the left-wing magazine, The Liberator:

Thousands of miners, Black and white, came at the call: railroad men were there, atoning for the stain cast by the men who were transporting machine guns and thugs into Sheriff Don Chafin's Logan County lands; building trades men came who knew that the powerful miners' union held up all organized labor in West Virginia; and machinists and farmers' boys gathered with the rest. Among the lot were more than two thousand who had taken post-graduate lessons in shooting "over there."

CHAFIN'S FORCES, numbering some 3,000 special deputies and company guards, were waiting for them at Blair Mountain when the workers arrived five days later.

The miners' forces, many of them veterans of the First World War, were well-organized and experienced, and proved to be an intimidating force against Chafin's goons--who hired airplanes to drop homemade bombs made of as gun powder and iron nuts, as well as chlorine gas on the strikers' camps.

Eventually, President Warren G. Harding sent in federal troops to crush the miners' rebellion and force them to surrender their weapons.

The UMW did not win this particular fight. But the many lessons of the Battle of Blair Mountain weren't lost on several generations of West Virginia workers.

The story shows the brutal lengths that the bosses, with the help of local and federal government, will go to preserve their profits and stop workers' organizing. But it also reveals the strength of the workers' most powerful weapon--solidarity--in helping them to stand up and fight.

As one of the ballads miners sang on their march went:

Every little river must go down to the sea
All the slaving miners and our union will be free.
Going to march to Blair Mountain
Going to whip the company
And I don't want you weeping after me.

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