Why We Celebrate Labor Day
September 5th, 2011
I know this isn’t an LGBT-related topic, but is one that has a direct bearing on how we regard each other as Americans and as human beings. Seven years ago, I had a much more personal blog where I posted stuff that a lot of people posted about before there was such a thing as Facebook and Twitter and the incredible shrinking of the American Attention Span. Since today is Labor Day, and because I’ve already alluded to my Appalachian background today, here’s a story that I’ll bet you’ve never heard before, and one that I think should be required learning in every American History class.
The West Virginia Mine Wars
Originally written September 3, 2004
The United States was at war in August, 1921. I’ll bet you didn’t know that. I learned about it some five years ago, and I think it is one of the more fascinating chapters in American history. In today’s election year, political discourse has broken down to an acrimonious level that I haven’t seen in my lifetime. But as bad as it is today, things really have been worse. This story has some very cautionary lessons for today.
The war in question was known as the West Virginia Mine War. Actually, there had been two wars. The first one took place in 1913, but the most dramatic confrontation was in 1921 at the Battle of Blair Mountain.
Today’s conflicts in the Middle East are illuminated against the backdrop of oil. But at the turn of the twentieth century before the dawn of the automobile age, coal was the principal fuel in the United States and the rest of the industrialized world. It ran the factories, steamships and railroads, and it heated the schools, churches and homes. The country’s appetite for coal was insatiable, and we were consuming it as fast as it could be brought out of the ground. Poor white workers and immigrants were brought to West Virginia on the promise of plentiful jobs. And indeed jobs were plentiful, but the conditions in the coal fields made the coal miners virtual slaves.
A miner who moved his family to West Virginia would have put his family in a company-owned home, paying rent to the company up front. Since the miner didn’t have any money, the company would extend credit so his family could have a roof over their heads. Then he and his family would be given credit at the company store for food and other necessities. When the miner showed up at work, he found that he had to lease his tools and equipment from the company, but again the company would extend credit. From the very first day on the job, the miner was deeply in debt to the company.
The miner would be paid not by the hour, but by the ton of coal he extracted from the mine. His coal car ostensibly held 2,000 pounds of coal, but more commonly held 2,500 pounds. While the miner was supposed to be paid by the ton, he found that he was simply paid by the car load. Furthermore, in a practice known as “cribbing,” his pay would be docked for any slate or rock that the checkweighman found in the car, which was an arbitrary judgment call, subject to the checkweighman’s whims. Cheating was rampant.
When payday finally arrived at the end of the month (miners were typically paid monthly), the miner would discover that he was not paid in cash. Instead he was paid in company “scrip” which was accepted only in company-owned stores and other establishments at greatly inflated prices. But that didn’t matter much, because his debts were deducted from his pay, and that nearly always wiped out anything he might have had coming to him.
Unfortunately, the net effect of all of this was that the miner simply went deeper and deeper in debt to the company. And as long as he was in debt, he was legally bonded to the company. There literally was no escape for him.
The doctor was a company employee. So were the school teachers and preachers at the church – which was also company owned. This ensured that even the sermons they heard on Sunday towed the company line.
All of this was perfectly legal. The coal companies had already instituted a weakened state constitution in the 1870’s under which they were able to control the political climate of West Virginia. This allowed them to avoid paying taxes while enjoying tremendous legal advantages in acquiring and exploiting mineral rights.
The problems the miners faced weren’t just about money. Coal mines were notoriously dangerous. The coal operators refused to invest in even the simplest or cheapest safety equipment because, after all, it was cheaper to just hire another miner than to protect the lives of those who were already there. During the years of the First World War, miners were killed at a greater rate in the mines than American soldiers were on the battlefields of France.
These conditions weren’t limited to miners, but they had it the worst. Many industries paid in scrip and operated company stores and housing. Steelworkers routinely suffered horrible burns because the mills refused to provide simple protective clothing that was available at the time. The death toll was staggering. Railroad workers routinely had missing fingers and hands due to accidents in the rail yards – if they were lucky. Even autoworkers suffered long hours of repetitive motion and, in the case of Ford workers, intrusive company spying in their homes to make sure nobody drank off-hours. Industries throughout the country sought not only cheap, plentiful and compliant labor, but they often sought to exercise control over their employees’ private lives as well.
When miners tried to improve their conditions by joining a union, their families were evicted from their company homes. They were also subject to summary justice by private guards, most of whom were agents of the Baldwin-Feltz Detective Agency. These guards were hired by the coal operators to serve as the de-facto police force, but they often operated like modern-day paramilitary forces that we hear about so often in Latin America. But this wasn’t Columbia or Guatemala. This was in the United States.
The miners couldn’t turn to the local police for protection because they were often under the coal operator’s control as well. For example, the Logan Coal Operators Association paid Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin to beat, arrest, and otherwise harass anyone suspected of attending labor meetings.
“There is never peace in West Virginia because there is never justice. Injunctions and guns, like morphia, produce a temporary quiet. Then the pain, agonizing and more severe, comes again.”
— Mother Jones.
Mary Harris Jones was a staunch champion of miners and industrial workers. She started her campaign for workers rights by rallying against the widespread practice of child labor. Later, she became a key figure in union organizing activities, especially in the early days of the United Mine Worker’s Union. She was well into her seventies when she started working to organize the miners in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Colorado. Her feisty temperament shamed the tough men of the mines into standing up for their rights and their families. This little old Irish widow with a fiery temper became known throughout the labor movement as “Mother Jones”.
She cajoled presidents and captains of industry. She was thrown into jails and vilified by the public press for advancing the cause of coal miners and other workers. And she didn’t hesitate to admonish the union leadership whenever petty squabbles threatened to throw everything into chaos. She was a powerful voice that could not be ignored or silenced. Industrialist and politicians called her “the most dangerous woman in America.”
She was a fearless firebrand who was able to rally the coarse mountain men and give voice to their cause to the outside world. It was puzzling to many that this very old woman could be such an inspiration to these tough men. Women weren’t looked to as leaders in the rough Appalachian mining culture, but they adopted her as “the miner’s angel” nevertheless. She organized relief efforts when the miner’s families were thrown out of their homes and into makeshift camps, and she challenged the miners’ very sense of manhood to go out and fight for their families.
Mother Jones was involved in union activities during the Paint Creek and Cabin Creek strikes in 1920. These strikes lead to further union organizing efforts in Mingo County, which finally reached the small town of Matewan.
On May 19th, Matewan agents of the Baldwin-Feltz agency began evicting hundreds of families of miners who had joined the union. When the mayor and police chief intervened, the company guards tried to arrest the police chief on a bogus warrant. (This goes to show how brazen the private guards were.) Mayor C.C. Testerman stepped in to prevent the illegal arrest but the company guards shot and killed him. More gunfire broke out, and when it was over ten were dead and four were injured.
Police Chief Sid Hatfield was the hero of the day, but the “Matewan Massacre” sparked a low-level guerrilla war through the remainder of 1920 and into 1921, in which over one hundred striking miners were killed. On August 1, 1921, Sid Hatfield and his best friend Ed Chambers were assassinated on the steps of the Welch courthouse by Baldwin-Feltz detectives. They were killed in front of their wives in broad daylight.
All hell broke loose. On August 7, several thousand miners gathered on the lawn of the state capital in Charleston where union leaders called for a march on Logan. They assembled at Lens Creek, just inside the Logan County line on August 20th. Mother Jones, fearing a devastating setback if the miners were defeated in their attempt to take over Logan, tried to convince the miners to turn back, but they refused to follower her advice. Instead, they moved on to Sharples on August 27th after the state police killed two miners in raid there.
The miners organized themselves along military lines – many had served in WWI just a few years earlier. They adopted the red neckerchief as their uniform. Many people today believe that the term “redneck” came from the red neckerchiefs worn by those miners. They advanced by foot, automobile and commandeered trains to the town of Blair at the foot of Blair Mountain, which overlooks the region’s principal town of Logan, home of the hated Sheriff Don Chafin.
Three counties were in open rebellion. The governor placed the state under martial law. On September 1st President Harding called out the U.S Army Air Corps with orders to bomb U.S citizens for the only time in America’s history. The Secretary of War even authorized Brigadier General Billy Mitchell (who later became the father of the U.S. Air Force) to use chemical weapons against the miners. Fortunately, the canvas and birch biplanes were too primitive to carry out the job and no chemical weapons were ever deployed.
Sheriff Don Chafin raised an army of 1200 men to man the barricades along the crest of Blair Mountain. National Guard Colonel William Eubank brought in a few planes to try to bomb the miners. A few bombs were dropped, but no major damage was done.
When federal troops finally arrived from Ft. Thomas, Kentucky on September 3rd, most of the miners decided that it was foolhardy to fight against the much-better equipped army. Confronted with such overwhelming force, they hid their guns in the mountains, removed their neckerchiefs, and went home. By the next day, the Battle of Blair Mountain was over, with at least twelve miners and four of Sheriff Don Chafin’s men dead.
Several hundred miners were tried for treason, murder and other crimes. The miners’ crushing defeat set union activities back in southern West Virginia for the next twelve years, although it did succeed in prompting numerous federal inquiries and nationwide awareness of the conditions in the coal fields. But little changed for the miners until the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, when New Deal legislation in 1933 finally outlawed many of the practices of the coal operators and guaranteed the rights of workers to organize.
These miners fought hard for the simplest of things: the right to shop wherever they wanted, the right to be paid in cash instead of worthless scrip, the abolition of cribbing, the right to attend a church that was not run by the company, and the right to be furnished – free of charge – their tools and safety equipment. These miners fought for a respectable wage, decent and safe working conditions, freedom from arbitrary and capricious workplace rules, and a measure of dignity in their work and freedom in their lives.
It is easy to believe that unions are no longer necessary, but we must remember the conditions that led to their rise. They fought hard for the freedoms we enjoy, and which we often assume can never be taken away. But no one should ever assume our freedoms are assured. It has been my observation that the industries with the “worst” unions are the industries which have richly earned them the most.
I think it is very appropriate that our summer season is bracketed by two holidays which commemorate those who fought for our freedoms. The summer season begins with Memorial Day, in which we honor the soldiers, sailors and airmen and -women who defended our freedom against foreign enemies. The summer season ends with Labor Day, in which we honor the workers who fought and paid their price for freedom as well. These men and women are heroes, every bit as much as those who served in uniform. The symmetry of the two holidays is very fitting.
For more information on the West Virginia Mine Wars, check out this web site by the Friends of Blair Mountain, dedicated to preserving the historically-significant battlefield.