By George Binette
In the late spring of 2021 US dignitaries and politicians including President Joe Biden gathered in Tulsa, Oklahoma to mark the hundredth anniversary of one of the worst racist pogroms in the nation’s history. For decades the horrific two-day assault on the relatively prosperous, predominantly African-American Greenwood district of Oklahoma’s largest city had been ignored by the US political establishment and certainly didn’t feature in widely accessible history books despite the violence claiming scores of lives.
This August-September sees another rather different centenary, which will see several local commemorations but no national or even state-wide event. In the late summer of 1921, a multi-ethnic group of unionised coal miners and their supporters in the hills of West Virginia mounted what remains the largest armed rebellion by organised workers in US history. Unlike the Lawrence, Massachusetts strike of 1912 involving thousands of migrant women workers in that city’s textile industry, there was no enduring catchphrase such as “Bread and Roses”.
Dubbed “the battle of Blair Mountain”, the events in West Virginia 100 years ago gained no mention in Howard Zinn’s seminal People’s History of the United States, in contrast to the extraordinarily brutal massacre by National Guardsmen in Ludlow, Colorado in April 1914, which claimed the lives of more than 20 striking miners and family members.
And yet the confrontation between armed miners and sympathisers on one side, and organised strike-breakers and official state forces – including aircraft – at Blair Mountain marked the culmination of a tumultuous decade of working-class revolt across much of the United States. Furthermore, it arguably helped lay the basis for the ultimately successful union organising drives of the mid-1930s.
A Brutal Growth Industry
The West Virginia coalfields, spread across much of the state but were concentrated in Logan and Mingo counties. The extraction of bituminous coal from West Virginia mines mushroomed from the 1880s until output had approached 90 million tonnes by 1917. With the industry’s expanding demand for labour came an ethnically diverse workforce, composed of African-Americans from former Confederate states alongside recent migrants from southern and eastern Europe, as well as former small farmers of Scottish-Irish heritage.
The mining areas had been a focal point of bitter class conflict for nearly three decades. That conflict intensified dramatically from 1912 onwards and became known regionally as the “mine wars”.
Mine-owners were implacably hostile to unionisation, especially in the southwestern part of the state, with several operating notorious company towns with their own local ‘currencies’. The sack, frequently meted out to those identified as members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), would also mean the loss of housing in such towns. The mining bosses sought with some success to exploit ethnic divisions in their efforts to derail unionisation drives.
Conditions in the mines were deplorable, with fatalities an almost routine occurrence. The single worst mining disaster in US history took place at a colliery near Monongah, West Virginia, claiming 361 lives in December 1907. Dozens more had perished in mining tragedies elsewhere in the state earlier that same year.
The powerful 1987 film Matewan (named for a tiny mining town), directed by John Sayles, recounts in slightly fictional form a violent clash that proved a crucial prelude to the Blair Mountain showdown. At Matewan elected local officials, including police chief Sid Hatfield, boldly broke with the Stone Mountain Coal Company’s owners. He backed the union-organising drive and eventually engaged in a gunfight with thugs from the Baldwin-Felts detective agency, a viciously anti-union outfit akin to a regional version of the infamous Pinkertons. The May 1920 shootout, which left ten dead among them seven Baldwin-Felts agents, gave renewed impetus to the UMWA’s organising drive in Mingo County.
A Week that Shook West Virginia
Through the summer and autumn months of 1920 the UMWA’s ranks grew even as the coal companies’ resistance to union recognition remained ferocious. There were periodic gun battles in mining settlements dotted along the Tug River with state police smashing up a striking miners’ encampment in late June. By the following spring, however, the mine owners had begun to regain the upper hand with considerable assistance from local and state law enforcement, who paved the way for strikebound mines to reopen with replacement workers from out of state and former UMWA members, whose spirits had been broken.
Meanwhile, Sid Hatfield gained iconic status among union supporters, aiding efforts to arm those miners committed to battling the coal bosses. Though acquitted in connection with the deaths of the Baldwin-Felts agents at Matewan, Hatfield faced other criminal charges in 1921, following an act of industrial sabotage using dynamite to destroy a mine’s loading platform. When Hatfield went to attend a court hearing in McDowell county at the start of August 1921, Baldwin-Felts employees awaited his arrival and gunned down both him and a close friend inside the courthouse with impunity. The Hatfield assassination was a critical catalyst to the events that would unfold over the next five weeks.
Within days of Hatfield’s murder UMWA miners had amassed for a rally in the state capital of Charleston, where union representatives presented a petition outlining miners’ demands to West Virginia governor Ephraim Morgan, who categorically rejected them, so fuelling the widespread anger. By this stage the legendary syndicalist firebrand, Mary Harris “Mother Jones”, co-founder of the Wobblies (the Industrial Workers of the World), had arrived back in West Virginia. Jones, by now aged 83, urged caution and argued against a march by miners into Logan and Mingo counties for fear of a blood-soaked defeat. Her advice went unheeded, and her credibility was undermined when a letter she produced favourable to the miners’ demands, supposedly from the White House, proved a forgery.
Armed UMWA members began to assemble at an encampment in Kanawha county over the next fortnight. By 24th August their numbers had swelled to between 10,000 and 15,000 before setting off to the Logan county coalfield. Faced with indictments for murder, two of the union’s leading regional figures left the armed march and fled across state lines into neighbouring Ohio. In their absence Bill Blizzard became a de facto commander of the unofficial miners’ army.
Awaiting their arrival was a force of some 2,000 lawmen under the command of union-busting Sheriff Don Chafin, funded by the employers’ umbrella body, the Logan County Coal Operators’ Association. The mine-owners’ forces prepared a battle line at the edge of Blair Mountain. While thousands of UMWA supporters were converging on Logan county, the march was fragmented with huge gaps. The miners, though often armed with pistols and shotguns, were at a significant disadvantage in terms of weaponry.
Skirmishes initially broke out on 25th August and continued into the next day. President Warren G Harding, a Republican, who would later die in office amidst the Teapot Dome bribery scandal, had only moved into the White House in the spring of 1921. On the second day of the escalating gun battles, he threatened to impose martial law across four West Virginia counties and authorised the use of aerial bombing.
A mass meeting of the marchers eventually decided to retreat from Logan county, but Sheriff Chafin had no intention of allowing them to leave peacefully. Word spread of Chafin’s men shooting UMWA sympathisers with women and children caught in the crossfire, leading many of the marchers to resume the advance towards Blair Mountain either on foot or in commandeered trains.
By 29th August gun battles had reached fever pitch, while private planes dropped bombs and poisonous gas canisters on the miners. General Billy Mitchell, widely regarded as the founder of the US Air Force, ordered the use of military planes for surveillance with one of the reconnaissance flights ending in a fatal crash. The next day Governor Ephraim Morgan placed Colonel William Eubanks of the West Virginia National Guard in charge of the forces opposing the miners’ march and on 2nd September federal troops arrived, which prompted Bill Blizzard to encourage a withdrawal from further battles.
Aftermath and Legacy
Sporadic exchanges of gunfire continued for several days afterwards, but the arrival of the US Army soldiers effectively ended the main battle. Around 30 of Chafin’s men had died; there is no exact figure for the number of miners and supporters killed in the conflict, though estimates range between 50 and 100, with hundreds of others wounded.
From 3rd September onwards the authorities pursued the defeated UMWA marchers, eventually arresting and charging 985 with a variety of offences including conspiracy, murder and treason against the state of West Virginia. The vast majority of those charged were ultimately acquitted by local juries with Bill Blizzard among those cleared in a trial where the defence displayed an unexploded bomb, which had been dropped from a plane, to highlight the extraordinary force unleashed against the miners’ march. He was, however, expelled from the UMWA at the behest of the union’s national president John L Lewis.
Among those convicted of lesser charges, all were released from prison within four years. Nonetheless, the Battle of Blair Mountain proved a significant setback for the UMWA in West Virginia, with its estimated membership in the state falling by nearly 80% over the course of the 1920s.
Elsewhere, the decade also saw the union’s foothold weakened in the Pennsylvania and Kentucky coalfields. It was a period of retreat for unions more generally following the nativist repression of the left with the so-called Palmer Raids in late 1919 and early 1920, and the defeat of the rail unions in a national strike in 1922 with the federal government again intervening with force on behalf of the railway bosses.
On the other hand, media coverage of the Blair Mountain events probably served to generate wider public sympathy for the miners’ grievances as well as shock at the scale of force used to suppress their rebellion. The following decade saw a dramatic revival in the UMWA’s fortunes as part of the much wider wave of unionisation across swathes of US industry against the backdrop of the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal. However, organised workers’ gains once more came at the price of further bloodshed, not least during the “Memorial Day massacre” in May 1937 where police and company security officers shot dead ten unarmed strikers and seriously wounded 13 others near the Republic Steel mill in Chicago.
As for West Virginia a century on from the culmination of the “mine wars”, the state is synonymous to many with overwhelming support for Donald Trump in 2016 and ’20. Trump did indeed win the state twice by thumping margins, partly as a reflection of the social conservatism reinforced by evangelical Christian churches and partly down to the largely false promise that he would oversee a revival of the state’s still significant, if much reduced, coal and steel industries.
This isn’t, however, the whole story. In 2016 Bernie Sanders easily won the state’s Democratic presidential primary. Two years later largely successful strike action by teachers and other education workers across the state sparked a “Red for Ed” wave that swept across several states. For many of the key activists, some involved with the Democratic Socialists of America, the history of the “mine wars” still resonates.
Meanwhile, the coal industry remains a significant part of the state’s economy with some 30,000 workers still employed in the industry as of 2018, accounting for the majority of coal miners in the US as a whole. The horrible dangers persist as well, with the 2010 Upper Big Branch colliery disaster claiming 29 lives. Four years earlier a dozen miners perished in an explosion at the Sago mine.
Though diminished in size and influence, the UMWA has survived and retained something of its reputation for militancy with nearly 1,100 of its members currently waging a months-long battle with the company Warrior Met in Alabama. Ironically, the controlling shares in Warrior Met are controlled by the “greenwashing” asset management giant BlackRock, a recent employer of ex-UK chancellor George Osborne.
George Binette is Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP Trade Union Liaison Officer, who writes in a personal capacity.
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