Between August 25 and September 2, 1921 over 100 men gave their lives for rights we now take for granted. But this wasn’t a battle on some foreign shore. No lingering conflict from the recently ended first World War. No. It was the Battle of Blair Mountain, a seminal episode in the Coal Wars and the largest armed uprising on American soil since the Civil War.
The battle in Logan County, West Virginia resulted from efforts by the United Mine Workers to organize in coal fields there – efforts that led to an armed response from the coal companies, who called in private detectives and other strikebreakers to evict the families of union sympathizers from company housing and otherwise intimidate efforts by labor organizers.
The Battle of Blair Mountain, and the Coal Wars, had their roots in the Matewan Massacre, that occurred after members of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency hired by the Stone Mountain Coal Company began evictions that local police chief Sid Hatfield declared illegal. Hatfield attempted to arrest the Baldwin-Felts detectives, but they responded by stating they had a warrant for Hatfield’s arrest. Though Mayor Cabell Testerman – who had turned down previous bribery attempts from the detective agency – declared the Baldwin-Felts warrant bogus the detectives refused to back down, leading to a gunfight that resulted in the deaths of three locals and seven of the Baldwin-Felts detectives, including the mayor and both Albert and Lee Felts, brothers of the agency’s co-owner Thomas Felts.
The Matewan Massacre, as it came to be called, was a spark that helped ignite the Coal Wars. But the keg had been full of powder and waiting for that spark for some time. Conditions in coal camps were abhorrent and families – some forced off their own land by the terms of the broad form mineral deeds granted to the coal companies – had few other options. Not only were workers often required to live in the camps, in company housing they were required to rent from their employers, but almost all were paid at least partly in scrip that could only be used in company owned or affiliated stores. Scrip was especially likely to pay advances on salary, leading to a cycle of debt and dependency.
As we come out of another Labor Day holiday, it’s important to remember that many of these employment protections – including safety protections – that we take for granted in our current jobs were bought and paid for with blood. Blood and years of hard work by unions and labor organizers. While efforts to unionize coal fields had a downturn after President Warren G. Harding and state officials backed the coal companies – who had gone so far as to drop homemade and WWI surplus poison and explosive bombs from privately owned planes on miners and their families – the Coal Wars helped shine a light on the conditions in Appalachia’s coal fields and raise awareness of exploitation there. The events that occurred in West Virginia and, later, in Kentucky with subsequent generations of union miners would eventually lead to greater labor organization and regulations leading to safer and more fair conditions for miners, and all of us.
So, though Labor Day is already behind us, we want to take this moment to say “thank you” to all the shop stewards, union organizers, and picket line walkers – past, present, and future – who have fought and continue to fight for the rights of workers everywhere.
Thanks too to the safety inspectors who make sure jobs stay as safe as possible for workers. Lots of jobs have inherent hazards that workers must accept and understand. But because of their work more of us can expect to return safely home to our families at the end of our shift.
Finally thank you to the union halls and their representatives who work tirelessly to bring more, better paying jobs to our region. Because of your work fewer of our men and women have to go on the road to provide for their families. Because of your work they can draw decent pay and still be home every evening for dinner with their families and present for their childrens’ ball games, spelling bees and music recitals.
Your work today is still appreciated, and the sacrifices of those who came before you will not be forgotten.