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1919 - West Virginia Coal Fields

In 1901 a more vigorous effort to organize the miners of West Virginia succeeded in the forming of 80 locals, with approximately 5,000 members. In 1902 a State miners' convention was held at Hunington, which was attended by representatives of the 'mountain whites' and Negro workers. In the strike that followed, 16,000 miners quit work in the Kanawha, New River, and Norfolk and western districts in the down-State area. Injunctions were issued as fast as new strikes were called, so that the strikers, blocked by the courts and militiamen, finally agreed to a compromise settlement. Only in the small area in the Kanawha field did the union gain recognition.

Efforts of the national union to organize the rest of West Virginia were unsuccessful. The operators, in order to compete with Northern fields for Northern coal markets, reduced their production costs, the chief item of which the wages of the miners; and the drive against unions was intensified. By a decision based on an old common-law provision, the miners were deprived of the right to organize, and the worker who wanted a job had to sign away his right to join a union. Private armed guards were employed by the operators in increasing numbers; deputy sheriffs, commissioned by the country officers, were paid by the companies.

By 1907, protests against private guards were so numerous that Governor Dawson referred to them in his message to the legislature: 'They are used at some of the collieries to protect the property of owners, to prevent trespassing , and especially to prevent labor agitators and organizers of a miners' union from gaining access to the miners. Many outrages have been committed by these guards, many of whom appear to be vicious and dare-devil men who seem to add to their viciousness by bull-dozing and terrorizing people.'

Paint Creek miners struck in April 1912, when the operators withdrew from the Kanawha agreement and attempted to enforce working conditions such as existed in adjacent nonunion areas. Cabin Creek Valley and New River miners who joined the strike were evicted from their homes and had to live in tent colonies. Martial law was declared on three occasions.

In this strike, the miners were aided by 'Mother' Jones, heroine of many American labor struggles. The United Mine Workers rallied around her, as she led marches of angry miners and faced machine guns at Paint Creek. Mother Jones was jailed many times at Logan and finally, in 1913, was court-martialed and sentenced to 20 years. A tireless worker for unionism, Mother Jones would not be termed a 'radical' today. Opposed to the 'I.W.W. and Bolshevism,' she advocated industrial peace based on reconciled differences between capital and labor.

Three thousand miners petitioned Governor Glasscock to recall guards patrolling the Kanawha Valley region and Paint Creek, but no action was taken. After 16 months a climax was reached, when a volley fired from an armored train into the tent shelters of the miners at Holly Grove killed a man and a woman and wounded 16 other persons. An armed force of miners marching toward Mucklow were met by a posse led by mine guards; in the battle that followed, 12 miners and 4 guards were killed. Governor Glasscock then sent two companies of militia to restore quiet.

When reports of the mine wars were spread across the front pages of the Nation's newspapers, Senator Kern of Indiana sponsored a resolution in the United States Senate to investigate the situation. Among other abuses, the investigating committee condemned acts of the military tribunals and the use of armed guards.

Governor Henry D. Hatfield, a year later, proposed that the operators concede to the miners the following points: right to organize, a 9-hour work day, right to trade in other than company stores, semi-monthly pay days, and no discrimination against union men. Both the miners and the operators agreed to these terms, and the strike ended April 28, 1913.

For several years, especially during the first World War, quiet prevailed, as the industry strained to meet increasing demands for fuel. Many new mines were opened, but, although half of the State's coal miners were organized by the end of the war, the new fields stubbornly remained nonunion. In spite of intimidation, the miners were organizing the fields around Logan and Williamson, and in September 1919 union miners assembled in large force near the Logan County line to march on Logan, in an attempt to organize the miners there. They were turned back by Governor Cornwell's promise to investigate the miners' grievances in Logan County.

A lockout that had important repercussions took place in May 1920 at Matewan in Mingo County. Operators imported Baldwin-Felts detectives and evicted union miners from the company houses, whereupon open warfare broke out in the streets of the town. In a battle between miners and mine guards, the Baldwin-Felts men were routed by the blazing six-shooter of Matewan's late chief of police, Syd Hatfield, an officer of the Old-West type.

In a three-hour battle between guards and strikers in Mingo County, on the morning of August 21, 1920, six men were killed and score wounded. Governor Cornwell requested the aid of federal troops, declaring the state militia was unable to cope with the situation. President Harding dispatched 500 regulars of the United States Army, but District President Keeney, of the United Mine Workers (District 17), threatened a general strike in the State unless the Federal soldiers discontinued 'strike-breaking activities.' Governor Cornwell consented to their withdrawal, but fresh outbreaks brought them back, and martial law was declared.

Several thousand miners and their families spent the winter of 1920-21 in tent colonies, and in May 1921 armed conflict resumed. Again martial law was declared, this time by Governor Morgan. Union miners of the Paint Creek and Cabin Creek fields mobilized to go over to Logan and organize the miners there and, if necessary, to fight force with force. Don Chafin, sheriff of Logan County, gathered an army of 500 deputies. The governor appealed to the War Department for troops to avert a clash, and an officer was sent to observe the situation. A battle seemed imminent, until District President Keeney persuaded miners to turn back. They had started to disperse, when news came that, on the night of August 28, armed deputies had killed five miners. Immediately, the men took up their march again; automobiles were commandeered, and several thousand miners advanced.

Meanwhile the operators had collected their forces; machine guns and airplanes were brought in, and steel vests issued to the deputies. The miners entrenched themselves along the mountain ridge, not far from Blair, and withstood successive attacks during a four-day battle. At the governor's appeal for aid, President Harding ordered the miners to disperse, but they refused. Their ranks were daily enlarged by miners from Kentucky, Ohio, and northern West Virginia fields. After the arrival of 2,100 soldiers for the regular United States Army and squadron of government plans, the miners gradually retreated. Finally 600 men surrendered to Federal troops; they were dismissed and sent home.

As a result of these efforts to win the right to organize, a Logan County grand jury indicted 325 miners for treason and 200 for conspiracy and bearing arms; all were acquitted. The miners' defeat in Logan and Mingo Counties was felt by the unions throughout the State, and, whereas in 1920 the UMWA had approximately 45,000 paid-up members in West Virginia, by 1929 there were barely a thousand in the union.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:36:37 Zulu