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Blair Mountain

One Million Rounds: The Battle of Blair Mountain

By Vince Ceraso - The Socialist, August 29, 2021

When you think of violent labor disputes, which come to mind? For some, it may be the infamous 1886 Haymarket Affair, 1912 Lawrence textile strike (famously known as Bread & Roses), 1894 Pullman Strike, or something as modern as the 1991 Justice for Janitors police riot. But not many will recall the Battle of Blair Mountain, a week-long civil war that took place in West Virginia during the late summer of 1921. Some 13,000 mineworkers took on 3,000 law enforcement officials, military personnel, and the usual local scabs. Rather than take oppression sitting down, these miners put on their hard hats and geared up for war. However, despite the numbers, the miners suffered a crushing defeat and what resulted was the near collapse of the United Mineworkers of America. But how did it all begin?

In the spring of 1912, West Virginian mineworkers, who all lived in small towns near their respective coal fields, attempted to negotiate contracts with the mining companies to give them higher pay raises and union dues that would be automatic. As you might expect, negotiations fell through, resulting in 7,500 workers going on strike throughout West Virginia. Even local supporters who were not mineworkers joined in. This caught the unwanted attention of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, a private police force that was called to the task of using brutality, fear, and intimidation to break up strikes. To really send the message, the agents began evicting miners from their homes, for unionizing with the UMWA.

Eventually, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, co-founder of the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World, joined the strikers, but was later arrested for her involvement in the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike of 1912. In the early months of the year-long said strike, the miners issued their own declaration of war against the West Virginian government. Several instances of guerilla-style conflicts began to explode in Kanawha County, WV. Things got so bad that WV Governor William E. Glasscock placed the region under martial law. After a year of bloody combat, more than 50 people were reported dead. The Paint Creek-Creek Cabin strike was the beginning of a 9-year labor conflict, now famously referred to as the West Virginia Mine Wars.

Fast-forward to 1920. The Baldwin-Felts agents were at it again, ransacking homes and evicting miners and their families at the Pocahontas Coalfield in the town of Matewan in Mingo County, West Virginia. This time around, they came face to face with Sid Hatfield, the Matewan police chief and beloved labor organizer. Unlike the vast majority of cops in West Virginia, Chief Hatfield was very outspokenly pro-union, using his position of authority to protect striking workers. He confronted the Baldwin-Felts agents and threatened to arrest them, prompting the agents to brag about their own arrest warrants against Hatfield.

Over the years, the circumstances of what happened next have been debated, but according to official court transcripts published in David Alan Corbin’s Gun Thugs, Rednecks & Radicals: A Documentary History of the West Virginia Mine Wars, an eyewitness testified that Cabell Testerman, the mayor of Matewan, said outright that the detectives’ warrants were “bogus,” triggering an angry Albert Felts, one of the heads of the Baldwin-Felts agency, to pull a firearm from his briefcase and shoot the mayor, who died of his wounds minutes later. Immediately after, Hatfield began firing, and a firefight between him and the agents ensued. When the dust settled, one miner, an innocent bystander, seven Baldwin-Felts agents and Mayor Testerman lay dead, while several other townsfolk were wounded in the crossfire.

Sept. 4, 1921: Battle of Blair Mountain Ends

By Brandon Nida - Zinn Education Project, September 4, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

September 4 marks the end of fighting at the Battle of Blair Mountain, which was the largest example of class war in U.S. history. It was fought over the course of five days in 1921 by 10,000 coalminers. The coalminers were rebelling against inhumane conditions in the West Virginia coalfields. The region led the nation in mine fatalities and the coal companies controlled almost every aspect of mining families’ lives.

The miners had attempted to unionize for decades, but were constantly blocked by a corrupt political system, brutal intimidation for organizers, and other forms of harassment such as blacklisting where union sympathizers were barred from working in the region.

These struggles all came to a head when the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) went on a national strike in 1919. The southern coalfields of West Virginia at this time were the only major coal-producing region that was non-union. The continued production in the region during the strike seriously undercut the UMWA’s position. After the national strike was resolved, the UMWA set their sights on the problematic region.

This began two years of determined efforts on the miners’ part to unionize these fields. The first efforts were focused on Logan County. The union organizers met stiff resistance from the county sheriff, Don Chafin, who was in the employment of coal operators. Chafin used intimidation, beatings, and even murder to keep the union out.

EcoUnionist News #52

Compiled by x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, June 16, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

The following news items feature issues, discussions, campaigns, or information potentially relevant to green unionists:

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An Injury to One is an Injury to All:

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