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Mary Harris "Mother" Jones

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.

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