"the coal operators hired private planes to drop homemade bleach bombs"
August 25, 2013 1:13 PM   Subscribe

"On August 25, 1921, the largest labor insurgency in American history and the largest civil uprising since the Civil War began in Logan County, West Virginia when 10,000 miners and their supporters went to war with 3000 coal mine executives and their hired thugs. The Battle of Blair Mountain is one of the least known major events in American history." -- America's long labour history, even such spectacular events like the Battle of Blair Mountain, is largely unknown, but historian Erik Loomis is trying to change that with his This Day in Labor History series for Lawyers, Guns and Money.
posted by MartinWisse (36 comments total) 86 users marked this as a favorite
 
Fantastic. This Day in Labor History is an excellent resource, will keep me reading for a while.
posted by dubold at 2:11 PM on August 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


My dad's side of the family are a long line of labor organizers. Events like this were a part of my childhood storytime. As I grew older and joined the labor force myself, I began to really feel the importance of these previous events; so much of the stuff that got taken for granted as just a part of an equitable deal with management (e.g., overtime, weekends, workman's comp etc.) I understood as something people had to fight and sometimes die to achieve for the generations to come. Was really sobering to realize that labor struggle really never ends, and the history of that struggle is more often than not the history of footholds labor managed to gain, and not the benevolent generosity of capitalists raining favors down upon us ingrateful plebs.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:20 PM on August 25, 2013 [26 favorites]


See also the Ludlow massacre of 1914, featuring the first use of a machinegun mounted on an armoured vehicle, used in the killing of a tent full of striking miners.
posted by Artw at 2:21 PM on August 25, 2013 [7 favorites]


I wonder why they don't teach this in high school? he asked facetiously.
posted by entropicamericana at 2:54 PM on August 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


This is great thanks.
posted by Divine_Wino at 3:02 PM on August 25, 2013


Marisa Stole the Precious Thing said:

Was really sobering to realize that labor struggle really never ends, and the history of that struggle is more often than not the history of footholds labor managed to gain, and not the benevolent generosity of capitalists raining favors down upon us ingrateful plebs.

Yes.
posted by hal_c_on at 3:17 PM on August 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


The worker's flag is deepest red
It shrouded oft our martyred dead;
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold
Their life-blood dyed its every fold.


More literal than you'd think, really.
posted by Artw at 3:39 PM on August 25, 2013 [7 favorites]


The struggle continues. It's not as dramatic, but when Newt Gingrich says child-labor prohibitions are "truly stupid," when state and national political parties actively work to destroy unions, when all sorts of industries rely on overseas outsourcing, on temp and contract workers, and on restricting workers' hours to part-time levels - all in an effort to avoid giving benefits - it's clear that the gains of the early labor movement are in jeopardy.

Opposing the attack on Labor is not easy; the entire Establishment is stacked in their favor, not least the corporate-owned media.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:45 PM on August 25, 2013 [16 favorites]


There's still a struggle to preserve Blair Mountain from moutaintop removal as a historical landmark
posted by destro at 4:03 PM on August 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


Y'all have seen Matewan and Harlan County, USA, right? Fantastic films, both. And there's also a book about the Battle of Blair Mountain that I would recommend called, well, The Battle of Blair Mountain.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 4:07 PM on August 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


The struggle continues. It's not as dramatic, but when Newt Gingrich says child-labor prohibitions are "truly stupid," when state and national political parties actively work to destroy unions, when all sorts of industries rely on overseas outsourcing, on temp and contract workers, and on restricting workers' hours to part-time levels - all in an effort to avoid giving benefits - it's clear that the gains of the early labor movement are in jeopardy.

Opposing the attack on Labor is not easy; the entire Establishment is stacked in their favor, not least the corporate-owned media.


I would posit that the well-orchestrated attacks on labor that began in the early 80's (and continues apace) are the primary cause of our economic woes and dwindling middle class. We are back to fighting over table scraps.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 4:27 PM on August 25, 2013 [14 favorites]


There's a decent historical fiction novel about the Battle of Blair Mountain too: Storming Heaven, by Denise Giardina
posted by eviemath at 6:17 PM on August 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Among other things I do, I am an early member of the Blair Mountain Redneck Party. My great grandfather was a labor organizer. He helped found the Carpenter's Union. My mother also did labor organizing in canneries in California.
I was raised with stories of the Ludlow Massacre and of the struggles it took to get the United States out of the Great Depression.
Bad as things were then, and they were horrible, people did have more tendency to stand together than now.
Everything we have does come from people who risked it all to get it.
We were as a country had, totally had by trickle-down economics and
Promises of wealth. Meanwhile a lot more than the cheese got moved.
Never forget!
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 11:47 PM on August 25, 2013 [5 favorites]


The sad thing it's we are never going to see such a movement again. In the modern total surveillance state, it would be too easy to separate and imprison leaders before they got anywhere, and media control means that the strikers would be portrayed in a bad enough light that they wouldn't get any public support.

But the real problem? At least those workers cared about their jobs. They were willing to fight and die for their jobs. You couldn't find that commitment today, not when you get metafilter threads flat out stating that people shouldn't care about their jobs. The metafilter advice for people living in the miner's conditions would be to be ready to cut and run.

Simply, it won't happen again, because the people don't want it to. I don't want to speculate on why Europe went down one path and wet went down another, but the bottom line is that American society sends to want to become as close to a third world country as soon as possible.
posted by happyroach at 12:06 AM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


... Wait, you really think the Battle of Blair Mountain happened because those miners just loved mining so much?
posted by kyrademon at 3:41 AM on August 26, 2013 [5 favorites]


Yeah, that seems like a total misrepresentation of what those workers cared about. If somebody'd gone to those miners and said "I'll give you all factory jobs paying the same money," I doubt many of them would elect to keep mining. They wanted to provide for their families. The companies were making that difficult, and if there were an alternative, they would have taken it.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:31 AM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


why Europe went down one path and wet went down another

From Europe, it seems like those paths came together a while back and we're just a few steps behind you.
posted by knapah at 4:37 AM on August 26, 2013


This is particularly funny given both the tendency of union supporters these days to support voluntary disarmament, and the tendency of people who would support this history getting freaked out by open carry marches and whenever anyone from the Tea Party goes around armed.

This event started with 13,000 "fully armed" miners, not 13,000 miners with protest chants and signs.
posted by corb at 4:48 AM on August 26, 2013


"...it would be too easy to separate and imprison leaders "

I think this is much more untrue today than it's ever been. How many thousands of Americans are aware of some army private that's been kept in solitary for the last year or two for leaking data? How many thousands know about extraordinary rendition - with the help of a sub-community that tracks airplane tail numbers?

In the panopticon, the guards can see the prisoners, the prisoners cannot see the guards and the prisoners cannot see each other. Right now, the state is two for three. Not only is current surveillance state unable to isolate the surveillees from each other, the communication networks between the surveilled are improving yearly.

I think the common wisdom is wrong. The logistics of "workers unite" is easier now than ever.
posted by klarck at 5:30 AM on August 26, 2013


This is particularly funny given both the tendency of union supporters these days to support voluntary disarmament, and the tendency of people who would support this history getting freaked out by open carry marches and whenever anyone from the Tea Party goes around armed.

Yet you're the first one who has mentioned guns, gun control, or the Tea Party in this thread. Why not continue the conversation that's happening here, rather than debate your idea of a union supporter?

By 1921, union members had been killed by the National Guard, as well as by company employees. Read Artw's link to the Ludlow Massacre. When the same thing is happening to Tea Party members, a comparison will be apt.
posted by dubold at 6:41 AM on August 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


This is particularly funny given both the tendency of union supporters these days to support voluntary disarmament, and the tendency of people who would support this history getting freaked out by open carry marches and whenever anyone from the Tea Party goes around armed.

There's are some scenes in Harlan County, USA where you get the impression that the presence of the camera may be the only thing stopping someone from being killed. Both sides are armed at various points, but, of course, the company is going to be able to summon much more firepower than the striking miners. Realistically, if you're risking getting yourself killed either way, it's better strategy to get killed while unarmed.

(See also the Berkeley in the Sixties documentary for disproportionate attacks on protesters, though it's not about the labor movement.* That said, there is a part of that about the Black Panthers. Was that the last time any part of the American left tried the guns in public thing?)

*My perspective on that documentary is a little skewed because I was watching it around the corner from where some of the violence takes place (and the penning in people and gassing them from helicopters was somewhere I walked every day). It would probably be less intense now.
posted by hoyland at 6:42 AM on August 26, 2013


(And, I should add, I hope that it never does.)
posted by dubold at 6:42 AM on August 26, 2013


Corb, there is no point in me wasting my time in rebutting your nonsense.

But let me say, I am worried about your reading comprehension. Or, are you purposefully clueless?

Let me spell this out: This event did not start out of the blue, it did not start with 13,000 fully armed miners.
posted by Mister Bijou at 6:45 AM on August 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


Why not continue the conversation that's happening here, rather than debate your idea of a union supporter?

If by "the conversation", you mean, a crowd of people to show up, click their tongues, talk about how much better things were in the old days, how Labor is attacked, bosses are evil, etc, then I submit that is, in fact, no conversation at all, but a monologue.

There are important things to consider, not least why we think the way we do about these incidents, and if our biases are coming into play.

We think of company towns as immoral, and so we support any attempt to change them - view the armed miners as the ones who "fought and died for the future." But having a company town is not an act of war or violence. Nor is eviction from company housing. If houses in company towns are for employees, and you cease to be an employee, why should you remain there? When I was in the military, we lived in military housing. When you left the military, you left that housing.

"10,000 miners and their supporters" went to war with "3000 coal mine executives and their hired thugs". Why aren't the miners cited as thugs? Because thugs is a valuation word, which suggests that anyone opposing them is moral.

Union men attacked executives and their employees, but that is viewed as "war", while attacks on union organizers are viewed as "murder".

The so-called "Matewan Massacre" cited in the source posted above notes, again, "thugs" getting into a a "battle with the worker-sympathetic law enforcement officers." But in fact, a small group of company agents there to perform evictions were vastly outnumbered. No one knows who fired the first shot that killed Mayor Testerman - however, the sheriff Sid Hatfield cited as a hero did marry his wife afterwards. Seven detectives were killed, and three townspeople - but the "massacre" is viewed as against the union side, not the detective side, even though their deaths outnumbered the miners two-to-one.

So as you see - "justice" is never quite so clear cut as the presentation would have us believe. What is the difference between "armed miners demanding justice" and a mob, exactly?
posted by corb at 8:08 AM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Your claim that evicting someone from housing is not an act of violence doesn't even pass the laugh test, corb.

Also, the coal company thugs get called thugs for exactly the reason you stated: their opponents were fighting in the service of a moral cause while they were fighting in the service of a cause that's hard to see as anything but evil. The miners wanted to be paid for their work (and company scrip is not payment), they wanted to not be murdered for attempting to organize and bargain with their employer, they wanted children to not have to work in the mines, they wanted some justice to be brought to men who had murdered their friends and colleagues, and they wanted to not have to work 16 hours a day and then die at 30 from black lung in order to keep their families from starving. What did the coal company and the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency want? For the workers to shut up, work for free, and then die quietly when they stopped being productive.

On top of that, your comment attempts to completely ignore the context of the struggles. Why are the union men's attacks considered "war" and the company's attacks considered "murder"? The coal companies instigated the physical violence in every single altercation and they had been murdering anyone who spoke out against the conditions or attempted to improve things for decades. The union men's attacks were war instead of murder because they were fighting back and attempting not to be murdered by their employer (via physical violence or simply being worked to death).

I'm sympathetic to the idea that we can't necessarily trust just anyone who tells us a story, but you picked a really bad battle to fight here. The coal companies and their cronies are at cartoon supervillain levels of evil, here. I mean, for just one example, Sheriff Don Chafin ordered his men to open fire on miners who had already given up striking and were returning to their families. How can you possibly try to debate which group deserves to be called thugs?
posted by IAmUnaware at 9:03 AM on August 26, 2013 [6 favorites]


I'm sympathetic to the idea that we can't necessarily trust just anyone who tells us a story, but you picked a really bad battle to fight here. The coal companies and their cronies are at cartoon supervillain levels of evil, here. I mean, for just one example, Sheriff Don Chafin ordered his men to open fire on miners who had already given up striking and were returning to their families. How can you possibly try to debate which group deserves to be called thugs?

I think when we look at these stories - particularly when we look at stories of anyone being at "cartoon supervillain levels of evil" - we need to apply Occam's Razor. Why would anyone engage in these "cartoon supervillain levels of evil"? Very few people prefer to engage in evil for evil's sake. The actions of most people tend to follow a logical consistency, with what we know of their goals and their beliefs about how they would achieve those goals.

I don't ask that anyone assume nobility - but why would he do such a thing? How would it be profitable? How would it benefit him or the mine owners?

So we examine the problem. Alternate accounts have the miners armed march specifically calling for the death of Chafin - thus, effectively a lynch mob. Far from Chafin having "ordered his men to open fire on miners who had already given up striking and were returning to their families", sources have the re-initiation of gunfire on the 26th being due to an attempt to arrest some of the union leaders - which was met with violent resistance.

Was Chafin taking bribes to keep the union out? Absolutely, one hundred percent. There has been enough evidence given that it seems indisputable. But to be crass, there was no percentage in killing just for killing's sake. For him to kill people that were giving up striking and innocently returning to their homes is not just cruel, it did not advantage him in any way. Which, thus, is more likely? That he ordered his men to start firing into the crowd, firing up a conflagration that harmed him, or that the West Virginia State Police arrived and tried to arrest union leaders, re-firing up hostilities?

It is distortions like this that make the entire piece suspect - and honestly, distortions that aren't even really needed. If you're the sort of person who thinks evictions are violence, you're probably convinced enough that the mine owners and their loyal/well-paid employees are evil without that addendum. But it's just the sort of over-the-top spice that makes the entire narrative worthless.

There are interesting things to be said about the conflicts, on all sides - to talk about what precisely pushed miners over the edge, or how the reactions from the mine owners ultimately wound up losing them their cause, or when precisely union organizing changed either to or from violence. But we can never have those conversations without being honest about what actually took place there.
posted by corb at 12:48 PM on August 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


With heads uncovered swear we all
To bear it onward till we fall;
Come dungeons dark or gallows grim,
This song shall be our parting hymn.

Then raise the scarlet standard high.
Within its shade we'll live and die,
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We'll keep the red flag flying here.

posted by Artw at 1:08 PM on August 26, 2013


Libertarians nowadays complain about having some portion of their paychecks "confiscated" for taxes.

In the early days of the US labor movement, and for most of US history before the labor unions began organizing and fighting back, workers in the US didn't even get paychecks. They got paid in company scrip, or like my grandfather, who was an Alabaman sharecropper, in return for getting to live in impoverished conditions on the land they worked and for a pittance in food.

The paycheck itself is one of the many modern luxuries we can thank the American labor movement for, not that some people will ever be willing to credit unions with accomplishing anything for the greater good.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:27 PM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


corb: But to be crass, there was no percentage in killing just for killing's sake. For him to kill people that were giving up striking and innocently returning to their homes is not just cruel, it did not advantage him in any way.

it's the American way: shoot first, ask questions later.
posted by Mister Bijou at 3:24 PM on August 26, 2013


Did Chafin have authority over those state policemen, or not? Where did they come from, and who ordered them to arrest the union leaders? The Wikipedia article on Don Chafin follows the New York Times's version of events, while the article on the Battle of Blair Mountain follows Lawyers, Guns, & Money's. The latter offers no specific citations, but both use broadly the same sources. There doesn't seem to be much concrete information about the battle: In the latter's talk section, the editors can't even find a specific casualty count.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 4:51 PM on August 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


But having a company town is not an act of war or violence. Nor is eviction from company housing.

A company town is the embodiment of a monopoly. I tend towards Jefferson's distrust of monopolies. I don't think that eviction is an act of violence per se; I do think that these evictions were meant as intimidation, therefore they are intended as a violent act.

For him to kill people that were giving up striking and innocently returning to their homes is not just cruel, it did not advantage him in any way. Which, thus, is more likely? That he ordered his men to start firing into the crowd, firing up a conflagration that harmed him, or that the West Virginia State Police arrived and tried to arrest union leaders, re-firing up hostilities?


I find it very hard to believe that someone with military experience really thinks that "who shot first?" depends on a rational assessment of who had the most to gain.
posted by dubold at 12:15 PM on August 27, 2013


Really. My immediate thought in reaction to the "what did they have to gain?" argument was "Kent State." Poorly-trained and badly-led armed groups are often a recipe for senseless death, especially in emotional and adversarial situations. Asking what they had to gain is fairly pointless.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:29 PM on August 27, 2013


I find it very hard to believe that someone with military experience really thinks that "who shot first?" depends on a rational assessment of who had the most to gain.

God no, but there's a huge difference between fog-of-war "I thought he was about to shoot me so I pulled the trigger" and "I made the deliberate decision to kill striking miners who were harmlessly and innocently returning to their homes."
posted by corb at 1:54 PM on August 27, 2013


To clarify my own position:

1. corb's initial comment on the modern labor movement's position on gun control is an obvious derail.

2. "The actions of most people tend to follow a logical consistency, with what we know of their goals and their beliefs about how they would achieve those goals." This is debatable enough not to be taken as axiomatic.

3. Even if we do take it as such, Chafin had good reason to hate the unions. At least one union man, by that time, had tried to kill him. He had done so because the coal companies were paying Chafin to pervert the law, when necessary, in Logan County. If Chafin's goal was the suppression of the union miners - and what else was he being paid for? - then a bloody reprisal to inflame the union miners and justify their final suppression may have seemed a reasonable option. He knew he would have his superiors' support. I agree with planetesimal, dubold, and Kirth Gerson. A massacre is plausible, though unproven.

4. As far as the arrest of the union leaders goes, I'm inclined to believe that Chafin did have authority over those state troopers, and that he may have expected the arrest to go awry. People who amass such large forces rarely leave such loose ends, but, on the other hand, he could well have been incompetent to lead a force of that size. That said, I have nothing to support my inclination. The accounts of the battle are too sparse, and both sides had good reason to exaggerate their enemies' misdeeds while downplaying their own.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 2:40 PM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


there's a huge difference between fog-of-war "I thought he was about to shoot me so I pulled the trigger" and "I made the deliberate decision to kill striking miners who were harmlessly and innocently returning to their homes."

I see; thanks for clarifying.
posted by dubold at 1:25 AM on August 28, 2013




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