My best friend comes from a coal mining family on the West Virginia/Pennsylvania border. But when I asked him, he knew very little about the Blair Mountain uprising that took place 100 years ago, in September 1920. I doubt many West Virginians do, especially the younger ones.
Given the rightward political turn of West Virginians over the past two decades, it is important that they know this anti-capitalist aspect of their history. A good place to start would be a West Virginia Archives and History publication named “The United States Army and the Return to Normalcy in Labor Dispute Interventions: The Case of the West Virginia Coal Mine Wars, 1920-1921” by Clayton D. Laurie.
A century ago, coal mine owners treated their miners as virtual indentured servants. Miners were severely underpaid and mistreated on a regular basis. WV state politicians were in the pockets of these mine operators, as were many local officials, and did nothing to alleviate the suffering of the common man.
The response of the powerless, exploited miners was to form unions starting after the Civil War and culminating in the formation of the United Mine Workers in 1890. Mine owners were vicious in opposing unionization, using “eviction, termination, blacklisting, yellow dog contracts, court injunctions, coercion, and intimidation.” Still, unions were able to obtain limited power and the UMW had grown to 50,000 members by 1920.
In 1920, this situation came to a violent head in what was known as the “Matewan Massacre”. There was a shootout between locals, including the sheriff, and outside private mercenaries (so called “detectives”) paid by the mine owners. And a number of people died, including the town Mayor.
Subsequently, state police and Federal troops were brought in at the request of the Governor to quash further resistance by the miners who wanted unionization of the local mines in southern WV. Martial law was imposed.
The situation worsened over time, resulting in the Battle of Blair Mountain. To make a long story short, at Blair Mountain seven thousand poorly armed miners wanting to unionize Logan County coal mines stood up to an army consisting of the West Virginia National Guard, private mercenaries and Federal troops. In a five-day pitched battle in which there were many deaths, the miners were outgunned. They lost, leading to a deterioration of the union back down to 10,000 members. The UMW did not get back to its prior strength until the New Deal of 1933.
I am a capitalist. I retired as a Senior Vice President with a corporation. During my decades in corporate America, one overriding truth was revealed to me. Corporations have but one goal- profit. And the aim of corporate executives is to maximize their power, leading to the creation of personal wealth. These objectives lead to efficient operations in most cases (although not always). However, they increasingly lead to worker exploitation, as was historically true in non-unionized mines.
Per a Pew Research report, our nation currently has tremendous inequities versus G-7 nations. If anything, this wealth gap is getting larger over time, doubling from 1989 to 2016. But there is a failure to recognize this fact among GOP voters, only 41% of whom understand this fact, versus 71% of Democrats.
The average citizen would clearly be better off with a blend of capitalism infused with socialism, as the European nations have done. We have some socialistic welfare programs, such as Social Security and Medicare. But we can do much more. For example, lowering the age for Medicare benefits and eventually having Medicare for all Americans. And taxing all income for Social Security, rather than cutting off at $142,800. All it takes is the political will.
Image Credit: the feature image of West Virginia coal miners were sorely in need of union organization in the early 20th century was taken by Lewis Hine/Library of Congress via Timeline.com; the inset photo "After the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921 the union miners surrendered to the federal troops and gave them their weapons. Three miners with federal soldier prepare to surrender weapons." is in the public domain via Wikipedia.org.