It’s been 100 years since miners in Logan County took up arms against law enforcement, private security forces and strikebreakers in the Battle of Blair Mountain. What started as a protest march and an attempt at unionization ended in bloody conflict. It wasn’t the first time things had turned violent between coal companies and exploited workers, but it was certainly the largest labor uprising the country had ever seen.
The battle ended when federal troops were called in, and the miners laid down their weapons, not wanting to be seen as fighting their own nation.
Battles and wars typically are perceived to have decisive outcomes, but it’s often too easy to think of them as a point where something was decided, and everything remained on one course afterward.
Folding the South back into the United States after the Civil War was a long, painful process. Slavery was ended, but discrimination persisted, and those on the losing side continually looked for ways to keep minorities from gaining true equality. The effects of that rift can still be seen today across the country.
Before Blair Mountain, miners were essentially indentured servants. They lived in coal camps owned and operated by the coal companies and were paid in scrip, which was only good at the company store. Coal barons profited while workers endured dangerous conditions for wages that weren’t worth anything outside the camp. It was a brutal, inescapable loop for the miners and their families. The only way to try to break it was to unionize.
While the miners technically lost their battle in Logan County, historians point out that they didn’t surrender to the local authorities looking to put their movement down, but to U.S. troops. Many in the region and across the nation were sympathetic to the miners’ cause. Still, miners didn’t immediately gain union solidarity and better working conditions after the clash in Logan County. It took time and effort to make those gains.
And those on the other side didn’t just accept the change in public opinion or evolving regulations and worker protections. Coal barons and politicians in their pockets made unions fight for every inch of ground, while almost always looking for ways to maximize profits and minimize expenses, which often included sacrificing worker safety.
In the time since Blair Mountain, profiteers and politicians have played the long game, looking for ways to destabilize unions, whether it be poking and prodding at regulations or passing crippling laws like right-to-work and repealing worker protections like prevailing wage. In West Virginia, the battle that made national headlines and is seen as a landmark event in labor rights was left out of textbooks in schools for decades. Ignorance can be an effective weapon, too.
Even now, as coal companies file for bankruptcy left and right, they look for ways to shirk their financial obligations for things such as pensions and black lung benefits. Mining is still a hazardous operation that kills several West Virginians annually, and starts a rapid decline in the health of others because the buildup of dust in their lungs has made it harder for them to breathe. And still, the owners and their lobbyists and politicians look for ways to cut corners.
It’s been 100 years, but the battle that started in August 1921 and ended a few days later in early September continues in legislatures and courtrooms, instead of in treacherous mountain passes. As the mines and the workers dwindle in an industry that is wheezing much like a miner stricken with black lung, the workers try to get by while many on the corporate end look to get away from the table with everything they can stuff in their pockets.
-The Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette-Mail