Matewan and Blair Mountain
As part of my increasing interest in labour rights – especially since the revolution and since there is now hope that we may one day actually have independent unions in Egypt – I stumbled upon this little bit of American history while reading about independent filmmaker John Sayles. This is the story of the Matewan Massacre from Wikipedia:
At the time, the United Mine Workers of America had just elected John L. Lewis as their president. During this period, miners worked long hours in unsafe and dismal working conditions, while being paid low wages. Adding to the dilemma was the use of company scrip by the Stone Mountain Coal Company, because the scrip could only be used for those goods the company sold through their company stores, thus the miners did not have actual money that could be used elsewhere. A few months before the battle at Matewan, union miners in other parts of the country went on strike, receiving a full 27 percent pay increase for their efforts. Lewis recognized that the area was ripe for change, and planned to organize the coal fields of southern Appalachia. The union sent its top organizers, including the famous Mary Harris “Mother” Jones. Roughly 3000 men signed the union’s roster in the Spring of 1920. They signed their union cards at the community church, something that they knew could cost them their jobs, and in many cases their homes. The coal companies controlled many aspects of the miners’ lives. Stone Mountain Coal Corporation fought back with mass firings, harassment, and evictions.
A contingent of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency arrived on the no. 29 morning train in order to evict families that had been living at the Stone Mountain Coal Camp just on the outskirts of town. The detectives carried out several evictions before they ate dinner at the Urias Hotel and, upon finishing, they walked to the train depot to catch the five o’clock train back to Bluefield, West Virginia. This is when Matewan Chief of Police Sid Hatfield decided that enough was enough, and intervened on behalf of the evicted families. Hatfield, a native of the Tug River Valley, was an adamant supporter of the miners’ futile attempts to organize the UMWA in the saturated southern coalfields of West Virginia. While the detectives made their way to the train depot, they were intercepted by Hatfield, who claimed to have arrest warrants from the Mingo County sheriff. Detective Albert Felts and his brother Lee Felts then produced his own warrant for Sid Hatfield’s arrest. Upon inspection, Matewan mayor Cabell Testermanclaimed it was fraudulent. Unbeknownst to the detectives, they had been surrounded by armed miners, who watched intently from the windows, doorways, and roofs of the businesses that lined Mate Street. Stories vary as to who actually fired the first shot; only unconfirmed rumors exist. Thus, on the porch of the Chambers Hardware Store, began the clash that became known as the Matewan Massacre, or the Battle of Matewan. The ensuing gun battle left seven detectives and four townspeople dead, including the Felts brothers and Testerman. The battle was hailed by miners and working class members for the number of casualties inflicted on the Baldwin-Felts detectives. This tragedy, along with events such as the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado six years earlier, marked an important turning point in the battle for miners’ rights.
Governor John J. Cornwell ordered the state police force to take control of Matewan. Hatfield and his men cooperated, and stacked their arms inside the hardware store. The miners, encouraged by their success in getting the Baldwin-Felts detectives out of Matewan, improved their efforts to organize. On July 1 the miners’ union went on another strike, and widespread violence erupted. Railroad cars were blown up, and strikers were beaten and left to die by the side of the road. Tom Felts, the last remaining Felts brother, planned on avenging his brothers’ deaths by sending undercover operatives to collect evidence to convict Sid Hatfield and his men. When the charges against Hatfield, and 22 other people, for the murder of Albert Felts were dismissed, Baldwin-Felts detectives assassinated Hatfield and his deputy Ed Chambers on August 1, 1921, on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse located in Welch, West Virginia. Of those defendants whose charges were not dismissed, all were acquitted. Less than a month later, miners from the state gathered in Charleston. They were even more determined to organize the southern coal fields, and began the march to Logan County. Thousands of miners joined them along the way, culminating in what was to become known as the Battle of Blair Mountain.
The Battle of Blair Mountain was the first (and only?) time bombs were dropped on American citizens by the American army. The way things are going in Egypt these days, I sometimes get the sense we’re heading towards another revolution, one that will look a lot like Blair Mountain. It’s also very interesting to listen to Sayles describe the strategies relied on to ensure the workers would never unite (taken from his interview with Democracy Now:
Yeah, Matewan is a movie about a labor strike, a coal miner strike in 1920 in West Virginia. The way that the coal operators tried to keep workers divided in those days was what they called a judicious mixture, which would be to hire a third hillbilly miners from West Virginia, a third immigrants from Yugoslavia, Italy, wherever, and a third black miners from the South, where the mines were just tapping out, and they would come up and be — trying to use them as strikebreakers. Often housed them in three different places, put them into the mine from three different places so that they couldn’t even meet on the job. And they thought, “Well, these people will never get together and form a union.” But in fact, the conditions were so bad and the pay was so bad that they found ways to find each other and ended up forming — the UMW was one of the most integrated unions of that time.
You can watch Matewan, the film by Sayles about the Matewan Massacre, on YouTube: