Please welcome guest author John Brown. Brown is professor of political science and history at Roane State Community College in Harriman, TN. A graduate of Roane State, the University of Tennessee, and Appalachian State University, John is the author of Harriman: Images of America. He currently resides in Oak Ridge, TN with his wife, Maggy, son, Ian, and two dogs, Barney and Bear.
No industry is more associated with Appalachia than mining. The mining industry is a powerful force in the region, employing thousands and supplying the coal that generates electricity for millions. It is also one of the most controversial, with questions about mine safety surfacing periodically, especially after all too common mining disasters. The United Mine Workers, representing around 80,000 miners, is also a potent and controversial force, though its influence has declined in recent years.
Controversy about mining and strife between miners and their employers is not a new phenomena, as historian James Green points out in his new book, The Devil is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom.
Devil recounts the four decade long struggle to unionize miners in the Mountain State, spanning the years from the 1890s until the 1930s.
Although an interesting and important part of American history, this is an area that has often been neglected. Green’s work is a good introduction and will be of interest to historians and general readers alike.
By the 1890s industrialization had brought new demand for coal, and extracting the mineral quickly became a staple of West Virginia’s economy. Mining brought jobs, industry, and money to the region. Unfortunately, the benefits were not evenly spread; speculators reaped handsome profits as miners themselves struggled with dangerous working conditions, low pay, long hours, limited job security, and no benefits. The tension was increased by the fact that outside speculators from New York, Connecticut, and elsewhere held most of the state’s collieries (in southern counties, this was true of 81% of collieries), and were reaping huge benefits but passing along little to West Virginians.
In addition to these privations, coal companies exerted almost complete control over miners’ lives. Companies constructed entire towns and owned every inch of land, including the homes, stores, schools, and churches. Teachers, ministers, store employees, and everyone employed in the town were a company employee. Miners who complained about the arrangement or otherwise caused trouble ran the risk of being blacklisted. At a time when northern factory workers were fighting to organize, it’s no surprise that similar efforts received a sympathetic ear from West Virginia’s miners, although many miners were cautious about publicly associating with a cause that could jeopardize their livelihoods.
The movement toward unionization in West Virginia was a long, hard slog, and it was by no means a foregone conclusion that it would be successful. Mining companies certainly worked hard to ensure that it would fail. Miners themselves, skeptical of the outsiders who led the United Mine Workers of America, divided along racial lines, and fearful for their jobs, were themselves reluctant during the early years, and would never be completely united. Accomplishing their goals would call for drastic measures, and both sides committed violent atrocities. Ultimately, however, the efforts succeeded due to the hard work of the miners themselves.
Those unfamiliar with the labor movement in West Virginia might initially think referring to these confrontations as “mine wars” to be hyperbolic, but as Green makes clear, it is no exaggeration.
The Battle of Blair Mountain, the most famous armed confrontation between union and nonunion forces, was the largest insurrection since the Civil War.
By 1920, unions had made inroads into most of the state, but the southern counties continued to hold out. Thousands of miners marched into nonunion Logan County to force unionization and began a protracted battle with nonunion miners, which ended only when federal troops arrived.
In the short-term, the union’s efforts were unsuccessful: the southern counties remained nonunion, and union membership plummeted. Nonetheless, many opinion makers of the time, including the Nation and the Washington Star, sided with the miners, giving them a needed public relations boost. Nonetheless, full unionization was still more than a decade away.
Green’s writing style is engaging and easy to follow. He is a gifted storyteller who manages to weave a fascinating narrative that is both scholarly and fun to read. Though I have read about this period of history, I am by no means an expert. Nonetheless, I had no trouble following Green’s account, and was never bored by his writing.
Another strength of Green’s book is his ability to put the labor strife in broader contexts, specifically that of Appalachian culture, and the labor strife prominent in much of the U.S. This was a time when the Appalachian people were seen by many outsiders as savages, mired in ignorance and violence (the infamous Hatfield-McCoy feud had ended only in 1891), or as impoverished unfortunates, needing the help of more “civilized” outsiders.
These views affected how the conflict was perceived, with even some union leaders viewing West Virginia miners’ reluctance to unionize as evidence of their inferiority, and newspapers such as the New York Times seeing the dispute not as a labor conflict, but rather as the result of “primitive ferocities” and evidence that West Virginians were “of an inheritance and habit apart” from the rest of the country. Perhaps these attitudes also help explain why this period seems to receive relatively little attention from historians, and why getting Blair Mountain recognized as a national landmark was such a struggle, and why it has since been delisted.
This, of course, is not to say that violence was not an issue in the region, or that it didn’t play a role in unionization. Regardless of how unfairly they were covered outside the region, feuds did occur, and brutality was a way of life for those working in the mines. The descendants of pioneers, slaves, or recent immigrants, their lives had been a struggle for generations, and mining, where death by accident was a daily threat, must have hardened many men. Living in a society where they had virtually no legal means to air their grievances, and even complaining about one’s lot could cost one’s livelihood and home, left them with few options.
Although giving Appalachian culture its due in the book, Green also discusses how the mine wars fit into the larger history of labor strife. One of the more fascinating figures Green brings to life is Mary “Mother” Jones, an Irish immigrant who became one of the most radical voices for workers’ rights during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
After losing her husband and four children to disease in Memphis, she moved to Chicago in 1870 to start over, and quickly became a leader in various labor movements there. Her interest in the plight of workers led her to take part in various strikes in California, Pennsylvania, and eventually led her to Charleston, WV, where she spoke before a “monster rally” and later attempted to organize the UMWA in the state. Though unsuccessful, Jones became a powerful voice for the miners of West Virginia, defending them against the common charges of ignorance and cowardice.
Green recreates a colorful cast of characters and organizations Green. Along with aforementioned “Mother” Jones, Green brings to life the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, whose agents served as hired thugs for the mining companies, beating and even murdering their enemies; Logan County sheriff Don Chafin, the commander of anti-union forces at Blair Mountain who would stop at nothing to keep the union out of his county; his archenemy Devil Anse Hatfield, whose support for unionization may have had more to do with animosity toward Chafin than fealty for labor; and the Rev. John Wilburn, the minister-turned-guerilla-fighter at Blair Mountain, who, after hearing about a police raid that killed miners, proclaimed, “The time has come for me to lay down my Bible and pick up my rifle and fight for my rights.”
While reading this book, I couldn’t help but wonder how future historians will view the politics of mining in our own era. Many of the controversies Green discusses remain alive today. As mining disasters at Sago and Upper Branch, as well as the indictment of former Massey Energy Company CEO Don Blankenship demonstrate, the question of mine safety has not been settled. Nor have concerns about the environmental impact of mining, particularly that over mountain top removal. While it’s clear we’ve come a long way from the era Green discusses, it would appear we still have a long way to go.
I would recommend The Devil is Here in These Hills to anyone with an interest in American history, mining, or Appalachian studies. James Green has written an enlightening, accessible tome that should become the standard history of mining unionization in America.