Sunday, March 06, 2011

NPR: Coal Reignites A Mighty Battle Of Labor History

Coal Reignites A Mighty Battle Of Labor History

A Coal-Fired Country

West Virginia's been called the Saudi Arabia of coal. It produces more than a third of all the coal mined in the U.S. More than half the energy Americans use is powered by burning those black rocks. The lights in your house, your TV, maybe the computer you're reading this story on — they all work thanks to coal.

The other thing about West Virginia is its poverty rate, one of the highest in America, even though coal prices just hit a 15-year high.

Almost a quarter of the people in Logan County live below the poverty level. They're people left behind by the changes in technology and technique that have allowed coal companies to earn more money and hire fewer miners.

This story, though, is only partially about jobs. It's really about history — the battle over what to remember and whether to remember it at all.

A Firefight To Organize

No one has the exact details of what happened here in late August/early September 1921, but the basic story says around 10,000 coal miners took up arms against the private militias employed by West Virginia's Stone Mountain Mining Co. For five days they fought for the right to organize — to join unions.

The Baldwin-Felts detectives hired by the coal companies in West Virginia were referred to as the "Death Special" by miners.

"From all the artifacts found here, there had to be hundreds of men up here," King says. "I mean, there's probably thousands of shell cases scattered around here."

As many as 100 men died in the fighting. It got so bad that President Harding sent a detachment of federal troops to crush the rebellion.

None of this happened in a vacuum. Tension had been building for years. Just a year before, union-busting mercenaries, who worked for a private agency called Baldwin-Felts, shot and killed the pro-union mayor of the nearby town of Matewan.

At the time, most states had laws against organizing. It didn't help that Harding's administration was decidedly anti-labor.

The worry was the unions would bog down industry and put the brakes on America's rapid economic growth.

The problem for the wage earners, at least in Logan County, was that they didn't have a whole lot of options.

A Company Town

"They had the yellow-dog contract which said that, basically, if you took a job at this mine, you could not associate with anyone in the union, you couldn't join," says Doug Estepp, a local historian who runs tours of the area. "You were basically fired, blacklisted and evicted — and probably beaten on the way out by the guards just for good measure."

The coal companies owned your house, they paid you in credits that could only be spent on highly inflated food at the company-owned store, and if you complained about safety, you were fired.

The private security men from Baldwin-Felts would threaten, beat and sometimes murder agitators — all with impunity.

And so it all came to a head in late August 1921. The miners of Logan and Mingo counties had had enough.

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