Blair Mountain and labor's living history: Ninety years on, the coal seams of West Virginia are a battlefield once more: for working people, the struggle goes on
by Clancy Sigal
The Guardian (United Kingdom)
My first time in Westminister Abbey, London, I was taken inside by a coal miner friend who was down from South Wales for a brief London holiday. Suitably awed, we gawked at Poets' Corner, the Coronation Throne, the tombs and effigies of prelates, admirals, generals and prime ministers – England in all its majesty and pageantry. Gazing at the Gothic Revival columns, transepts and amazing fan-vaulted ceiling, my friend said, "Impressive, isn't it? Of course, it's their culture not ours."
Our culture – class conscious, bolshie, renegade – rarely lay in plaques and statues, hardly ever in school texts, but mainly in orally transmitted memories passed down generation to generation, in songs and stories. "Labor history" has become a province of passionately committed specialists and working-class autodidacts, keepers of the flame of a human drama at least as fascinating and blood-stirring as the dead royal souls in the Abbey. It belongs to all of us who claim it.
I'm lucky because my family's secular religion is union. They include cousin Charlie (shipbuilders), cousin Davie (electrical workers), cousin Bernie (printers), my mother (ladies' garment) and father (butchers and barbers), and cousin Fred (San Quentin prisoners). Establishment history may have its Battle of Trafalgar and Gallipoli; we have Haymarket Square, Ludlow, Centralia and Cripple Creek: labor's battle sites, more often slaughtering defeats than victories.
Until recently, a lot of this history casually disappeared down Orwell's "memory hole", forgotten, censored or ignored. But with the spectacular emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and fight-backs in states like Wisconsin and Ohio, young people especially seem to be regaining and reinvigorating a living history. Memory stirs.
This contest for memory is a class struggle by other means.
Half our story – the half where unions created the modern middle class – is written in the pedestrian language of contracts, negotiations, wages and hours laws … the nuts and bolts of deals. After all, unions exist to make a deal.
But the other half is inscribed in the whizzing bullets, shootouts and pistol duels of out-and-out combat. Labor has its own Lexington and Gettysburg. And none more bloodily inscribed than in the hills and hollows of the West Virginia coal fields.
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