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Today is the anniversary of the largest labor insurgency in U.S. history

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You probably have never heard of the Battle of Blair Mountain, but it was VERY BIG DEAL:

On August 25, 1921, the largest labor insurgency in American history and the largest civil uprising since the Civil War began in Logan County, West Virginia when 10,000 miners and their supporters went to war with 3,000 coal mine executives and their hired thugs. The Battle of Blair Mountain is one of the least known major events in American history.

By 1921, little had changed for several decades in the coal mining country of West Virginia. The coal companies ruled over this area like a medieval fiefdom, having almost total control over workers’ lives. They issued company scrip to shop at company stores, evicted workers from company housing if they went on strike, brutally crushed union attempts to organize the mines, and murdered union organizers. They hired goons to intimidate miners and spies to infiltrate union organizing effort. The United Mine Workers of America struggled to maintain a hold in West Virginia; in fact the UMWA throughout Appalachia had a rollercoaster of a membership for decades, with numbers skyrocketing after rare victories and collapsing after the inevitable oppression that followed.

Such a widescale rebellion took place in the aftermath of an event far more famous thanks to the John Sayles film detailing it, the Matewan Massacre, when Baldwin-Felts thugs got into a gun battle with the worker-sympathetic law enforcement officers of the town of Matewan. In 1921, the coal industry got their revenge on Mingo County sheriff Sid Hatfield, who had participated at Matewan, by murdering him on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse in Welch. That was on August 1. On August 7, the UMWA issued a petition of workers’ demands, including the arrest of Hatfield’s murderers, to West Virginia governor Ephraim Morgan. Morgan rejected them out of town and workers’ anger grew.

On August 20, armed men began gathering in Kanawha County, outside of Charleston and by August 24, 13,000 miners had arrived fully armed and ready to demand justice. While alarmed politicians began working toward compromise, Logan County sheriff Don Chafin wanted blood. Supported by the Logan County Coal Operators Association, Chafin hated the UMWA and wanted to eliminate them from his country entirely, preferably with the maximum shedding of blood. The coal operators provided Chafin a hired army of 3,000 people to oppress the miners. On the request of Governor Morgan, President Warren Harding had sent General Henry Bandholtz to West Virginia on August 25. Bandholtz told union leaders the army would “snuff them out” if they did not end the march, leading many prominent UMWA figures, including Mother Jones to urge the end of the action to prevent fatalities. Although on August 26, many of the miners agreed to return to their homes, Chafin wanted to his pound of flesh. His men began shooting union members as they returned to their homes, with families caught in the crossfire.

When news of Chafin’s duplicitious and murderous violence reached miners, they exploded. Several days of sporadic fighting followed between Chafin’s army and the miners. The coal operators hired private planes to drop homemade bleach bombs and other munitions on the miners. The U.S. military clearly showed itself on the side of the mine operators. General Billy Mitchell ordered U.S. army planes to conduct aerial surveillance of the difficult terrain and report back to the mine owners, possibly the first time that planes were used by the U.S. army against American civilians. Over the next week, about 30 of Chafin’s troops died as did probably about 100 miners.

The Battle of Blair Mountain ended when Harding sent in U.S. troops to put down the revolt. Fearing massive death, UMWA leader Bill Blizzard ended the revolt on September 2 and told his members to return to their homes, which they did, attempting to hide the guns in the dense mountains. As normal during the pre-New Deal period, UMWA membership followed the fortunes of organizing, with membership plummeting from 50,000 to 10,000 after the suppression of the uprising.

In the aftermath, 985 miners were indicted and tried for charges including murder and treason against the state of West Virginia (who knew you could commit legal treason against a state). The charges against most were dropped. A Baptist minister and his son who led a party that killed three members of the coal companies’ army did serve three years in prison, before a new governor, Howard Gore, pardoned them. Some argue that while the Battle of Blair Mountain was a total loss for the UMWA, the attention it garnered about the lives of coal miners helped build support for the major labor reforms of the New Deal, of which no one benefited more than the United Mine Workers of America.

Some years later, Chafin was arrested on corruption charges and served time in federal prison for bootlegging.

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31 Comments

  1. Brian Opsahl

    And most wonder why Union’s have such devotion from their members…

  2. Neftali

    More like forced devotion.

    If they were truly devoted then why the big uproar from union leaders anytime they are forced make union dues voluntary rather than automatically deducted from their paycheck.

    The answer is simple. In every instance where union membership becomes voluntary, membership drops dramatically.

  3. Brian Opsahl

    Of course it does’ nef, but you being a republican you should already know that. You harp about the free stuff guys but yet you think these guys should get my representaion for free…why, that’s totally against what you all preach on a daily basis..

    Why should we be faced with the cost of them without paying for it…besides the union only represents less than 7 percent of the workforce and most of my trouble makers are republicans that don’t want to pay but need us more than anybody else…?

    Sound familier…?

  4. Brian Opsahl

    One other thing nef,

    Unless your for everybody making less….who is it that will hold up the good wages that everybody else has to keep up with…?

    It is a fact that Union wages prop-up all the others so unless your game plan is to want less wages NOT more than be my guest….but it’s a bad move on your part.

  5. No it doesn’t sound familiar at all.

    Neftali is right.

    If unions provided such a great benefit to workers in 2013 you would think workers would be beating down the door to sign up. Except they don’t, not when they have to write a check themselves for the “representation” they are recieving.

    Unions had their time and now they are unnecessary. The government has assumed the role of safety watchdog in many ways and protects all kinds of worker rights. Unions are a sham of a political tool and the workers know it.

  6. Neftali

    Want higher wages for workers? Increase the demand for labor. Do that by lowering the unemployment rate and increasing the labor participation rate. Then you have employers competing with each other for labor, thus the average wages for labor increases.

  7. Brian Opsahl

    Well here on earth…that’s not how it’s done…Doc funny how my family doctor hints at all the time how his co-workers have been thinking about banding together to change their working conditions..(unionizing).

    Fact is NOT one of you republicans have had to fight against companys NOT being fair at all with it’s workforce…as I have…I worked for 4 non-union companys before my Union job they paid so little I couldn’t afford anything…like Cars,housing,kids,insurance…

    Anybody that choses to doesn’t have to work in a union plant they can work anywhere they want.

    How about Doc, I get a service from you and because I don’t feel like paying you I just don’t just like your sugesting…? how long before your out of business..?

  8. Anybody who doesn’t want to work at an open shop can go elsewhere too Brian.

    Also, independent practioners of medicine are barred from unionization by federal anti-trust law. We have professional organizations that we can voluntarily join to provide services including political lobbying.

  9. Orlando Clay

    expdoc (once again) blathers: “The government has assumed the role of safety watchdog in many ways and protects all kinds of worker rights.”

    Oh, really? Does that include the right to a safe work environment, Dr. Quack?

    Or did you conveniently forget about the fertilizer plant in West, Texas that blew up earlier this summer? OSHA records indicated that it had been last inspected in 1985.

    Yeah, we know. The typical Republican response is: “Well, it didn’t affect me directly, so who cares? Too bad for them, better luck next lifetime.”

    Twit.

  10. “Unions had their time and now they are unnecessary. The government has assumed the role of safety watchdog in many ways and protects all kinds of worker rights. Unions are a sham of a political tool and the workers know it.”

    I’m with doc on this one. I have a bunch of friends with union jobs. You know how they got them? Their dads were union men. These hires were never skill based.

    I tried to get into the construction union as a youth. Went and did all the testing. Aced it. Never even got a call back. This was during the building boom. I had no pull inside the union. I was told this was how things worked but I had to see for myself.

    My other contact with the union came when we built a metal structure for a local builder. Union wasnt happy we were doing this job. One night they showed up and loosened all our braces. The structure didn’t come down but we had to relevel all the beams. My boss was told they would let us finish this job but next time they would drop the structure.

    Brian you may suggest people have a choice between union and non union, but you don’t. If you try to do a job the union feels they have a right to you can expect problems. Your union may be on the up and up, but that doesn’t mean all unions are on the up and up. Just like colin powell may be a good republican, but that doesn’t mean all republicans are good.

  11. orlando why you have to be so nasty? Everything looks pretty civil to you show up and start with the name calling. Come on.

  12. Brian Opsahl

    Again I noticed you didn’t answer my question Doc,

    can I come to you for an exam and then NOT pay you…? cause that is exactly what your saying about us giving free representaion…how long would we be in business if everybody had free representaion….about as long as you giving free exams…right doc…?

  13. Brian Opsahl

    Interesting comment Joe. I worked for 4 non-union shop’s and couldn’t afford a car that would run for more than a week,insurance or even to start a family with kids, The company I worked for drove real nice cars and had kids with insurance…and when I told them I had a better paying job…they offered a bunch more money for me to stay…funny how that works..Joe.

    I can retire in one year if I still had that old non-union job I would have been fired along with all the others they let go I used to work with some 29 years ago….why because they started to make to much…that’s why they let them all go and hired young kids to replace them for half as much…so Joe. sorry this fish ain’t bitin.

  14. Brian,

    People come to me for exams all of the time, in fact multiple times a day, and do not pay me.

    What’s your point?

  15. Joe,

    Orlando is an unfortunate and perfect example of the classic pissed off liberal.

    His usual modus operandi is to post some nasty and incoherent comment about every 2months. He is particularly enamored of calling me names. I find it all somewhat amusing. I used to try and engage him in conversation, but he is too big of a coward to actually have a back and forth dialogue.

    I think he might have had either a bad medical experience or he couldn’t get into medical school. Certainly some deep seated hostility in there somewhere.

  16. Craig Knauss

    doc and nef,

    I’m just curious. Have either of you guys ever worked in a coal mine, in a foundry, on an oil rig, on an assembly line, as a lumberjack, etc., whether it was union or non-union? Brian has. I have. While I did see some union excesses, I also saw lots of need for them. Do you think a coal mine does anything unless the union makes a stink about it? If a worker complains about a potentially dangerous situation, management blows him off. If he complains again, he’s labeled a trouble maker. If he complains to OSHA or the Mine Safety Administration, he gets canned. The same was common at the Big Three assembly plants. On the flip side is the Honda plant where EVERY employee has the right to stop the line if he/she spots something wrong. Honda doesn’t have a union because Honda doesn’t need one. Think about that sometime.

  17. I think that makes perfect sense.

    In the healthcare and aviation industries it is called “Just Culture”.

  18. Brian Opsahl

    Doc, the reasoning behind the free exam is simple. Republicans rail about union dues as mandatory…free exams free representaion….either one will criple a business…right..!!

    Well that’s what your guys want…for us to give them free representaion like the right to work for less States…and that would end our ability to help anybody thus ending the union….do you get it now…?

  19. Neftali

    Craig – I detasseled corn, worked for a saw mill stacking lumber, worked a variety of factory jobs involving highly repetitive assembly line work, washed dishes, worked in a warehouse loading semi trailers, and even had a job as a deejay. I never thought I was too good for any of those jobs. I always considered myself fortunate to have a job. I rarely quit a job before having another one lined up. All those hard labor intensive positions just gave me more motivation to go to college, get a degree, and obtain a position that enables me to occasionally share thoughts with you people.

    There are a lot of great things that unions have brought this country. Many of the safe working conditions we enjoy are the direct result of unions and worker rights pushed through in the 1st 1/2 of the 20th century. We’re all grateful for their courage and sacrifice.

    Today is different. In our society we have a myriad of laws in place to protect workers right’s. Unions haven’t done little to help society in the past 40 years. They’ve only artificially increased wages beyond market demand and bankrupted local, state, and federal governments. Their time has passed.

    Not happy with your pay? Increase your skills and obtain a better job. Simple as that.

  20. Your analogy doesn’t hold up Brian.

    When a patient comes to see me they want to be diagnosed and treated.

    When a worker takes a job, they want to work. They may or may not want to pay for representation, but that should be their choice. And unions are not the only way to obtain representation for a group.

    The AMA and many other subspecialty associations exist to represent physicians, but I am not required to join them. They must earn memberships based on the merits of what service they provide.

  21. Craig Knauss

    Nef,

    Re-read my post. Especially about the part on reporting unsafe conditions. Some places don’t have a myriad of available jobs. That’s why families live in some of those towns for generations working for The Mine.

  22. Doc I don’t think it is a liberal thing. Its an arse hole thing and both parties have their fair share. Do you read teds blog? :)

    Brian I worked for a company right out of high school. I damn near begged the guy to give me a job. I humped wood for 10 hours a day in the mud. I worked a month and never got paid. None of us did. The owner took the payouts and was paying his bills but forgot all of us. Got so bad one day a couple guys built a mock grave in this house we were building. I ended up leaving that place and went to the house of the guy we were building the house for. I went about 4:30 am. He was beyond upset but I got my money. On the flip side I was ripped. I was a big boy already and this job gave my muscles muscles.

    I then worked for another company. At the end of a 17 hour day I took the tip off one of my fingers off. They gave me the keys to their truck and told me to find a hospital. We were south of Rockford 3 hours or so. I had no idea where I was. I ended up finding the hospital. Was off work maybe a month. Got paid nothing. Then the bills came. Guess who had to pay those? This was all before I was 19 years old. Welcome to the real world.

    Worked for another yahoo and I hurt my back. Instead of going to the doctor i told the boss what was up and went home. Went back a few days later and told him I think i needed to see a doctor. He told me that his lawyer told him their was no way to know when i hurt my back. I could of hurt it last night and he wasn’t responsible. 20 years later I still have back issues.

    I understand in a union these things would of never happened. I would of been taken care of. That isn’t the point. The point is since my father wasn’t a union man it meant I wasn’t going to be a union man. And if the non union companies I worked for tried to do a job the union felt was something they should be doing they would come after us.

    It’s great for YOU that YOU have a union job. I don’t hold it against you or anything like that. Like I said I have plenty of friends working union jobs. That doesn’t mean the union is great if you are the outside looking in. IMO it is nothing more then a gang. And the gang members will do anything to protect their turf.

    And the fish are biting. You just must be fishing the wrong spots.

  23. Brian Opsahl

    Your NOT getting it at all doc.

    Saying unions are not needed anymore…really guys ..!!
    Enter the FMLA act that republicans faught tooth and nail…that’s the family and medical leave act…that companys would denie the right for a family member to take care of a terminal patent or a pregnant wife…who you kidding.

    Unions hold up the wages of lower paid workers….without the unions pay for just about every job in the U.S. would reduce the pay ….so unless your for making less…that’s a bad idea.

    I raised my skill level several times and they would come up with some reason NOT to up-grade my pay with the skill level…so who you crappin…?

    been there done that…!!

  24. Neftali

    I’m for people getting paid to what the market demands. Don’t like what you’re getting paid? Upgrade your skills. In Brian’s case, he obviously didn’t upgrade his skills enough. Sometimes you have to move to get better pay or just to find a job. People do it every day. That’s why millions left Detroit, and today are leaving Illinois. When there isn’t a myriad of jobs available, then move.

    Today there are a variety of places to report unsafe working conditions, like OSHA. If you get canned for it, that’s illegal. There are certainly enough lawyers who will be more than happy to represent you at zero cost up front. There are certainly more than enough liberal advocacy groups and organizations to push along labor agenda. Unions are no longer needed.

  25. Brian Opsahl

    Who says I didn’t up grade my skills…you..!! really dude.

    I started as a breakfast cook at 14 and taught myself how to weld and ended up making a decent living…how would you nef, pretend to know anything of what ive done…your a bad guesser nef..?

  26. Brian Opsahl

    Bush cut osha…and republicans would get rid of it tomorrow if they could…who you crapin nef…?

  27. The FMLA is a government law Brian. Thanks for making our point.

  28. Neftali

    Brian – You said your employer would come up with a reason not to upgrade your pay. So that’s means 1 of 2 things. Either you’re not as valuable as you think you are, or you need to leave to find someone who will pay you what you are worth. Simple.

    As for OSHA. The Bush cuts were justified as this report points out. And no, Republicans do not want to get rid of it. Quit making stuff up.

    “Funds appropriated for enforcement activity fell almost 8 percent from FY 2001 to FY 2008. (See Graph 1b.) Although money appropriated for enforcement activity has fallen during the Bush administration, the number of inspections conducted by OSHA and state regulators has remained consistent.

    While the overall budget and enforcement budget at OSHA have declined, the budget for compliance assistance has risen”

    http://www.foreffectivegov.org/node/3587

  29. Brian Opsahl

    I personally know an OSHA inspector from Iowa he has told me on several occasions he would site a company for a violation and the bush guys would simply let the company’s off without paying the fine, sited. he also said under bush, safety was known as a joke. That was from the horses mouth. Also today with Obama’s guys he said company’s have made several changes because the enforcement was now real because they had to pay those fines now. I wont say his name for his sake.

    Nef, I left those company’s for much better pay and real benefits…and it just so happens that is a union job…best dam thing that ever has happened to my working carrier ever.

    Why you republicans always side with the rich I will never understand. I wish everybody made more NOT less.

  30. Neftali

    I would much rather rely on the proven statistics from a left-leaning pro-government agency like the one I linked to over the opinion of an inspector from Iowa.

    republicans don’t side with the rich. We also want everyone to make more money. Liberals stupidly think that you can only get rich by taking from the poor. Republicans know if you want to get really rich, it’s best to grow the pie so that there is more money for everyone.

  31. Brian Opsahl

    I will agree with some of that, but nef, they do indeed support the rich…come on now.

    Your own admit it all the time citing Romney’s 47 percent comment and all those billionaire donors that he had in his back pocket.
    My OSHA guy is the boots on the ground guy…sorry he is the expert as I have worked many,many safety related conferences with him. I wished you could spend even ten minutes listening to him tell the horror story’s of how close to killing workers company’s get. Not to mention the death investigations he had to do.

    I have read many posts from republicans that promote mid-level workers making less…you can’t hide it.

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