When Miners March: West Va. Coalfield Tales Still Resonate

When Miners March

By Kari Lydersen
In These Times

As politicians and protesters hash out perhaps the very future of our planet at the Copenhagen climate summit, I can’t help but focus on a major culprit of the climate crisis: coal.

Coal-fired power is responsible for a large chunk of the greenhouse gas emissions that threaten to throw us into climatic, social and economic turmoil. It is also the fodder of some of the most brutal labor wars in U.S. history. And coal miners in China, Eastern Europe and to a lesser degree the U.S. still work in horrendously dangerous and grueling conditions.

So let’s look at When Miners March, a 2004 book penned by William C. Blizzard, son of a legendary miner. A new edition is in the works, for release in fall 2010 on PM Press. The tome tells of vicious mine wars and fearless union organizing in West Virginia from the late 1800s through a 1921 march into nonunion Logan County.

Current events—notably the struggle for unions to remain relevant and empowered, and coal’s role in the climate change crisis—make these writings both relevant and remarkable. The book underscores, among other things, both how far we have come in terms of labor protections and rights, and how far we have fallen in terms of workers’ ability and willingness to take great risks and militant action.

Coal could in many ways be seen as symbolic of heavy industry past and present, fuel for steel mills and railroads that built the heartland and still the country’s primary energy source. The book starts with a striking quote from Mother Jones, as fitting today as ever:

The story of coal is always the same. It is a dark story. For a second’s more sunlight, men must fight like tigers. For the privilege of seeing the color of their children’s eyes by the light of the sun, fathers must fight as beasts in the jungle. That life may have something of decency, something of beauty – a picture, a new dress, a bit of cheap lace fluttering in the window – for this, men who work in the mines must struggle and lose, struggle and win.

“When Miners March,” published by West Virginia miner and teacher Wess Harris, is essentially the collected writings of Blizzard, son of Bill Blizzard, leader of the “Red Neck Army” of thousands of miners who marched through the mountains of West Virginia to Logan County. (“Red necks” refers to the red bandanas union miners wore around their necks to identify each other.) The march had them crossing the union divide, from union coalfield territory into anti-union ground ripe for organizing.

The articles were written anonymously for serial publication in the paper Labor’s Daily. In his foreword, Harris describes it as both a historical document and a call to action for miners and others in West Virginia and beyond.

“You are holding a rare example of history come alive, a work that will enable our youth to proudly claim their Red Neck heritage of the last century – and organize for the next.”

By today’s standards, the writing is quaint, colorful and proudly non-objective. Exclamation points are used liberally, and sections have endearing subtitles like “Writer is Irked…Editor is Jailed…Justice is Denied;” “Bishop is Frank;” “Miners Dislike Militia.”

The brutality and deviousness of company owners, railroad barons, elected officials, hired thugs and others in trying to crush the burgeoning United Mine Workers of America is shocking, even when one knows the outlines of this history. In concise yet detailed, crisp prose, Blizzard describes how old laws, new technology, political strategies and brute force were used to subdue miners, often only making them stronger in the process.

He describes the Bull Moose – the armored railroad locomotive and baggage car mounted with machine guns and rifles for driving into crowds of strikers. And the use of the longstanding anti-sedition Red Man Act during war time against unions. In another tactic, miners were arrested on pretenses and given “conditional parole” that would be revoked, sending them back to jail if they associated with the union.

Blizzard cites one conditional parolee, “Dan Chain, alias Few Clothes”: “Let it be respectfully noted in passing that Dan Chain, alias Few Clothes, was a tall rangy Negro, one of the fighten’st union men on Cabin and Pain creeks.”

Blizzard’s description of massacres by company militias are breath-taking. At Ludlow in 1914:

Women and children in the strikers’ camp were awakened by the murderous cough of machine guns and the ripping canvas and wood as slugs plowed through their temporary homes…the women and children crawled out of their holes under cover of darkness and inched along on their bellies to the safety of a freight train. And then the militia swarmed into Ludlow, set fire to the riddled tents and conducted a kind of war dance while they watched the flames eat into the April night.

Hired militias brought into Matewan also carried out violence with near-impunity. Police chief Sid Hatfield, sympathetic to the union, was murdered in broad daylight. His companion, Ed Chambers was allegedly shot at close range right in front of his young wife, who hit the murderer, infamous informant C.E. Lively, with her umbrella.

The acts of solidarity between unions are also inspiring and impressive. For example, union printers refused to print injunctions against the union. In recent decades of media homogenization and conglomeration followed by near collapse, the existence of a thriving labor press, subject to intense censorship and intimidation, is remarkable. The Kanawha Valley had two labor papers. Editors were regularly jailed and during a period of martial law the National Guard invaded Charleston’s Labor Argus.

The use of violence and firearms on both sides is quite striking by today’s standards, when the workers of Republic Windows and Doors made national news – rightfully – for occupying a factory peacefully and with the cooperation of police and support of politicians. In the wake of Ludlow, the Denver Typographical Union No. 49 raised $500 as a first installment toward the purchase of guns and ammunition. Blizzard notes that:

Both sides in the struggle, certainly, used guns. But for one side there were penalties. For the other, none.” In fact, he writes, pulling a trigger was more likely to get a railway detective, police officer or state militiaman “a good salary, a promotion and praise from the Governor.

Blizzard notes how coal mining in West Virginia, more so than any other state, created an almost colonial, highly exploitative structure which has kept the state impoverished and environmentally abused to this day. In just one example, he notes that coal baron Charles Pratt used his coalfield earnings to fund the Pratt Institute for school children in New York, while West Virginians had little access to decent education.

Interestingly, Mother Jones, by then 91, tried to discourage miners from making the legendary trek across Blair Mountain into nonunion territory in 1921, instead seeking support from the federal government, including President Harding. The miners didn’t listen to her this time, and the march continued. Blizzard describes the dramatic miners’ marches as their “most potent weapon.”

“Union men would congregate at one point in a ragged army, and go on a march through unorganized fields, speaking and organizing as they went. As men joined the union the army grew larger, morale grew higher, and non-union mines shut down,” he writes.

Back to Bill Blizzard & Wess Harris’s Author Page