Read an Excerpt
When Miners March
By William C. Blizzard
PM Press Copyright © 2010 Appalachian Community Services
All rights reserved.
Turner Finds Coal
John P. Turner was excited and so might be forgiven for applying his willow switch a bit too hard to the rump of his bay stallion. The stallion quivered and his hoofs struck the rutted road to the salt mill at a frantic gallop. Turner patted the horse's neck and grinned at the speeding scenery. "Sorry, old boy," he said, "I guess I got too anxious. We're on mighty important business."
Turner swung off the foam-flecked animal at the office of the salt mill superintendent. He reached into a saddlebag and brought forth a head-sized chunk of something wrapped in an old sack. For a moment he looked at the chunk, eyes gleaming. Then he turned and strode rapidly into the clapboard office.
The superintendent was startled by the wide grin and flushed face of Turner. "Hell!" he said, "What's up?"
"Plenty," said Turner, holding out his mysterious bundle. "Look!"
"I'm looking," said the superintendent, "and all I see is a sack – a damn dirty sack – that looks like it might have a head of cabbage in it. What is it, Turner?"
Turner said nothing, but walked to the desk and turned his burden upside down. There was a thud as something black and dully gleaming fell out, rolled over on the desktop and stopped.
"My God!" said the superintendent. "It's coal!"
Turner nodded. "That's right. I've got a big seam of it right up the river, and I didn't even know it. I've had a contract to give your salt mills all the wood you burn. I guess you wouldn't object if I sold you coal instead."
"You bet we wouldn't," said the superintendent. "I'll call a conference and we can dicker. And don't look so excited. You make me worry about your terms."
John P. Turner had a right to be excited. Of course it had been known for years that coal was in the hills. It was even being mined commercially in what is now West Virginia, and had been since 1810 by Conrad Cotts. But that was at far-away Wheeling. And no one else had bothered with the coal deposits in the Kanawha Valley. Most everybody burned wood, even for large operations such as the salt mills which dotted the area. John Turner and those who followed him changed that.
For his discovery in 1817 was important not only for himself. The fact that coal was present in the Kanawha Valley was to affect the way of life of thousands of people, give impetus and strength to great organizations, be the basis of huge fortunes and grinding poverty, force some men to become merciless rulers and others rebellious slaves. Over this black bone of contention men were destined to fight with fist and guile, batter with club and blackjack, kill with rifle and machine gun. John Turner had made a portentous discovery.
The conflict over coal in the Kanawha Valley is interesting in itself, but it becomes much more so when it is appreciated that in this struggle can be found all the elements present in the many battles which coal miners and other workingmen have fought. The fight is unceasing, and it continues today. But it progresses in an uneven manner, at times outwardly calm, then exploding volcanically. The major explosion in this particular industrial battle happened in 1921. Both periods will be treated herein in some detail.
West Virginia Fight Typical
Certain features of the West Virginia battle, which are typical, are as follows: Huge combines of capital move from exploited to unexploited territory. Coal operators of one section war among themselves, then combine to fight coal operators of another section, then all together make a common front against the coal miners' Union. The coal miner attempts to build himself an organization so that he can have something to say about his own life – and is beaten, jailed, starved and shot.
It sounds like war, and it is. The only time this battle ceases, oddly enough, is when the United States Government is at war. Then a halt of sorts is called and it becomes a violation of the law for the coal miner to engage in any sort of industrial battle to improve his conditions, no matter how serious the provocation.
Pledged not to strike, the miner sees his plight worsen because of increased prices, while the coal operator wallows in super profits and bathes in the blood- money which flows into his coffers during every foreign war.
The coal operators like to have the technical state of war exist as long as possible, so that the miners' Union is powerless. This was true after both World War I and World War II, when the United Mine Workers of America was subjected to censure and penalty because the "war" was still going on. This was a silly state of affairs, as not a shot had been fired in many months, and "business as usual" was being resumed. But it happened – twice.
Always the Same
In a passage of touching beauty, Mother Mary Jones, the miners' great champion of another era, had this to say. "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."
And a life of danger and struggle it was for the men born and yet unborn who were destined to burrow into the earth for the great natural resource which John Turner had discovered. But the great giant of energy which lay sleeping beneath the round green hills of West Virginia was not to be awakened until over his head was heard the whistle-toot and rumble of the locomotive. Coal, except for slow river shipments from convenient points, could not be sent to market until there were rails to ship it over.
And the rails came. In 1873 the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway was completed to Huntington and made steady progress toward tidewater. The Capitol City of Charleston, then a thriving village of about 3,200 population, had a wagon bridge across the Kanawha connecting it to the railway. The Kanawha & Ohio Railroad came to Charleston in 1884, while the Coal & Coke Railroad, later bought by the B. & O. was built to Sutton in 1893. The West Virginia Central Pittsburgh (later the Western Maryland), was built to Davis in Tucker County in 1884 and extended to Elkins by 1891.
Production, however, remained relatively small scale until shortly before the turn of the century. In 1875 there were only nine mines in the Great Kanawha Valley. But in the following twenty-five years many schemes were hatching, much planning was taking place, and the stage was being set for bloody, ruthless, industrial war. West Virginia's potential was obvious to many men and these men were dreaming and acting. The eyes of great corporate combinations, full of lust, were intent on rape of the virgin state.
In 1879 Edmund Kirke wrote a little book about West Virginia titled The Workman's Paradise, Hints To New Settlers. If the state, with its comparatively untouched coal and virgin timber, was an Eden at that date, the idyll was soon to be shattered by the advent of that venomous, but wealth-producing serpent, Industrialism. A foretaste of this is given in Kirke's remarks: "... in about 5 years it (West Virginia) has sent to market products which have paid the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway a freight which may be roughly stated at five million dollars. This had been done during five years of great business depression."
Exceedingly primitive mining legislation was on the West Virginia statute books as early as 1879. According to Mary Elizabeth Hennessey, a Legislative Act of March 10, 1879 authorized the Judge of the Circuit Court of any county to appoint an inspector of mines upon presentation of a petition verified by the affidavit of any credible person and signed by 100 voters of the county. The number of such inspectors appointed is not on record, but it will be guessed that they were few.
Mine Department Created
In the same year the state authorized the appointment of a mining inspector and a mine boss was supposed to look out for the safety of the miners. In 1887 two mining districts were created with an inspector for each and a "fire boss" was authorized to check the miner's working places. The inspection system was enlarged again in 1897, and on Feb. 24, 1905 the Act was passed which created the West Virginia Department of Mines.
The above measures were without doubt created because of coal miner pressure for some kind of safety precautions. How well they were enforced may be deduced from the fact that on March 7, 1891 it was declared unlawful for any corporation or company to pay its men in script. The issuance of script, a token money which is good only in the company store, still goes on today, although wages may not be paid directly in this manner.
Patterns of industrial conflict were set very early in the Valley. What was apparently the first major dispute was at the Marmet mines in Putnam County in January, 1891. The men went on strike and the company imported Negroes as strikebreakers. This vicious practice accomplished two things: It brought the miners to terms, and it divided the labor movement by setting the Negro against the white and vice-versa. In this manner good workingmen, black and white, were blinded to their common interests. A great deal of the so-called "race" problem in the United States is due to such company practices.
Private Thugs Hired
This strike also saw the hiring of private "detectives" – this time the Pinkertons – to protect the strikebreakers and company property.
As early as 1894 the National Guard was called upon as a strikebreaking agency. This was at Eagle, in Fayette County and at Boggs Run in Marshall County, where the strike lasted only 8 days. The operator tactics were effective. In 1897 there were only 206 Union men of the 18,000 coal miners employed in West Virginia.
To the north, by 1898, was a society which had already traveled much of the road which West Virginia was to follow with so much hardship and brutality. Coal had been mined in huge quantities for many years in the states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Illinois, and in lesser quantities in several others.
The coal miners of these sections had early found that in order to obtain a decent living it was necessary to do more than petition their employers. In 1849 the first Union of coal miners was formed by a miner named John Bates in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania. Its career was short and it died with its first unsuccessful strike. A much larger organization came into being at St. Louis, Mo., on Jan. 28, 1861. This was the American Miners' Association, which did a great deal of organizing in all states which then produced coal and put out the first official journal of the American coal digger called the Weekly Miner.
John Siney's Union
In 1864 the Workingmen's Benevolent Society, headed by John Siney, was formed by anthracite miners. This organization had as its aim not only the organization of miners, but of all workingmen. As it happened, it outlasted the American Miners' Association, which fell victim to the post-Civil War slump. To John Siney goes the credit for negotiating the first wage agreement with a coal operators' association. This was signed at Pottsville, Pa., on July 29, 1870, between the Workingmen's Benevolent Association and the Anthracite Board of Trade. But there was an economic panic in the mid-seventies and Siney's organization also fell by the way.
On May 15, 1883 the miners again formed a union, this one known as the Amalgamated Association of Miners of the United States. It was in a strike almost before it was formed and was badly defeated, but the miners met again in 1885 and established The National Federation of Miners and Mine Laborers. About the same time the Knights of Labor set up National Trade Assembly No. 135 as a miners' branch of that organization. And the National Federation changed its name to the National Progressive Union of Miners and Mine Laborers.
The next step in this process of struggling and losing, struggling and winning, was marked by an event which has become a landmark in American Labor history. At a convention in Columbus, Ohio, on Jan. 25, 1890, Master Workman John B. Rae of the Knights of Labor announced that the National Progressive Union of Miners and Mine Laborers and National District Assembly 135, K. of L., had voted to unite their ranks into one big union.
UMW Is Formed
That Union was to be called the United Mine Workers of America. It had a membership of 20,912 and a treasury of $139.00. President John B. Rae was to receive a salary of $1,000 a year and the dues to the national Union were 20 cents a month.
The infant which was destined to become a mighty giant very nearly perished in its diaper days. First came the failure of the Connellsville coke strike in 1891, and then a mixed-up situation wherein the miners were supposed to strike for the eight-hour day on May 1 of that year. But the strike order was countermanded and the strike fizzled. Sixteen thousand men dropped from the UMW rolls.
Then came the panic of 1892, with consequent poverty, unemployment, and cutting of wage scales. After that was an unsuccessful strike in 1894. These were the days of the famous march of "General" Coxey's army and the use of the Sherman Anti-trust Act of 1890 to jail Eugene Debs. Individual workingmen whose total wealth might be a pair of pants and a mule were penalized under a Sherman Act which was to have been used, the politicians claimed, against great corporations.
By 1897 there were fewer than 10,000 members of the UMW in the whole United States – probably a whole lot fewer. The treasury contained something less that $600. The infant UMW seemed in bad need of an oxygen-tent. But none was available and there must have been many who had mentally engraved R.I.P. on the Union's headstone. Except the operators, of course, who were probably, with great glee, engraving the initials R.I.H.
A new president, Michael D. Ratchford of Ohio, was elected in 1897. The prospect could hardly have been more dismal. The UMW was cashless and very nearly member-less. Ratchford's thought processes at this time have not been recorded, so it can not be said by what line of reasoning he called a strike on July 4, 1897. Certainly he must have felt that matters could be no worse, come what may.
In any event, he shot at the moon and hit it. The miners came out and stayed out. Three long months it took. But the operators capitulated. And this was the magic medicine the puny UMW needed for survival. At the 1898 convention, Ratchford was able to report that the Union now had 33,000 members and $11,000 in the treasury.
In 1898, and for many years prior thereto, the principal coal-producing area in the United States was composed of Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, generally called the Central Competitive Field. The effects of the panic of 1892 were still felt by the coal industry in this area, and many miners were working as little as one and a half to two days a week. The operators in the Field, as the name implies, were certainly competitive, all of them trying to sell in the same market, cutting one another's throats.
West Virginia Looms
And by 1898 these coal operators saw the threat of another major competitor – nonunion coal from West Virginia. It took no seer to forecast that the stream of coal from the Mountain State would soon turn into a river which might easily sweep away the shaky financial structure of the northern operators. The Union miner in the Competitive Field was just as worried as his boss. He was hardly making a living, while in nonunion West Virginia his fellow miners were working around the clock six days a week – and knocking him out of a job while making only a pittance for themselves. Also, the northern coal miner had seen the scab from West Virginia break his strike of 1894.
Excerpted from When Miners March by William C. Blizzard. Copyright © 2010 Appalachian Community Services. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.