August 28, 2012

Labor Day Special (Part 1)

The time to celebrate the economic and social contributions of workers is nearly upon us once more. As Labor Day approaches again this year, I think it would be appropriate to reflect on one of the major fights for workers’ rights in the United States. It is important to remember just how bad labor relations have been in our past, in order to adequately appreciate the work of union leaders and labor organizers in our history. While it is true that, over the years, the power of labor unions have greatly diminished, at least in the private sector, these organizations fought and often bled for many of the rights and privileges we enjoy today. There were many battles, both legal and literal, in the history of U.S. labor. One of the largest, yet often forgotten, is the fight for worker’s rights in the bloody coal fields of West Virginia. Over the next few posts I will examine the so called “Battle of Blair Mountain” as an example of the struggle for fair labor practices in America. The tale of Blair Mountain is a bloody tale full of heroes and villains. It is violent and harsh, but it represents an important moment in time where the poor and oppressed common man stood up against a seemingly invincible power and drew a line in the sand. It is a cautionary tale, warning in equal parts of the danger of unchecked crony capitalism and of violent proletariat revolution. So as this Labor Day approaches, let’s take the time to look back and remember the men and women who fought the good fight and tried to break free from the yoke of oppression and also to reflect on the lessons to be learned from their example.

On August 25th 1921 gunfire echoed through the hills of West Virginia. 15,000 American citizens rose up against the combined forces of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, Logan County Sheriff’s Department, West Virginia State Police, and the United States Army who numbered 30,000 strong. When the gunfire slowly died away on September 2nd, a hundred miners lay dead with many other hundreds wounded. Government forces arrested nearly a thousand persons. The second largest armed insurrection in US history (only the Civil War surpasses the scale and scope) resulted in a huge defeat for the miners and a massive setback for miners rights. The early twentieth century saw many battles between labor and management. Events like the Haymarket Massacre, Pullman Strikes and the 1905 Chicago Teamsters strike are well remembered. Despite the scale of the conflict and the importance of the aftermath in American labor history, the event is largely absent in public memory. My posts this week will look at the events leading into and reconstruct the causes of the conflict. How were the workers exploited? What led them to choose open conflict with company and government forces? Beginning tomorrow we will look at the immediate events leading to the conflict that culminated in the Battle of Blair Mountain.

Image Credit: Pushkin / Shutterstock

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