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Conflict, above and below ground

The miners strike in 1920 was the largest armed conflict in America since the Civil War

By Steve Weinberg / June 15, 2004



At first glance, it seems veteran political reporter Robert Shogan (formerly with Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times) has exaggerated the importance of a relatively obscure chain of events in the coal-mining region of West Virginia during 1920-21. But by skillfully combining microhistory and macrohistory, Shogan makes a persuasive argument that unionized coal miners and their employers all those decades ago left a legacy that still bedevils labor-management relations today.

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"By looking into this dark corner of American history," he writes, "my hope is to cast light on the forces that shaped the American political and economic order in the 20th century."

The elements for deadly conflict are all present here, even though nobody wanted to inflict death. On one side is the United Mine Workers union, led nationally by the charismatic, headline-seeking John L. Lewis and regionally by those experienced miners risking their safety below the earth's surface inside narrow, dark shafts. On the other side are the coal company operators hoping to maximize profits, assisted by state legislators, governors, law-enforcement officers, National Guard troops, and judges who care far more about the status quo than about distributive justice.

Shogan knows how to build the tension, which takes hold even though the outcome is known to serious students of American history. Chapter 1 opens like this:

"On a dreary morning in May of 1920, seven men carrying Winchesters and pistols boarded the Norfolk and Western's Number 29 at Bluefield, West Virginia, bound for the little mining town of Matewan on the Kentucky border. All were hirelings of the Baldwin-Felts detective agency, personally selected by their boss, Tom Felts. Half a dozen or so others would follow by later trains."

The miners viewed the Baldwin-Felts detectives as lawless thugs. The detectives viewed union leaders and, to some extent, the rank and file, as greedy socialists yearning to destroy admirable, entrepreneurial capitalists who often had built their businesses from nothing.

In the wake of World War I, the demand for US coal had slackened. Miners earned less than before the coal-consuming war machine closed; many felt desperate to keep any job, no matter how exploitative the employer's actions. That desperation led to sit-down strikes, slowdowns, and walkouts. In many companies, management responded not by offering to conduct a dialogue, but by demonstrating intransigence or downright hostility. Sometimes the disagreements became bloody.

The insertion of Baldwin-Felts union busters into the already volatile stew "would open a new and bloody chapter in the annals of American history," Shogan writes. "Their arrival would set off a chain reaction of violence that would rock the government of West Virginia to its foundations, and at the same time challenge the federal government in Washington."

The physical altercations would "conclude only after 10,000 armed miners set out to defy the government of the state and the companies that controlled their lives in the largest armed uprising on American soil since the Civil War," Shogan says.

For readers who believe violence begets violence, "The Battle of Blair Mountain" is populated almost entirely by villains. Shogan, however, views many of the coal miners as admirable. His sympathies seem to be skewed toward the downtrodden; journalistic objectivity aside, it would be perhaps impossible to find these downtrodden miners anything but admirable.

Knowing they might lose their jobs, knowing that friends and relatives would probably be assaulted, they refused to back down in their quest for safer working conditions and better pay. "Middle-class mythology to the contrary," Shogan writes, "class conflict does exist in America."

"The Battle of Blair Mountain" is historical narrative at its best, making past events become real for at least a few hours of reading pleasure, while also providing a framework for understanding the 2004 version of rotten labor relations.

Steve Weinberg is a freelance journalist in Columbia, Mo. He is writing a biography of muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell.

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