[Photo by the author]
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ByKim Kelly

100 years after the country's largest labor war, its dark legacy still looms

In Brookwood, Alabama, in the northern part of the state where the tip of the Appalachian Mountain range digs deep into the red clay, 1,100 coal miners are on strike. They, their families, and their union, the United Mine Workers of America, are right now holding the line down where King Cotton once reigned, and where King Coal has since wrapped its grimy hands around their necks.

Their strike against Warrior Met Coal began April 1 and has been a grueling trench war against an impossibly powerful foe. Fortunately, the miners have the benefit of membership in a strong union, the United Mine Workers of America, and the hope is that Warrior Met will yield to their demands to return to the bargaining table with a decent contract. It’s been an uphill battle; the company has the advantage of deep pockets and venture capital backing, and has also been bussing in replacement workers to keep the mines limping along.

While the strike itself is officially over unfair labor practices and the company’s refusal to give any concessions in the new contract, the fight itself really boils down to one thing: dignity. The miners want to be treated with respect, to be paid fairly, to have time to see their families, and to have their hard, difficult labor acknowledged. Coal mining remains one of the most hazardous professions in the country — black lung disease kills over 1,000 miners each year — and while the industry itself continues to shrink, the workers tasked with keeping those mines running are terrified of being left behind.

A lot has changed in the past hundred years, but in the dark, dusty depths of an underground coal mine, 1921 and 2021 don’t feel that far apart.

Much of what these miners are fighting for would sound painfully familiar to the brave souls who marched 100 years ago at Blair Mountain in West Virginia, about 500 miles north of where the Warrior Met Coal strike rages on. Then, too, 10,000 workers stood up and demanded fair pay for a long day’s work, adequate health care, safe working conditions, and a little bit of respect for their labor and their humanity.

A lot has changed in the past hundred years, but in the dark, dusty depths of an underground coal mine, 1921 and 2021 don’t feel that far apart. Miners are still being injured and dying on the job at a staggering rate. Black lung is back on the rise, and miners afflicted with the terrible disease still struggle to access adequate health care. Coal barons still rule their fiefdoms with an iron fist, now aided by Wall Street instead of the Rockefellers. The UMWA is still fighting like hell to keep its members alive and well, and the miners themselves are doing their damndest to navigate the impact of doing this incredibly dangerous job in a devastating climate crisis.

The American coal miner continues to be used as a political prop by conservative politicians who tend to disappear the moment one of them — or 1,100 of them — might need their help. They’re also consistently demonized for contributing to the climate emergency without any acknowledgement of the economic circumstances or lack of options that may lead someone down into the pit in the first place. Unions have been kneecapped by decades of decline, and the “red necks” of old have been subsumed into the culture wars and spat out as classist caricatures. All told, a century after Blair Mountain, coal miners are still in a bad spot.

A sign outside the UMWA Local in Matewan, West Virginia. [Photo by the author]

These parallels were readily apparent at the centennial celebration of the Battle of Blair Mountain, which I attended earlier this month in West Virginia. During a weeklong slate of talks, panels, and concerts across the cities of Charleston, Logan, and Matewan, performers reenacted critical moments from the seminal labor battle. In Matewan, Loretta Williams, a historical reenactor from Illinois, breathed new life into a famously rousing speech given by Mary “Mother Jones” Harris, a small, white-haired woman with round spectacles and a thick Irish brogue. Decked out in Harris’s signature old-fashioned black dress and wide-brimmed hat trimmed with ribbons, Williams stood atop a little wooden soapbox on a street corner and upbraided workers for not fighting hard enough to take what was rightfully theirs. “You are men of honor, respectable, decent, hard-working,” Williams-as-Harris hollered. “And you let them come in and rob you blind, and you never said a damn word about it!”

The real-life Mother Jones was legendary for both her dedication to the working class and her propensity to swear a blue streak when riled. As Williams embodied Harris’s fiery delivery, railing against the coal bosses who have repeatedly tried to snuff out the union, a crowd stood before her, hanging on her every word. In her shadow loomed the steeple of the Matewan United Methodist Church, whose sandy stone walls had provided succor and salvation to generations of mining families.

Matewan is a little pinprick of a town, just under two hours away from Charleston. But it bears the weight of a heavy historical burden. It was in Matewan that Baldwin-Felts detectives, the notorious “gunmen of capitalism” who terrorized workers and union sympathizers on the bosses’ orders, descended on the coal camps to evict a group of union mining families at gunpoint, and where the resulting conflict between miners and hired gun thugs led to bloodshed and death. The Mine Wars loom large over this small corner of a complicated state: From 1900 to 1921, miners and their families in the coalfields of southern West Virginia fought tooth and nail for the right to join unions. A multiracial, multiethnic group of white Appalachian mountaineers, Black workers who had migrated from the Deep South, and immigrant workers from Italy and Eastern Europe came together and repeatedly rose up against the coal barons and their goons in places like Matewan, and especially on Blair Mountain.

Loretta Williams as Mary "Mother Jones" Harris. [Photo by the author]

Just like their Appalachian brethren from a century ago, the Warrior Met Coal miners and their family members have been run down by bosses’ trucks, threatened with guns on the picket line, and are facing down a company that would rather starve them out than offer a decent wage. Locals say the police have turned a blind eye to violence on the picket lines, and the strikers have depended on community support to keep them going. The local UMWA Auxiliary, which is run by miners’ wives, family members, and retirees, has been distributing groceries and basic necessities to hundreds of families each week. The group is planning a toy drive for Christmas — evidence that the strike probably won’t be ending anytime soon.

Now the real Mother Jones is dead and gone, and so are the miners and mountaineers she once rallied. But the battles they fought and the burdens they shouldered are very much alive. The Blair Mountain legacy echoes in every moment the workers at Warrior Met Coal spend on the picket line, every penny they have to pinch and every prayer they send that the bosses will finally see the light and come back to the table with something worth their time. They are simply answering the question that the real Mother Jones roared out to a West Virginia crowd a century ago: “Why would they go out on strike for months on end? Why would they do it? ... It's called human rights.”