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Hurrah for Liberals: Deadly Labor Struggles

Hurrah for Liberals: Deadly Labor Struggles August 16, 2021

By James A. Haught

Many atheists also are progressive “social justice warriors” striving to make life better and more equal for everyone. They include Daylight Atheism contributor James Haught. Here’s a chapter from his 2016 book, Hurrah for Liberals.


As the Industrial Revolution snowballed, millions of workmen left farms and took urban factory jobs to support their families. Society was transformed. Mass blue-collar workforces grew — but workers often were subjected to exhausting hours, low pay and unhealthy conditions. Their misery spawned an urge to organize for self-protection.

Here’s a historic example:

In the 1830s, coal-loaders on Philadelphia’s waterfront were forced to work sixteen hours a day, six days a week. They staggered to their slum homes at night, black from coal dust, almost too weary to wash or enjoy their families, only to return before daylight for another sixteen hours.

One day, the embittered men abruptly walked off the job and demanded a ten-hour workday. It was a jolt that idled much of the ship wharves. Coal merchants rejected their demand and vowed to hire replacement workers. Some newspapers called the strikers “deluded” and even “freshly imported foreigners who despise and defy the law.”

Then Philadelphia’s handloom weavers decided that they, too, should have their work hours reduced to ten per day. They likewise struck. Next, cordwainers (shoemakers) joined the demand. At a rally, speakers denounced the “grinding avarice” of shoe company owners and vowed that cordwainers would no longer be “slaves of heartless monopolists.”

Strikers marched through streets and stormed into the Merchants Exchange. A leader rebuked the “blood-sucking aristocracy” that kept workers subjugated. They wrote a resolution declaring:

“As we have nothing to dispose of but our labor, we claim the right of freemen of selling that at such a price as shall enable us to support ourselves, our wives and our families, without becoming objects of public charity.”

Journeymen carpenters, bricklayers, housepainters, plasterers, ironsmiths and tinsmiths joined the walkout for ten-hour days. Thousands of people signed a petition to Philadelphia’s council, which decreed that all city employees would work shorter hours. Philadelphia became the first city in America to shorten the workday for its workers.

Workers wrote more resolutions declaring that opponents of the ten-hour day were “devoid of the noble principle of humanity and the mild and charitable virtues of Christianity.” They called the city’s working conditions “an odious system of oppression.” They said employers “hold us as slaves.”

Slowly, business after business capitulated to the demands, and the ten-hour workday became standard. The Philadelphia victory helped spur rapid growth of organized unions around America.

Meanwhile, gory violence accompanied unionization in some parts of America. My state of West Virginia was a battleground where coal miners were exploited like cattle, and many fought back in armed uprisings. The West Virginia mine wars were legendary. Here’s a brief record:

As coal mining blossomed in the late 1800s, thousands of immigrant and Black workers poured into southern West Virginia for dirty, dangerous coal jobs. The diggers mostly lived in company camps, were paid in “scrip” tokens spendable only at company stores, and were exploited somewhat like serfs in bondage. Explosions and cave-ins killed multitudes. In 1907, a mine blast at Monongah, West Virginia, took nearly 400 worker lives. One historian said American combat troops in World War I had better survival rates than West Virginia miners.

Appalachian Heritage magazine told how a large coal company store at Whipple, Fayette County, was a fortress for armed guards, a mortuary for killed miners, a citadel for subjugating miner families, a place where any gossip about union organizing led to swift dismissal — and even a place where some desperate miner wives were coerced to trade sex for food for their hungry families.

After the store was abandoned, a purchaser found it contained odd, half-size lunch pails. Old-timers explained: When a miner was killed on the job, his wife and children soon were evicted from company-owned housing — unless the widow sent a young son, perhaps eight, to become an apprentice digger in the late father’s place. The small pails were for child miners.

In company housing around the store, mine owners arranged an ethnic mix of Black miners, local Appalachian whites and imported Poles and other foreign-speaking immigrants — to prevent workers from associating and trying to form a union. Assemblies by miners were forbidden.

As the stormy labor-organizing movement grew, disguised Baldwin-Felts guards were planted as supposed clerks in the Whipple store to listen for hints of union talk. Others were sent into mines posing as diggers for the same purpose. Any miner who “talked union” was fired and his family evicted. Mining in the early 1900s was extremely dangerous. The Whipple store had an embalming room in the basement for accident victims, and a special floor for coffins.

A secluded upstairs chamber was called the “rape room” by oldsters. If a miner’s wife or teen-age daughter couldn’t afford shoes, she was taken there by a guard who demanded that she earn them in bed. Miners were paid in company-issued “scrip” tokens redeemable at the store. But there also was a special paper scrip which some miner wives called “Esau” after the Bible’s story of a starving elder son who sold his birthright to a younger brother for food. The paper scrip worked like this:

If a miner became injured or sick and couldn’t go into the mines, his family soon ran out of food and became desperate. If his wife begged for rations at the Whipple store, she was issued the paper credit — on agreement that she would repay later in cash or in sexual favors for guards and supervisors. She didn’t dare tell her husband, and often tried to avoid the sexual payback.

As West Virginia’s historic mine wars erupted, the Whipple store increasingly was headquarters for armed Baldwin-Felts agents trying to block unionization.

The mine wars were America’s worst conflict since the Civil War, and the worst labor violence in American history. They involved the Army and military aircraft, plus civilian planes dropping homemade bombs. The new-formed United Mine Workers attempted to unionize diggers, which brought fierce resistance. Mine owners hired armed guards. Brutality abounded. Union organizers — including tough-talking Mary “Mother” Jones — were jailed repeatedly in West Virginia.

Mother Jones was a firebrand who proclaimed “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” Upton Sinclair said she traveled around America, spurring various strikers in “a veritable odyssey of revolt.”

In 1912, Paint Creek miners east of Charleston went on strike. Forced out of their company homes, they lived in tent clusters. To counter armed company guards, the UMW sent in guns and ammunition. Gov. William Glasscock declared martial law. A coal operator put machine guns on a train dubbed “the Bull Moose Special” which rolled along Paint Creek in 1913 firing at tents. Only one striker was killed — reportedly because armored slits in the train cars prevented the machine guns from tilting downward toward crouching, hiding targets. In retaliation, armed miners attacked a nearby guard camp in a battle that killed sixteen.

By 1919, southern counties were a major nonunion zone. Mine owners paid Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin — a political dictator who controlled every public job in the county — to hire many “deputies” to beat and expel union agents and miners who attended organizing sessions. Chafin’s sheriff salary was $3,500 a year, but a later inquiry learned that mine owners paid him about $33,000 more annually. He grew rich, and brutal. He was shot twice in clashes with miners.

In 1919, armed miners assembled near Charleston to march on Logan. They wore red bandannas and called themselves “rednecks.” They made it halfway, but turned back.

In 1920, Mingo County miners struck. Armed Baldwin-Felts agents evicted them from company houses. Matewan Police Chief Sid Hatfield backed the strikers. He led a squad of armed miners to face the union-busters at the town’s railway platform. The shootout killed seven guards and four townspeople, including the town mayor. Hatfield soon married the mayor’s widow.

Near-warfare ensued in Mingo. In 1921, a three-day gunbattle raged, killing perhaps twenty. President Warren Harding declared martial law in West Virginia. Gov. Ephriam Morgan proclaimed that the region was in “a state of war, insurrection and riot.” West Virginia’s State Police force was created chiefly to curb coalfield violence.

Police Chief Hatfield, ruled innocent in the “Matewan Massacre,” was charged with a different shooting at a coal camp in adjoining McDowell County, along with a companion. As the two walked up the steps of the McDowell courthouse at Welch for a hearing, Baldwin-Felts men in the crowd stepped out and shot them both to death.

The Hatfield murder inflamed union miners. They rallied at the Capitol in Charleston and vowed to march southward like an army. UMW leaders roused workers to arm themselves. In Logan County, Sheriff Chafin had been preparing for such an invasion. He enlarged his deputy legion to around seven hundred, brought in machine guns, and built war-style breastworks on Blair Mountain, a natural barrier shielding the county seat of Logan. Chafin also engaged his own air force: three rented biplanes to scout for approaching mobs and drop homemade bombs on them.

About 5,000 bandanna-wearing “rednecks” gathered and headed south on Aug. 24, 1921. More joined them along the way, swelling the throng to an estimated 10,000 to 15,000. As the first groups approached Blair Mountain, some strikers hijacked a train and backed it fifteen miles to transport fighters.

Among the rebels was Baptist minister James Wilburn, who mobilized a squad of armed supporters. On Aug. 31, Wilburn’s men killed three of Chafin’s deputies, and one of the preacher’s fighters died.

Full-scale warfare between defenders atop Blair and strikers below ensued for several days. Chafin’s forces included state troopers, militiamen, Baldwin-Felts guards and deputized Logan countians. Hundreds of thousands of bullets were fired in the woodland, but casualties were surprisingly light, perhaps under twenty. Nobody knows an accurate body count.

President Harding sent federal troops from Kentucky, plus an air squadron under war hero Billy Mitchell from Langley Field near Washington. Mitchell’s biplanes landed in an open field near Charleston — but six got lost and crashed in mountains en route.

Rather than fight the Army, strikers withdrew. Many hid their guns in the woods, took off their red bandannas, and slipped away.

After the Battle of Blair Mountain, grand juries returned 1,217 indictments, including 325 for murder and twenty-four for treason. But the charges mostly evaporated. The only treason conviction was against a Walter Allen, who skipped bail and vanished, never to be found. Bill Blizzard, the “general” of the miner army, was tried in the same Jefferson County Courthouse where John Brown had been convicted of treason in 1859. Unlike Brown, Blizzard was cleared. Preacher Wilburn and his son were convicted of murder, but Gov. Howard Gore pardoned them after they served three years in prison.

The mine wars wiped out most of the UMW’s funds and left it weak. By 1924, it had lost about half of its West Virginia members. Unions remained under severe attack until 1933, when President Roosevelt’s New Deal legalized the right of workers to organize. March leader Blizzard, revered among miners, became UMW district president and led rapid unionization of the Mountain State.

Around America, various other violent conflicts and massacres accompanied the growth of labor unions. The right of workers to seek better conditions slowly won the eight-hour workday, the five-day workweek, a minimum wage, abolition of child labor and many other benefits. Support of unions became a bedrock principle of liberal politics.

“What does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails, more books and less arsenals, more learning and less vice, more leisure and less greed, more justice and less revenge,” said American Federation of Labor founder Samuel Gompers (1850-1924).

President Jimmy Carter said: “Every advance in this half-century — Social Security, civil rights, Medicare, aid to education, one after another — came with the support and leadership of American labor.”

Abolitionist Wendell Phillips (1811-1884) said: “The labor movement means just this: It is the last noble protest of the American people against the power of incorporated wealth.”

In a 1961 essay titled If the Negro Wins, Labor Wins, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “Our needs are identical to labor’s needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures…. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a two-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.”

But trends of economics and technology slowly undercut the union movement. As jobs grew more specialized and individualized — and machines took over many tasks — the need for blue-collar armies shrank. Unions were squeezed to the sidelines.

In the 1950s, when American manufacturing boomed, about one-third of all workers carried union cards. But steady erosion occurred. Today, only 6.7 percent of private-sector workers are union members. However, white-collar government jobs remain one-third unionized.

Republican legislators work incessantly to destroy unions. Right-to-work laws — designed to break unions by letting some employees refuse to join locals and also refuse to contribute payments for collective bargaining — have been passed in half of American states.

The retreat of unions is among a few sectors in which conservatives have scored greater success than progressives.

(Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine.)

Image: Sheriff’s deputies fighting during the Battle of Blair Mountain. From the Charleston Gazette, 1921. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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