This month marks 100 years since the end of the Battle of Mount Blair, when 20 miners in southern West Virginia with weapons in their hands they fought against a private army of thugs hired by the owners of the coal mines. The fierce battle lasted from August 25 to September 2, 1921, when the US military, deployed by President Warren Harding, took over coal mines, disarming and arresting hundreds of miners.
The Battle of Mount Blair was part of a wave of working class struggles in the United States and internationally that was inspired by the Great October Revolution of 1917 in Russia.
Back in 1919, 350 steelworkers took part in the great steel strike, 000 coal miners went on strike nationwide, and 400 workers took part in a general strike in Seattle.
The American ruling class, fearing its own "October", responded with brutal repression. Attorney General Mitchell Palmer carried out a series of raids across the country in which more than 10 foreign workers were detained on charges of socialist, labor organization and anti-war activities.
During World War I, southern West Virginia coal was in high demand, especially for the fuel supply of the naval fleet USA. President Woodrow Wilson exempted the miners from conscription, but insisted that they increase production for the "war of democracy."
Wilson put Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, on the National Defense Council. The United Miners' Union fully supported the war, and every copy of United Miners magazine included a poster calling for more coal.
Throughout the war, coal magnates made huge profits from the fact that miners worked long hours for a small fee and were under constant threat of gas explosions, collapse and mechanical accidents. In 1918 alone, 2 miners died, including 580 in West Virginia.
Miners in West Virginia were also under the iron cap of the coal magnates, as well as the judges, police forces, and politicians who controlled them.
The miners lived in company cities, where almost everything - from their hovels, which had no heating or running water, to the shops where they bought their goods - belonged to the mine owners.
Mine owners paid wages to county sheriffs and their deputies to guard their property, collect rent from miners, and attack union miners. In addition, they hired thugs and spies from the Baldwin Felts Detective Agency, whose agents were also sworn in as law enforcement officers.
Hundreds of mining guards and sheriff's deputies patrolled the roads and roamed the cities on foot and on horseback carrying shotguns, rifles, pistols, batons, looking for union organizers and union miners.
Freedom of speech and public assembly were banned for miners. They were also not allowed to gather in groups of more than two. The miners' mail was scrutinized, read, and sometimes censored by the postmen of the company stores. As an additional measure of protection, companies began to fence their cities with barbed wire fences around 1913–1914.
Miners were forced to sign contracts that obliged them not to become members of various labor organizations and trade unions, or even refuse to "help, encourage or approve" such an organization. Workers convicted of wrongdoing or even suspected of union sympathies have been fired and forcibly evicted from their company's homes.
Despite attempts by coal magnates to divide workers along racial and ethnic lines, West Virginia workers, made up mostly of Italian and Hungarian immigrants, Appalachians, and former black sharecroppers from the South, rallied against the capitalist class.
This was shown by the Paint Creek - Cabine Creek strike of 1912-1913. The solidarity between blacks and whites, Protestants and Catholics, immigrant miners and indigenous people was unbreakable.
The Paint Creek - Cabine Creek strike, which took place southeast of Charleston, was a significant breakthrough. The miners fought a 15-month battle against the Baldwin-Felt thugs, who built an armored train to machine-gun the tent camps of the evicted striking miners.
The rank-and-file miners, led by 24-year-old Cayut Creek miner Frank Keeney, took the struggle out of the hands of the conservative national leadership of the local labor organization and turned to the Socialist Party to hold mass meetings and give talks.
Soon, the tycoons finally yielded to the miners.
However, after the strike, the owners of the coal mines were determined to take revenge. One Logan County tycoon expressed concern that the miners wanted to "take over the mines themselves ... In short, establish a Soviet government."
Massacre in Matevan
In May 1920, tens of thousands of West Virginia non-union miners who remained at work during the 1919 national strike joined United Mine Workers, hoping to join the next national strike. Any miner found to have joined the UMWA was fired.
Once again, coal companies recruited members of the Baldwin-Felts detective agency, which sent Lee and Albert Feltz, brothers of the agency's founder, Thomas Felts, to personally oversee efforts to “curb” the miners. The armed bandits immediately evicted workers and their families from the company's housing.
The agents met immediate resistance from the miners and their supporters, including Sid Hatfield, a former miner and police chief of Matevan, West Virginia, and the mayor of the city, Keybell Testerman. On May 19, 1920, Hatfield, Testerman, and a group of armed and authorized miners tracked down Felts and his agents to enforce an arrest warrant and take them into custody. At the confrontation, Felts stated that he had a warrant for Hatfield's arrest.
Witnesses reported that Testerman examined the alleged warrant and said, "It's a fake." But he was immediately shot by Albert Felts. Hatfield and the miners returned fire. And by the time the shooting ended, nine of the 12 Baldwin-Felts agents were dead, including both the Felt brothers. In addition to the mayor, two miners were killed.
The clash became known as the Matevan Massacre.
On orders from the mine owners, the state government brought in the state police, removed Hatfield from office, and arrested him. Strikes broke out in the coalfields of southern West Virginia in the interim before Hatfield's trial.
In January 1921, a sympathetic jury at Matevan acquitted Hatfield and 15 others for the murder of Albert Felts.
After the state legislature passed the reactionary Jury Bill, which allowed a judge to choose a jury from another district, a different trial date was set.
On August 1, 1921, when Hatfield was about to stand trial, Baldwin-Felts agents ambushed and killed him and his friend Ed Chambers at the entrance to the Mingo County Courthouse in Welch.
None of the killers have ever been brought to justice.
March to Blair Mountain
The news of Hatfield's murder infuriated the miners.
Kenny and District 17 Treasurer Fred Mooney had hoped Governor Ephraim Morgan would step in and agree to a deal to recognize the union and free the imprisoned miners in Mingo. Instead, the governor flatly rejected it.
Miners, including many veterans of the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Strike, began gathering in large numbers at union strongholds in Kanawa and Boone counties and held large gatherings.
A demand was made for an armed march from their location through Logan County to Mingo County to free the captured miners and bring Don Chaffin, "King of the Logan Kingdom" to justice. The mine owners gave Chafin virtually unlimited funds to raise a private army of 2 heavily armed anti-union thugs.
As information spread about the march, Chafin began to strengthen the defenses on Mount Blair, where machine gunners were sent, as well as soldiers with explosives and even planes that were planned to be used to drop gas grenades and bombs on miners.
Exact estimates vary, but at least 10 miners began their march on August 000, recruiting more workers from other counties as they progressed. Higher estimates indicate that up to 20 miners took up arms and took part in the fighting.
What inspired the miners to march was the spirit of class solidarity, regardless of race or nationality. They marched in red bandanas tied around their necks to distinguish themselves from the armed thugs who tied white handkerchiefs to their arms.
On August 25, hostilities began with minor skirmishes. Despite the significant numerical superiority, Chafin's forces dug in fortified positions that allowed them to fire at the miners from above, from the mountainside.
The miners, including some 2 World War I veterans, operated with military discipline. To obtain supplies, strikers raided company-owned stores without sparing or paying the owners of the independent stores.
A few days later, a stalemate arose in which the miners could not advance beyond the machine-gun fire lines, and the company's army could not leave its defensive positions to smash the miners' positions. It was then that Chafin began to use planes and, with their help, drop bombs on the miners' positions.
The US War Department dispatched Brigadier General Harry Hill Bandholz (who earned his credentials by overseeing the crackdown on US colonial resistance in the Philippines) to meet with Kenny and Mooney. He ordered them to disperse the miners and threatened to be held accountable if they did not.
At a meeting in Madison, Kenny told the miners:
"You can fight the West Virginia government, but I swear to God you cannot fight the United States government."
The miners challenged Kenny and continued their march, at one point finding themselves only six kilometers from the city of Logan. A terrified coal tycoon in town telegraphed a congressman asking him to contact President Harding and
"Tell him that if he doesn't send soldiers to Logan by midnight tonight, the city of Logan will be attacked by an army of four to eight thousand Reds and will suffer heavy losses in property."
On September 2, President Harding (whose Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon owned mines in Logan and Mingo counties) ordered 2 federal troops and 500 bombers to rescue coal magnates and crush what his officials called "civil war" and "armed rebellion."
As more and more army forces approached, the miners at first seemed ready to continue the fight. However, Bill Blizzard, the UMWA leader who commanded the miners, ordered the miners not to shoot at the soldiers and began helping the army to disarm the workers.
The miners' feelings were mixed. Some believed that federal intervention would help their cause and that they would be a neutral force in resolving the conflict with the mine owners.
But they quickly got rid of such illusions.
By September 4, many miners managed to escape by returning home. Others were less fortunate. They came under massive arrests organized by the US Army. A total of 985 miners were taken into custody.
General Bandgolts rejected requests from miners to hold rallies in federal-controlled areas and began censoring all news messages that sympathized with the miners in any way.
The suppression of miners will be followed by an escalation of repression and the virtual collapse of the UMWA.
In West Virginia, union membership has dropped from over 50 to a handful.
At the national level, union membership has dropped from over 600 to just 000.
There was no part of the American working class more militant and class-conscious than the miners of southern West Virginia.
The miners, like the rest of the working class, did indeed fight the US government and the capitalist system it defended. And here the spontaneous militancy of the workers was not enough. What was needed was political and revolutionary leadership.
John L. Lewis, who served as president of the UMWA from 1921 to 1960, was a staunch enemy of socialism. He opposed the left in the UMWA, who, back in 1926, called for the nationalization of coal mines and the creation of a party to fight the attack on hundreds of thousands of jobs due to mechanization. By 1927, Lewis had pushed the anti-communist clause into the UMWA's constitution.
“Trade unionism, unlike communism,” declared Lewis in 1937, “presupposes an employment relationship; it is based on a wage system and fully and unconditionally recognizes the institution of private property and the right to investment profits. "
Appealing to employers to recognize and cooperate with unions, he continued:
"The organized workers of America, free in their productive lives, conscientious partners in production, secured in their homes and with a decent standard of living, will prove to be the best bulwark against the invasion of doctrines alien to government."
The dominance of the anti-communist labor bureaucracy in the labor movement and its political subordination of the working class to the US government had disastrous consequences not only for the miners, but for all workers.