A campaign to remember a labor union war against anti-union corrupt companies coincides with an effort to stop mountaintop removal mining that will desecrate the battlefield where union members fought and died. (More)

During June 4-11, hundreds of people will be marching 50 miles from Marmet, West Virginia to Blair Mountain in Logan County on the same route marched by miners 90 years ago to commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain.  

This labor union battle was the largest insurgency in our history next to the Civil War. In 1921, 10,000 coal miners engaged in armed conflict against coal bosses and their private army of mercenaries, and then faced U.S. military intervention. It was the “only time in history that U.S. air power has been used against American civilians.”

It was a battle of open class warfare against a “severely oppressive social and economic system maintained by coal operators.” It was about the right to live without exploitation, coercion and terrorism by mining companies. It was about the right to join a union, and the right to civil liberties, such as freedom of speech and assembly.

One purpose of this march is to protect Blair Mountain as a national historic monument that is a crucial part of the history of our democracy. Designation as a historical site will protect this battlefield from desecration by MTR mining. This march is also about labor solidarity, both past and present.

Please sign 2 petitions:
Save Historic Coal Miner Battle Site From Strip Mining Destruction: This petition is a letter to the Secretary of Interior, National Register of Historic Places and the W. Va. Culture and History Commissioner to advocate protecting the site with listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Stop Coal Companies From Erasing Labor Union History: This is a petition to the Governor of W. Va., the National Register of Historic Places and Sen. Jay Rockefeller.

The battle of Blair Mountain happened after years of oppression. Work in the southern coalfields was based on an inhumane “company store” exploitation system backed by the “Death Special”, (shown in photograph) or the armed, private militia of the coal companies:

Miners and their families often existed in crowded, isolated, and substandard coal camps, at the mercy of the mine owners who owned the camps as well.

The coal companies owned the miners’ homes. Yellow-dog contracts by mining companies banned even the association with union members on penalty of firing, blacklisting and eviction. One coal company lawyer explained the master/servant system:

It is like a servant lives at your house. If the servant leaves your employment, if you discharge him, you ask him to get out of the servants’ quarters. It is a question of master and servant.

Workers were paid with credits or scrip to buy food at outrageous prices at company stores. Voicing safety issues were grounds for firing. “The private security men from Baldwin-Felts would threaten, beat and sometimes murder agitators β€” all with impunity.”

The mine owners controlled local and state government by fear and bribery, leaving the workers with no remedies in the courts or government. Most state laws prohibited union organizing. Mercenaries of the Death Special murdered a pro-union mayor. Strikes and marches were their only forum for relief, so the workers marched to Logan County to sign up non-union miners.

Fifteen thousand coal miners met at the foot of Blair Mountain and were confronted by company mercenaries and state police. The miners were outgunned by coal industry forces on the ground:

On a high ridge above, coal industry forces, private detectives, and state police officers peered out from fortified positions, training Thompson submachine guns and high-powered rifles on the men below.

Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin headed up a force of 3,000 men that included other law officers, “many of whom were on the coal companies’ payrolls.” The local police passed out ammunition and arms to volunteers and also used “private planes that dropped homemade bombs on the miners” made with “homemade bleach and shrapnel.” Archived newspaper photographs shows one of the bombs dropped by Chafin’s forces.

One report states that miners were also outgunned as “National Guard airplanes dropped bombs on the miners and nearby towns.” However, I saw more accounts that the Army did not allow bombing of miners, but used the military for “reconnaissance flights.”

The military also used high-powered search lights to hunt down the miners:

One of the high powered search lights established on the recent firing line by the military authorities. The rays from the light are thrown hundreds of feet, lighting up the hillsides and mountain tops sufficiently to discern the smallest movable objects.

The battle lasted 6 days:

A war was in progress in West Virginia. As many as 15,000 men were involved, an unknown number were killed or wounded, bombs were dropped, trains were stolen, stores were plundered, a county was invaded and another was under siege.

After casualties of 12-100 miners and 30 members of the coal forces, President Harding sent in federal troops, as shown in the photograph of an Army train heading to Blair Mountain.  (More newspaper photos of the battle at the link.)

On September 4, 1921, mine workers turned in their weapons. Hundreds of miners were indicted for murder, treason, and conspiracy, and three were convicted.  “Chafin was arrested several years later on corruption charges and served time in federal prison for bootlegging.”

While the workers were defeated, this battle educated the public of the inhumane working conditions of the miners and was a key step for recognition of union rights in 1935 with enactment of the National Labor Relations Act. In a twist of irony, the battle for Blair Mountain was about the right for mine workers to join the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), which supports MTR mining, but also supports designating Blair Mountain as national historic site.

There should be no question that this battlefield should be protected as a national monument, similar to other battlefields protected by the National Park Service (NPS).

The battle today is that coal companies, including Massey Energy and Arch Coal, want to strip mine in the historic battlefield. Arch Coal claimed that there is now little evidence of the Blair Mountain battle based on two archaeological surveys it commissioned, and therefore, the battlefield is not worthy of preservation. Two archaeologists working to protect the battlefield, Harvard Ayers and Kenneth King, assembled an archaeological team to survey the battlefield, mapping out 15 combat sites and discovering more than 1,000 artifacts. King, a very nice man who I spoke to this morning, shows some of the artifacts in this video:

In 2006, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the battlefield as one of the most endangered historic places. Many people worked for two decades to obtain designation. In 2009, the NPS listed Blair Mountain on its National Register of Historic Places after a majority of property owners voted in favor of listing. In less than a week, the lawyers of coal companies submitted “corrections” of the voters list, and a NPS recount found a small majority of landowners objected to listing the site. Nine months later, it was de-listed. Archaeologist Ayers hired a lawyer to check the records. It was no surprise that there were significant errors: The list of objections included the names of missing and deceased property owners as well as people who no longer owned property. The “final count we reached was 63 landowners and only 25 objectors.”

Environmental groups then filed a lawsuit to reverse the NPS de-listing. This lawsuit is now pending but the mining companies want to eliminate the evidence for historic preservation status.

A Report on Disturbance at the Blair Mountain Battlefield shows that MTR mining operations commenced bulldozing of five “areas of great historic interest.”

The battle for Blair Mountain today also includes a coalition of historic preservation, environmental and labor groups who this week petitioned the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to stop mining on Blair Mountain. State law provides that when mining operations can cause “significant damage to important historic lands,” then the State can exclude those lands from mining.

Please listen to David Rovics sing passionately about the bravery of the union miners to stand up against the corrupt coal companies while you please sign the petitions:

Save Historic Coal Miner Battle Site From Strip Mining Destruction: This petition is a letter to the Secretary of Interior, National Register of Historic Places and the W. Va. Culture and History Commissioner to advocate protecting the site with listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Stop Coal Companies From Erasing Labor Union History: This is a petition to the Governor of W. Va., the National Register of Historic Places and Sen. Jay Rockefeller.

Originally posted to Patriot Daily News Clearinghouse

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