We all know the history of the American Civil War, but did you know about the second largest armed uprising within the United States? I am probably the biggest history nerd I know and I only recently read about the Battle of Blair Mountain . Sure, I know about the struggles of the early 20th Century workers and the power of early corporations, but somehow this story circumvented my radar, or was buried in my brain caverns under all the history books I’ve read in the past twenty years. The story plays out like a modern day sweatshop:
During the late 19th and early 20th Centuries “Big Coal” was running the show in West Virginia. They had set up “company towns,” meaning a single company not only owned the mine and equipment, but the workers, the hospitals, the houses, the utilities, the stores and the government as well. Workers were subjugated to long days and dangerous working conditions–some of which would make your hair stand on end. In a recent re-telling of the story, Robert F Kennedy Jr explained, “Working conditions were horrendous: men and their sons worked 12 to 16 grueling hours in dark, dangerous mines dying from a notorious plague of subsurface explosions, cave-ins and black lung”
On top of dealing with these conditions the workers were basically feudal serfs to the coal lords. In the towns in which they lived, the companies owned the police and hired cronies to carry out intimidation and suppression, even using tactics such as espionage and murder. And just to add salt to their wounds, some local and state governments condoned these actions by turning a blind eye and supporting the companies.
Well in the early 20th Century the miners were fed up with this controlled lifestyle, which is deliciously ironic considering they existed in a “free” society. With workers unionizing all over the country during this time, union leaders entered the area through some sympathetic politicians. After a major supporter of the miners, Sid Hatfield, was assassinated in broad daylight, the workers formed a 10,000 member protest and marched for six days to the top of Blair Mountain. What proceeded was a deadly battle between Big Coal cronies and miners that included an order from President Warren G Harding (perhaps one of the most corrupt US Presidents ever–which is saying A LOT) to intercede on the side of the coal companies. The miners were gunned down and surplus WWI bombs were dropped upon them. Not to say they didn’t arm themselves and after intervention from the US Forces on their own citizens, they dispersed. Fearing they may be convicted by a corrupt government for treason, they tossed their ammunition and arms into the woods surrounding Blair Mountain. Almost a century old artifacts can still be found along the mountain, which is quite literally a gold, or shall I say “coal”mine for a history lover like myself.
The aftermath of this insurrection proved to be pivotal not only for the workers but for the union movement itself. Sixty years later, unions are one of the Average Joe’s only protection from somewhat unchecked corporate power. Sure, the government now includes higher working standards and moderation of companies, but how long will that last? Only a year ago, the Federal government ruled corporations have the same access to First Amendment Free Speech as a US citizen, and can legally fund campaigns with no limitations. At first glance, this may seem minor, but the consequences have the power to rattle the very foundation of our democracy. The corporations, which have proven themselves can not be trusted, will literally and legally buy out elections. On top of this, the extreme right, who says they stand for the people, have taken an all out war against public unions in the MidWest.
Although the country and world has changed drastically since the Battle of Blair Mountain, Big Coal still exists and is currently backed by many a politician. Recently, Blair Mountain has been pegged to have it’s top blown off and mined. Mountaintop removal mining is not only ecological harmful, but it also results in job loss for the area and in this case destroys a historic landmark–still filled with artifacts, if I may remind you. Luckily, environmentalists, labor groups, and historians have banded together to save Blair Mountain and bring attention to worker’s rights, sustainability, and the protection of the Appalachian legacy. The March on Blair Mountain began earlier this week and will culminate with thousands of supporters atop the symbolic mountain. Hundreds have been marching in the heat and thunderstorms all week and a few hundred, including ex marines and a wheel chair bound grandmother have been arrested.
Thousands are expected tomorrow, June 11th, to show solidarity. If you are not in the region, you can follow the March online and send your support virtually. Even more important, let you voice be heard. Sign the petition for Obama to preserve Blair Mountain and end mountaintop removal mining simultaneously.
So it seems we have entered a new era where rather than evolving and working on the unions, who by the way are not a perfect solution either, we are letting them be destroyed. This is where the people step in. We need to preserve our democratic power.