The West Virginia Mine War

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Although they were fighting a losing battle, the southern operators, closely linked financially with the big steel and railroad empires, had the statehouse at Charleston and most of the law on their side. Their principal weapon was a hiring contract that forbade workers to join a union (miners called this a yellow-dog contract), and its validity was repeatedly upheld by the state courts. So was the operators’ contention that anyone soliciting membership in a union was guilty of trespass. And so was their contention that miners living in company-owned houses could be evicted without notice or legal redress. This last was an impressive power, since the entire town around a mine property, including the streets, stores, and churches, if any, was usually owned by the operator. To enforce these rights the mineowners put as many deputy sheriffs on their payrolls as they felt they needed. And in times of particular stress they called on the services of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, a nationwide firm of professional strong-arm men and strikebreakers, for extra brawn and firepower.

 

The hired mine guards—“thugs” in the local vernacular—epitomized the miners’ grievances, but the substantive issues went much deeper. The miners demanded the right to belong to a union and the right to bargain with their employers through that union. They wanted an eight-hour day instead of the prevalent ten-hour one, weekly instead of monthly paydays, and payment in cash instead of the local scrip that was widely employed. They demanded the establishment of two thousand pounds as the standard ton on which their pay should be based. Many companies paid by the car, the capacities of which might vary by several hundred pounds. The miners also sought the right to pick their own checkweighman to keep tabs on the company scale operator. Above all they demanded that the hated “thugs” be stripped of their power to make arrests and to ransack homes and meeting places under search warrants issued by justices of the peace who often were also in the pay of the mine-owners.

The miners’ leader was Frank Keeney, president of UMW District 17, whose jurisdiction covered the coalfields in the central and southern part of the state. Unlike the lank, hollow-eyed rustics and inarticulate immigrants who made up the rank and file of his following, Keeney in his mid-thirties was squat, muscular, square-jawed, and aflame with the pugnacity and accumulated resentments of his Irish forebears. He had been born and reared in these hills and spent his early years digging coal. He had a sharp, eager mind and a fierce determination to do something about his and the other miners’ plight. On the stump he was a fiery, persuasive rabble-rouser, and sitting across the table from a governor or a committee of legislators or a group of mineowners he was a shrewd, confident, resourceful negotiator. Inevitably, in the supercharged atmosphere of the time, he was a man with a double profile: a fearless and incorruptible Spartacus in one view, a dangerous troublemaker in another.

The issue of whether the miners in adjoining Logan and Mingo counties could join the union was being pushed toward an explosive climax as the igao’s arrived. Hundreds had signed up, and as promptly as they were discovered they were fired from their jobs and put out of their houses. Organizers and union representatives were clapped into jail in Williamson, the town of Logan itself, and other coal centers as soon as they stepped off the trains. The operators refused to meet with the union, and as their mines were shut down one by one they brought in strikebreakers and added more deputies and mine guards to their payrolls. Bands of miners were accused of roaming the hills at night, dynamiting coal tipples and firing at company buildings with rifles. The deputies struck back by swooping down on the tent colonies in which some fifteen hundred dispossessed mine families were living. They slashed the tents, threw the contents about, and arrested all the boys and men they could run down. A sense of panic spread from Logan and Mingo counties to the statehouse in Charleston. Governor Ephraim F. Morgan declared martial law in the area and authorized Sheriff Don Chafin of Logan County to muster his deputies and any other recruits available into a makeshift state militia, providing them with arms and ammunition.

To the miners and their backers Chafin was the most feared and hated man in the southern coalfields. He was in a quite literal sense the law in Logan County, fully backed with money and authority by the coal operators, who, in turn, controlled most other facets of the county’s life. His principal mission was to keep the union out, with no questions asked about the means employed. His large corps of deputies, which included most of the Baldwin-Felts mine guards, were openly carried on the companies’ payrolls. Tales of Chafin’s arrogance and brutality were legion, and in that hot, turbulent summer of 1921 the jail at Logan was jammed with more than two hundred men whose only offense was joining or talking up the union.