... includes not just the erased accomplishments women, people of color, queerfolk, etc. but also the working class and poor. Read about labor history and Blair Mountain.
Blair Mountain and labor's living history
Ninety years on, the coal seams of West Virginia are a
battlefield once more: for working people, the struggle goes
By Clancy Sigal
November 11, 2011
My first time in Westminister Abbey, London, I was taken
inside by a coal miner friend who was down from South Wales
for a brief London holiday. Suitably awed, we gawked at
Poets' Corner, the Coronation Throne, the tombs and effigies
of prelates, admirals, generals and prime ministers - England
in all its majesty and pageantry. Gazing at the Gothic
Revival columns, transepts and amazing fan-vaulted ceiling,
my friend said, "Impressive, isn't it? Of course, it's their
culture not ours."
Our culture - class conscious, bolshie, renegade - rarely lay
in plaques and statues, hardly ever in school texts, but
mainly in orally transmitted memories passed down generation
to generation, in songs and stories. "Labor history" has
become a province of passionately committed specialists and
working-class autodidacts, keepers of the flame of a human
drama at least as fascinating and blood-stirring as the dead
royal souls in the Abbey. It belongs to all of us who claim
I'm lucky because my family's secular religion is union. They
include cousin Charlie (shipbuilders), cousin Davie
(electrical workers), cousin Bernie (printers), my mother
(ladies' garment) and father (butchers and barbers), and
cousin Fred (San Quentin prisoners). Establishment history
may have its Battle of Trafalgar and Gallipoli; we have
Haymarket Square, Ludlow, Centralia and Cripple Creek:
labor's battle sites, more often slaughtering defeats than
Until recently, a lot of this history casually disappeared
down Orwell's "memory hole", forgotten, censored or ignored.
But with the spectacular emergence of the Occupy Wall Street
movement, and fight-backs in states like Wisconsin and Ohio,
young people especially seem to be regaining and
reinvigorating a living history. Memory stirs.
This contest for memory is a class struggle by other means.
Half our story - the half where unions created the modern
middle class - is written in the pedestrian language of
contracts, negotiations, wages and hours laws - the nuts and
bolts of deals. After all, unions exist to make a deal.
But the other half is inscribed in the whizzing bullets,
shootouts and pistol duels of out-and-out combat. Labor has
its own Lexington and Gettysburg. And none more bloodily
inscribed than in the hills and hollows of the West Virginia
The 1921 five-day Battle of Blair Mountain was the largest
domestic insurrection in the nation's post-Civil War history,
pitting 15,000 armed "redneck" miners, with their fierce and
family passions, against an army of imported gun-thugs,
strikebreakers, federal troops and even a US army bomber,
hired by the coal companies who owned the state and federal
governments and believed they owned the human beings who dug
the raw coal.
The Blair Mountain shootout had been preceded and provoked by
the "Matewan massacre" when a local sheriff and his deputies,
sympathetic to the young miners' union, took on the coal
company's hired gorillas who were evicting pro-union miners
and their families from their shanties. (See John Sayles's
film, Matewan.) Enraged miners marched on to Blair Mountain
in the next county.
When the smoke cleared over Blair mountain, along an eight-
mile front reminiscent of Flanders trenches, a hundred on
both sides had been killed with many more wounded. Outgunned
and under a presidential order, the miners, led by the
fabulously named Bill Blizzard, took their squirrel-hunting
rifles and went home - to face indictments for treason and
murder, drawn up by the coal owners and their bought judges.
Sympathetic juries freed most of them. (For further interest:
Bill Blizzard's son, the late William C, has a book, When
The beautiful, heartbreaking thing is that today the Battle
of Blair Mountain goes on. With protest hikes, films and
pamphlets, the campaign to save the mountain - again - sets
local miners and their families and friends, including
archaeologists and historians, against West Virginia coal
owners like notorious Massey Energy, still being investigated
by the FBI for possible criminal negligence in the deaths of
29 miners in the Upper Big Branch disaster of 2010.
A billion dollars of undug coal inside the mountain is at
stake. The world is in the middle of a coal rush. Dynamite is
cheaper than people. Incorrigible companies like Massey aim
to blow up Blair, via "mountaintop removal" (aka "strip
mining on steroids"), to get at the coal and, while they're
at it, destroy the people's battleground, the ecology and any
inheritance of resistance.
It is a fight over memory and honor, with very practical
consequences for the coal valleys, its displaced families,
poisoned rivers, contaminated communities. For a while, it
looked as if the miners and their union had won a great
victory by getting Blair Mountain on the National Register of
Historic Places. But with a Democratic state governor and a
Democratic president refusing to take sides, the coal owners
- who still control West Virginia - at the last minute
suddenly found some landowners to object. With the connivance
of Obama's departments of interior and environment and the
Park Service, Blair Mountain was de-registered and thrown
open to the pillagers.
Coal mining is where open class warfare is often at its
sharpest, most visible and violent. Something about the job
underground, and the shrewd tactical skills it takes not to
get yourself killed by roof falls and methane gas explosions,
binds miner to miner in what the military likes to call "unit
cohesion". Historically, miners worldwide have been in the
advance guard of social progress. It's one reason why coal
companies in America, and Mrs Thatcher in Britain, always
despised the miners and became obsessed with breaking their
Labor does not have its Westminister Abbey and probably
shouldn't. Museums are no substitute for "talking union".
Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.