Wednesday, January 27, 2016

American Experience: “Mine Wars” (Film Posse/PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s PBS documentary was an American Experience episode called “Mine Wars,” about the 20-year struggle by the United Mine Workers to organize the coal miners in southern West Virginia and how it was systematically thwarted by the mine operators, the government officials who (with two intriguing exceptions, both noted in the program) went along with whatever the bosses wanted them to do, and the private army the bosses hired (in the guise of a private-investigation firm called “Baldwin-Felts,” though whoever Baldwin might have been it was three brothers named Felts who actually ran the company) to smash any union campaigns before they started. It’s a vivid portrayal of just how much control the mine owners exerted — they put up their workers in company-owned towns (where they could be evicted if they quit or were fired, and just being a union member was grounds for being fired), they paid them in company currency (“scrip”) which they could only spend at company stores (where the prices were far higher than they were elsewhere in the area) and, like the sharecroppers in the Deep South, they often ended up not only with no money but actually in debt to the company for their rent and groceries — remember the song “Sixteen Tons,” with its chilling lines, “Tell St. Peter I can’t go/I owe my soul to the company store.” The companies also controlled the towns so utterly that they had no local governments of their own, and installed their agents as postmasters at the towns’ post offices so they could ensure that workers couldn’t receive pro-union leaflets or letters in the mail.

The combination of low pay and virtually feudal living conditions, as well as the mine owners’ callous disregard of worker health and safety — coal mining is an inherently dangerous business, since you’re not only tunneling through mountains and the tunnels might cave in at any moment, you’re also releasing huge amounts of dust and gas in the air, and many of the gases are themselves highly flammable and potentially explosive (while the miners were working by the open flames of the lamps attached to their hats — electric lights for miners were well in the future), or else they’re damp and suffocating — and the owners basically regarded the workers as dispensable resources. If they got sick, had accidents, got injured or even killed on the job, tough; there were always more where they came from, and in addition to pressuring politicians to enforce laws against union organizing, the mine owners also lobbied to make sure no health-and-safety regulations were passed. The first attempt to organize West Virginia’s mines (or at least the first one covered here) took place in 1902 and was led by the legendary Mother Jones (she’s been so surrounded by legend it’s hard to realize she was an actual person!) and a local she recruited named Frank Keeney, and that strike was inspired by the United Mine Workers’ (UMW) success in winning union recognition and at least some economic gains in the mines in Pennsylvania. (In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt had personally intervened to settle a miners’ strike in Pennsylvania and invited both the owners’ representatives and the United Mine Workers’ head to the White House — and the spectacle of a U.S. President involving himself in a labor dispute and not doing so 100 percent on the side of the owners was itself galvanizing to what existed of a labor movement in the U.S.) Alas, the owners and their Baldwin-Felts thugs managed to smash the union after an eight-month strike that left many of the workers literally living in tents pitched on the few patches of land in the area the mine companies didn’t own. Even by the cruel standards of U.S. labor relations in that era, this situation was especially mean; several times during the “war,” as the film depicted it, there were attempts by outsiders (including federal officials, less concerned about workers’ rights than maintaining coal production) to mediate, the UMW officials were willing to negotiate and the owners weren’t.

One issue was that many of the mine owners had themselves worked their way up from poverty — or at least that’s how they liked to portray themselves, and the nastiest and most viciously anti-union of the bosses was Justus Collins from Alabama, who’d worked his way up from the Pennsylvania coal fields and was a true believer that anyone could do what he had done — and if they didn’t, that just proved they were inferior beings, not worthy of serious consideration and certainly not worthy of being regarded as individuals with human rights. It’s the sort of ideology that was popularly propounded in the late 19th century by Herbert Spencer and in the 20th by Ayn Rand: that being wealthy indicates your genetic superiority to the common run of humanity and therefore it’s not only bad policy but morally wrong for the government to use its taxing and regulatory powers to take “your” money and give it to those with less than you. (It’s what Mitt Romney was saying when he complained to his fellow 1-percenters that the Democrats went into every Presidential election with 47 percent of the voters because they were convinced the Democrats would “give them stuff.”) The battles between the miners on one side and the mine owners, government officials and private thugs on the others all followed a depressingly similar pattern: miners walked off the job, owners evicted them and did everything they could to starve them into submission, the UMW leadership (more concerned with preserving their gains in Pennsylvania than expanding into more hostile territory) gave them lukewarm support at best, and ultimately the strikers lost and conditions in the mines stayed as they were. The one exception was in Matewan (pronounced “MATE-wan,” by the way), where in 1920 — after the miners had followed the U.S. government’s and their own union’s pledge not to strike for the duration of the U.S. involvement in World War I, and naïvely hoped to be rewarded for it after the war was over with higher wages, better working condition, an end to exploitative practices like short-weighting the miners’ output and disbanding of the owners’ private armies through Baldwin-Felts — Keeney and his fellow long-time unionists decided to use the town as a base for organizing. They picked Matewan because the town was on the West Virginia-Kentucky border and was one of the few communities in the area that was incorporated as its own city and was not on land owned by a coal company. They also had a sympathetic mayor, Cabell Testerman, and sheriff, Sid Hatfield — who was apparently only a distant relation of the Hatfields who had famously feuded with the McCoys, but liked to encourage that reputation so people would think of him as a man not to be trifled with if you valued your life.

The owners’ response was to demand that miners sign so-called “yellow dog contracts” promising not only that they wouldn’t join subversive organizations like the UMW or the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) but they affirmed their belief that unions per se were wrong and they supported the “American Plan” of workers negotiating with their employers only as individuals. The show notes that while most of the tactics used by the mine owners were familiar, after World War I and the Russian Revolution they had a new weapon in their arsenal: anti-radical propaganda to convince people not directly involved on either side of the mine struggles that the owners’ cause was “pro-American” and the unionists were plotting to introduce subversive ideas into the mines as the start of a plot to take over the U.S. and bring Bolshevism and chaos. On May 19, 1920 — a day the UMW District 17 local, headed by the militant Frank Keeney, had chosen to deliver money and food to striking miners — a dozen armed Baldwin-Felts staffers came to Matewan with a huge stack of eviction owners against the striking miners and demanded that Testerman and Hatfield carry out the evictions instead of delaying them. The result was a shoot-out in which Testerman and some of the Baldwin-Felts agents, including Albert and Lee Felts, were killed during a gun battle after Hatfield sent his deputies to arrest the Baldwin-Felts people for carrying out illegal evictions at gunpoint. (This part of the story was more or less dramatized by John Sayles in his 1987 feature Matewan; his main characters were fictional but Testerman and Hatfield appeared among his dramatis personae under their own names.) The story ended as most of the previous ones had; the West Virginia governor declared martial law, giving the sheriff’s deputies who weren’t union-friendly the right to throw people in jail and hold them indefinitely without charging them with anything. Sid Hatfield and 22 others were put on trial for murdering not only the Felts brothers but Mayor Testerman (Hatfield had married Testerman’s widow two months after the incident and that gave the owners and their stooges in law enforcement the ability to claim that Hatfield had personally killed Testerman because he wanted Testerman’s wife), and while they were acquitted, that didn’t help the miners’ cause any — unable to get rid of him legally, the remaining Baldwin-Felts people simply ambushed Hatfield and shot him.

The administration of President Warren G. Harding sent in federal troops, and once again the miners naïvely thought the feds would either be on their side or would at least be impartial — instead the feds openly took the side of the mine owners and Army general Billy Mitchell, famed as the father of U.S. military aviation, not only brought in three planes but threatened to use them to bomb the miners’ camps, first with tear gas and then with explosives, if they didn’t surrender — though when the miners were bombed from the air it turned out Mitchell hadn’t had anything to do with it: Baldwin-Felts had rented two planes and done it themselves. Nonetheless, the strike, like all the others before it, was decisively broken and the UMW didn’t succeed in organizing West Virginia until the Depression, the election of Franklin Roosevelt as President and the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, which outlawed many of the anti-union practices the owners had used, finally made it possible. The film presents this as at least something of a happy ending and ignores the sequel — the systematic dismantling of protections for American workers’ right to organize, the resulting decimation of the U.S. labor movement (it currently represents less than 7 percent of America’s private-sector work force and is likely to shrink even further as the U.S. Supreme Court and Republican-controlled state governments strip public workers of their labor rights as well), the export overseas of most of the blue-collar jobs on which the American labor movement was built, the shift in coal mining from expensive and labor-intensive tunneling to simply blowing up the mountains to get at the coal within (which is both far more environmentally destructive and much cheaper in terms of the number of workers needed), and the ideological shift in West Virginia, which has moved from a swing state to a solidly Republican one, largely because Republicans have been able to use the strong environmental presence within the Democratic Party to persuade West Virginia’s remaining coal miners that the Democrats, if they get in power, will abolish coal production altogether. It’s a deeply sad story — like most of America’s labor history — but also a profoundly moving one showing how the most unlikely rebels can sometimes arise once they are pushed too far down for too long.