Uncategorized Patrick Mead on 28 Dec 2012 08:05 pm
When you mention the West Virginia mine wars several names come to mind immediately. We’ve looked at Hatfield, Mooney, and Mother Jones but the name most closely linked with this time and place in John L. Lewis. Lewis was the son of an Iowa miner and grew up poor as his father moved from place to place working for low wages in difficult and dangerous conditions. The children of miners usually grew up to be miners as few other jobs were on offer and so did John. He worked as a miner when the mines were open and, when they closed for a season or permanently, he worked in construction. He was not happy with his lot in life and tried to improve it by marrying up (he married the daughter of a local doctor) and changing his profession.
He tried to enter politics but he lost his mayoral race and he tried to enter the business world but his grain and feed store went under. He decided to return to the mines but, this time, he would return as a union organizer. It is important to know this about John L. Lewis – he was always ambitious but failed at everything he tried outside of union organizing. When it came to the union, however, he had the drive and ambivalence of character required to rise to the top. He quickly became the president of the local chapter of the miners’ union. He had a real gift for ingratiating himself with union bigwigs and for navigating union politics. He was sent to Illinois to be a lobbyist for the UMW where the head of the American Federation of Labor (the AFL of the later, larger, AFL-CIO) liked what he saw and quickly kicked Lewis up the union ladder, making him a national organizer for the union movement. He didn’t forget the UMW, though, and was rewarded for his national work by being made acting vice president of that union in 1917. He had made it from the bottom of the union to the top (well, almost the top) without ever standing for election or running a campaign; he was always just given the slot by higher-ups who he managed to please.
He was up against several social realities when he tried to reach out to non-union workers. There is no question that the economic system that prevailed at the time wasn’t fair – everybody knew that. But business ruled the roost and laws were not in place to give people a chance at that whole life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness thing. Immigrants often had to pay bribes to foremen to be hired and even then found themselves locked in hazardous jobs that gave them a much better chance of injury or death than they did of upward advancement, but it was still much better for them in America than it had been for them back in Europe so they did not complain. They resisted unionizing because they didn’t want to lose the jobs they had and they feared being sent back home where things were worse. Blacks knew that they would not be allowed a chance to get the better, safer, higher paying jobs but it was still better for them in the mines and mills than it had been in the red dirt fields and sharecropper shacks of the south. Both immigrants and blacks often resented the unions for stirring up trouble and putting their jobs in jeopardy by staging strikes or acts of vandalism against non-union companies.
Resentment ran both ways. The white union member often viewed the dark skinned Mediterranean immigrants or the suspiciously Catholic Irish (remember that even in the 1960s there was a mass movement in politics, books, radio, and TV warning Americans to never vote in a Catholic as president) or the black man as impediments to their own upward movement and job security. If these incomers were able to work for less and not unionize, that would be the death of the union and if it died, so would their jobs in union mines and mills. Union men would frequently strike out against the “scabs” violently and, more and more often, openly. It was very possible that their unions would disappear as other unions had before, including the once powerful and widespread conglomeration of unions known as the Knights of Labor. They spun their union organizing as an attempt to bring a “new unionism” to America, one concerned not with political overhaul – thus dropping their ties to what was going on in Russia – but with more reasonable wages, work hours, and conditions for the common working American man.
Still, the average American viewed unions as suspicious. Their politicians and media told them that unions were thugs (as some undoubtedly were) who were in league with Soviet Russia (as some were. Most couldn’t find it on a map). They recalled the words of Samuel Gompers, an early union leader who said “What does labor want? We want more school houses and less jails…” which rubbed up against the American concept of law and order. And when he added “more books and less arsenals,” they felt he was being disloyal to a country that prized military service. They remembered that it was those Irish Catholics known as the Molly Maguires who caused riots and used arson and murder against mine owners in Pennsylvania back in the 1870s. Even though it was later found that most of the threats were actually manufactured by the mine owners, ten men were hanged before that chapter of history was closed. No one wanted it reopened even when the record of mine safety was known – and deplorable.
Twenty six thousand men lost their lives in mines between 1890 and 1917, the year America entered the war. Nearly 12,000 men were maimed for life every single year in the mines. Sometimes, whole towns disappeared when a mine caved in and took every able bodied man’s life in one fell swoop.
There was no question that many mine owners and their foremen routinely cheated their workers. Evidence has piled up for over a hundred years proving that scales were rigged (they were paid by the ton) and prices manipulated to keep profits high and wages low. Trying to standardize pay and conditions was difficult because, as John L. Lewis himself admitted, “It simply cannot be standardized because nature has refused to standardize rocks, slate, coal or men.”
Unions sprang up from the late 1880s on, but they were local unions that had no interest in what was happening in a coal pit in the next county, much less in one in far away West Virginia or Colorado. The United Mine Workers was formed in 1890 in an attempt to join these unions together so that they could speak with one political voice and, later, to bring other mines into the union fold. Unions were organizing at a satisfactory speed everywhere but in one state: West Virginia. One of the reasons mines were slow to organize there was that money from northern corporations (most notably, US Steel) to hire Baldwin-Felts gunmen to enforce discipline and punish the disobedient. Remember the train they used against the Paint Creek miners, the one with a Gatling gun on it? They decided to continue to use that tactic and built “Bull Moose Specials” to roll around the southern half of West Virginia and intimidate miners. Some fought back at Cabin Creek. Miners armed themselves and went after the “detectives” who were holed up in a fort made of concrete and steel. The battle lasted four hours and sixteen men were killed, most of them Baldwin-Felts men. Miners then blew up the tools, tracks, and tipples used by non-union workers to show the mine owners that they might be humble, poor, and downtrodden but they were still men – dangerous men…Mountaineers.
Lewis used the anger of the Mountaineers to advance the union. As soon as he heard news of the shootout in Matewan he rushed to his headquarters in Indianapolis and issued proclamations against the governor of West Virginia for allowing the mine owners to continue tossing workers out of their homes, beating them, depriving them of the right to work, and sending armed thugs against them via roads and trains, shooting and killing with impunity. A newly formed group joined Lewis in issuing statements against the mine owners, but this group was different; it wasn’t made up of union organizers, but lawyers with money: the ACLU. They saw the shootout in Matewan to be more evidence that mine owners were waging a war on the Bill of Rights. They cited mine owners denying their workers the right to free speech, free assembly, and the right to bear arms. The ACLU went to the courts while the AFL went right to the top – to the president.
But the president wasn’t the man who had once promised relief and justice for miners and other workers. Woodrow Wilson had had a stroke the year before and was barely able to sit up or read. His condition was not known to the bulk of Americans, though, as his wife and a few cabinet members continued to run the government in his name (similar shenanigans would be deployed to hide FDRs and JFKs illnesses and adulteries from the American people). When they didn’t hear back from the president, the unions declared him a liar and unfaithful to the people who had elected him. And they had – for he had run on a pro-union platform and made a huge set of promises to win union support. He kept many of those promises but put others on hold for the war (which he ran opposing and promising never to enter). Then, during the war and after, not only did he not support the unions, he placed federal troops in West Virginia to guard mines and railroads. He claimed to be placing them to guard against German saboteurs, but most were able to see through that lie rather easily. Wilson needed the money from corporations and he craved the adoration of his social class. That meant his promises were tossed aside as soon as keeping them was no longer to his benefit. He tossed union organizers in jail for speaking against him – yes, he ignored the First Amendment and got away with it.
He claimed – through his representatives who were still healthy – to still support the unions but, in fact, he was terrified of having a revolution in America mirroring that which was occurring in Russia and other places in Europe. They coined “The American Way” as a phrase to explain their “middle path” when it came to union and labor issues. No one ever defined exactly what that meant. Yet, there was no question that some agents of anarchy were in America and they certainly were calling for the complete overthrow of the capitalist system and the jailing of the rich and powerful. Bombs were sent via mail to powerful members of government and industry including Rockefellers, J.P. Morgan, and Supreme Court justices. Over a hundred thousand Americans joined the Communist party, publishing newspapers in several cities and holding rallies in marches in dozens more. The year before the shootout in Matewan, Boston had gone through months of disorder as its police walked off in strike and other unions joined them. The Boston papers called it a “Bolshevist nightmare” but it wasn’t the only one. No wonder that Wilson (or his proxies) issued a plea/order to all unions, telling them not to strike until things settled down.
Whatever was going on in Wilson’s mind – and many books have been written about this – he was not the same man after his stroke. He had once been the hero of the railroad and mine workers but now he turned against them. Those near him said he had become paranoid, resentful, and self-absorbed. The unions needed a strong voice. They needed a new hero.
And John L. Lewis was there, ready to step up and take center stage in the drama which was about to unfold in the mountains of West Virginia but which would send shockwaves throughout the nation.