Television shows rarely tell much about the lives of working class Americans, past or present. But Tuesday evening, the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) offers a spectacularly well-made history of one of the largest, most violent confrontations of American workers against business power, the rapacious coal companies in southern West Virginia and their armed agents.
The workers wanted a union and better lives for their families and better working conditions for themselves. Backed by the power of the state and federal governments, deploying troops armed with the latest weapons from machine guns to planes with bombs, the mine owners won that first Battle of Blair Mountain. Yet decades later, the miners prevailed, at least by making their union, the United Mine Workers, one of the strongest and most influential unions in American history.
The Mine Wars, produced and directed by Randall MacLoury for The American Experience, is one of the best television history documentaries in the history of this series, which itself is among the best programming offered by the Public Broadcasting System. It tells a story, not widely known despite its recounting in several histories (James Green’s The Devil Is Here in These Hills is the film’s primary reference), several novels and the great early film of director and novelist John Sayles.
For two decades at the beginning of the 20th century, coal miners in southern West Virginia fought against the brutal conditions of work — long hours, low pay, significant danger and constant pressure to work faster — that mine owners insisted they needed to compete with mines in Pennsylvania and other coalfields closer to their main markets. Coal was the political-economic king at that time. It was the essential fuel for homes, industry and war. The pressures of World War I production, which increased stress but also pay, and the new leverage workers could exercise with their role in an essential production helped revive union organizing drives that employers had temporarily suppressed.
Demanding that the owners recognize the United Mine Workers as their union, the West Virginia miners went out on strike in solidarity with miners elsewhere while fighting for their own demands. They wanted better conditions in the dreary coal camps where they lived on company land with company stores that made them continually “another day older and deeper in debt.” They wanted to end the coal company’s rule over the camps and the often violent and arbitrary enforcement of the owners’ will by private guards, mainly from the Baldwin-Felts agency.
With the help of the fabled “angel of the coalfields,” Mother Jones, and tough, savvy local leaders like Frank Keeney, who had dropped out of school at age 9 to work in the mines, miners struck in 1902, then in 1912-1913, despite company evictions of strikers’ families from the coal camps and attacks from armed private mine guards that the state government ignored. Those miners who did not already have guns for hunting armed themselves.
Miners fought back, forcing the governor to intervene and guarantee some new protections for miners. But when UMW president John L. Lewis started a new organizing drive in 1920, the mine owners resumed their old tactics — evicting miners’ families from their homes, declaring a lock-out of miners from their jobs and resorting to violence through their Baldwin-Felts guards.
But at the local level, especially in legally incorporated Matewan, some officials were sympathetic to the union. When Sheriff Sid Hatfield tried to block evictions by the owners’ private guards, a shootout burst open near the town’s train station, leaving seven detectives, two miners and the mayor dead. A few months later, mine guards brazenly killed Sheriff Hatfield.
The confrontation quickly escalated on both sides, and 10,000 miners prepared to march to nearby Mingo County to free miners held there under martial law. The marchers were divided about continuing, but an attack by a Logan County sheriff’s force precipitated the two-day Battle of Blair Mountain.
The ranks of the UMW in West Virginia shrank during the 1920s from 50,000 to 1,000, but in the next decade they grew again, and their union was a key player in supporting the formation of the CIO and the unionization of other industries.
The Labor Wars goes far beyond the narrative of the armed conflicts and the history of organizing to deal with issues like the role of women, the structure of the coal industry and miner culture. Race is one of the most important: the significant number of black miners were more accepted at work and in the UMW than in many other unions, and the film ends with a photo of two young miners looking directly into the camera — one black, one white.
The film relies most heavily, and ably, on an incredible wealth of still photos and early moving pictures that capture the scene, the people and even aspects of many historical events. Even if the events are not widely known now, they were widely covered at the time, and the filmmaking crew has done a spectacular job of mining those archives.
As in most such documentaries, the film is driven by an intelligent narration, accompanied by a mournful Appalachian-inspired score by Andrew Willis, amplified by short interviews with a wide assortment of insightful historians including James Green, Rosemary Feurer, Charles Kean, David Corbin and others.
The Mine Wars concludes with the vision that though the miners lost in their battle with big powers, and leaders like Keaney were sometimes shunned by their own union, they all won a measure of dignity by fighting back. And their “culture of resistance” laid the groundwork for the huge surge of organizing in the next decade.
Even as the industry declines, miners themselves deserve the kind of tribute The Mine Wars provides — for the gains made by themselves and other workers through that culture of resistance. As the labor movement shrinks and loses power again today, as it did in the ‘20s, we can only hope that enough of that culture persists among workers to take advantage of whatever opportunities for organizing that open up again.
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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.