Aug 142015
 

C.J. Potter

 

 

You probably saw in the news where a Republican presidential candidate thinks people should work longer hours to help grow the economy.  Sounds to me like something you say about work when you haven’t done much of it.  But Jeb Bush isn’t the only one who talks like this.  It’s no secret the unions are shrinking and with them protections from sketchy labor practices—protections most American workers have enjoyed for 90 years.  I wonder what the candidate believes workers ought to be paid for their extra work? Did you see where one of the dollar chains was stealing from its employees by calling them managers, paying them a pittance, and then forcing unpaid overtime, which is allowed by regulation for salaried workers?

What was especially rich for me about Mr. Bush’s gaffe was I had just finished reading The Devil is Here in These Hills by James Green, a popular history of the West Virginia coal-mine wars of the early 1900’s.  Wars that were fought in part to secure some of the protections we see vanishing today.

This is a subject that is personal to me.  I grew up in a union family.  In ’74 when the Employees Independent Association struck against Pennsylvania Power & Light, my father was a cherry ground hand on the picket line and I was a four-year old drawing in the dirt with a stick.  Later, Dad was a chief steward for Local 1600 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and I heard stories at the kitchen table of grievance meetings, arbitration and collective bargaining.  Union wages paid for my education and anchored our family in the middle class.  I’ve made a small, layman’s study of unions and labor history.  I knew of Mother Jones the organizer before I knew of Mother Jones the magazine.  I’ve read the muckrakers.  I’ve read Zinn and Zola.  And J. Anthony Lucas.  I even read someone’s Ph.D. dissertation on the Molly McGuires.  I was notionally aware that there was trouble in West Virginia in the teen’s and 20’s of the last century and I was thirsty to know more.  The Devil is Here in These Hills belongs among among those vaunted others.  All this is to say I am not an unbiased reporter.  I stick with the union.

I’m not alone on this: writers of labor histories also tend to side with the unions.  But it is exactly this tension—objectivity vs. bias—with which Green so admirably wrestles.  In his work the miners are hard-working and oppressed, but they’re also drunks and thugs and bigots.  The mine operators, police and politicians are corrupt and oppressive but they’re also, at times, witless puppets of forces bigger than themselves.

Though I was aware of the mine wars as a lesser-known episode in American history, Green’s book revealed their astonishing duration and volatility.  Did you know nearly ten thousand miners armed themselves, hijacked trains and marched on Logan County West Virginia, intent on killing a crooked county sheriff and freeing jailed fellow miners?  They were turned back only after president Harding sent in US Army troops, a mere 200 miles from Washington DC.  The country came breathtakingly close to a second civil war.  This is the narrative stream Green picks up at its headwaters just after Appomattox and follows to its mostly peaceful conclusion after the Great Depression.

A number of characters will be familiar to those with even passing knowledge of labor relations in the Gilded Age: John L. Lewis, Sam Gompers, The AFL, the CIO and the Baldwin-Felts Agency.  There’s a great chapter about Mother Jones, the sainted labor organizer who—testament to Green’s honest reporting—is a bit tarnished by the end.  Readers will also be interested to learn of Fred Moony and Frank Keeney, stalwart organizers for the United Mine Workers.

Green is also pleasingly adept at explaining race and culture as important nuances of the story.  There probably wasn’t a more fully or sincerely integrated American organization than the UMW in Jim Crow America.  And recall that southern West Virginia is the ancestral homeland of the Hatfields and the McCoys, a place where they take rattle rattlesnakes to church and where now they mine coal by plowing the tops off mountains instead of tunneling beneath them.

Green could more fully articulate the nation’s mood and place for perspective the widespread discontent of which I the West Virginian episodes were clear symptoms of.  In these decades there was labor strife throughout the land.  Big Bill Heywood, the Wobblies, miners striking in Idaho and Pennsylvania and Illinois, the word socialism on everyone’s lips.  The nation came reasonably close to electing Eugene Debs to the presidency.  Green aims to tell the story of workingmen rising up after 40 years of wage slavery.  He does so compellingly, but I craved the broader context.

You might think unions are corrupt or overpaid or have lasted past their usefulness.  Heck, you might think working more and more workers are the same thing.  These are opinions worthy of some debate.  Things not in question are company stores, wages paid in scrip, blacklists, denial of free assembly, police for hire, and a complete disregard for worker safety.  These are facts.  Easily forgotten just when we ought to be thinking of them most.

Remember the 2010 explosion at a Massey Energy mine in West Virginia that killed 29 men?  The CEO of Massey is Don Blankenship, a man one journalist called the worst person alive in the United States today.  Mr. Blankenship is now under federal indictment for conspiracy to ignore safety regulations and disrupt the investigation into the explosion.  It’s believed he intimidated workers not to report safety violations and he refused to implement even the simplest safety measures.  Doubtless Mr. Blankenship thinks workers ought to work more.  His trial begins July 13.  Mr. Bush will be on the campaign trail.

 

 

The Devil Is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom

by James Green

published by: Atlantic Monthly Press