Fundamentally, the struggle of the miners in West Virginia was one to maintain their civil rights; not just the right to collective bargaining, but the right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. These miners were constantly opposed in their efforts, both by the coal companies and by the very government that claimed to protect these fundamental rights. Eventually, the frustration turned into horrible violence, with unforgivable atrocities committed by both sides. In fact, after watching the PBS special, I had significantly less sympathy for the miners than before. I really think that the violent methods the miners devolved to using hurt their cause somewhat. The PBS film even states that the constant violence made other parts of the country view Appalachia as inherently violent and uncivilized; as a result, the miner workers’ struggle gained little support from outside the area.
I had always known that the earliest attempts at collective bargaining had resulted in strikes and conflict, but I had no idea the results were so gruesome. Specifically, I did not realize that employers often turned to murder as a means to end strikes: “… the local union leader was shot in the back by hired company guards” (Biggers, 177). The mine owners were not the only violent actors, though, and mine workers attempting to unionize also took to violence to help their cause. Despite the violence present in these conflicts on both sides, very few changes actually resulted. In fact, most were ended by government intervention on behalf of the employers. This government policy was in stark contrast to future government action, such as the passing of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 and the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.
The position of the federal government during these “mine wars” has always confused me somewhat. I don’t understand how the government could stand by for so long and allow such violence to take place. I suppose hindsight is 20/20, but nonetheless, I struggle to see how the government could be so one-sided in its approach to the violence present in the area; specifically, when federal troops did finally show up, they simply disarmed the conflict and immediately left. Although I still do not approve of the violence the miners used to try to achieve their goals, their frustration is understandable given that they were basically surrounded by enemies at every level, even within the government that was supposed to protect them.
One particular aspect of the struggle for organized labor that I found interesting was the resulting desegregation among union supporters. In fact, according to Biggers, one of the hallmarks of the Highlander School in Appalachia was that it “… managed to bring black and white leaders to the same dinner table …” (Biggers, 179); this racial integration was also reflected in the PBS film, in that workers unintentionally broke race barriers in their collective goal to obtain better working conditions. According to the film, the miners’ desire to improve their lives and work was more powerful than any preconceived racism. I found this unintentional unity among workers rather interesting given that mine owners often tried to exploit racial segregation as a method of control; ironically, the miners’ hate for their bosses and their desire for better conditions overrode any attempts to divide the group through racial means.
Biggers, Jeff. “We Shall Overcome.” The United States of Appalachia. Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006. 169-194. Print.
Dressen, Arnaud. “Journey to the End of Coal.” Honkytonk Films. Klynt Editing, n.d. Web. 27 July 2016.
“The Mine Wars.” PBS. Ed. Mark Dugas. PBS, 26 Jan. 2016. Web. 27 July 2016.