Unions have always played a very critical role in the history of the US and its workers. They have allowed previously oppressed workers, dragged down buy the legal and illegal use of the power of money, to have a say for themselves. This has, in many ways, resulted lives being changed and saves. The existence of unions has also been a source of conflict between coal miners and companies. However, I think several complexities of the conflicts between unions and companies are often overlooked, and that even calling it a conflict between unions and companies alone is simply not the truth. Things such as why the miners had to go to work in the mines, why the companies responded as they did, why the government sided with the companies, and who the union members and their opponents were, are all things I would like to reflect on in this blog post.
First, I think the reason the miners would go to work in the first place is both interesting and important. In “Mine Wars” I like how much the entrapment of miners was emphasized. They had “script” as their pay, “company groceries” as their food, and even “company tools” to work with. One way or another, miners, who sometimes never even got the chance to attend school (being put in the mines sometimes as young as 12), would be swindled and outwitted in their attempt to simply earn a living. It was a very complex relationship, which ended with the miners being stuck at the mines, with hardly a thing which they could legitimately call their own. I think it is interesting how this became a way of life for them, and it was simply accepted. Ultimately, the reason they went to work was because they believed they had no other real choice.
When unions came to the mines, the tables were turned. The sense of community and change people like Mother Jones brought and encouraged fostered a sort of independence they were not used to. This, I think, connected with their already existing pride as strong and tough miners who were surviving despite the conditions. It was with the combination of these things that lead to the miners finally standing up for themselves, and began to strike.
The use of Baldwin-Felts by the companies was the response to this labor organization. Resorting to force in this way, I think it could be said, was the very seed for the deadly and costly confrontation between miners and companies which would culminate in The Battle of Blair Mountain years later. Perhaps the most disgusting thing about this, was that despite the companies essentially setting up local governments and usurping government regulations and government practices, as well as the miners rights, the government all too often sided with the companies in breaking organized labor. (1) This occurred for several reasons. Despite companies practicing many illegal things, and usurping government authority in many respects (creating coal towns without representative government), the companies were a source of revenue for the state and government. Money and employment from the miens benefited government, and so it only made sense that the government, in its own form of greed, would side with the companies. However There were a few gains for miners, such as the Wagner Act, which allowed the miners to unionize as a legal right. (1)
Overall, I believe the conflict between coal unions and companies teaches lessons that all Americans could learn from. The first being that sometimes problems are more complex than they seem. On first glance, for many, it would perhaps seem that the oppression in the coal fields was just the end result of capitalism, or the result of a “culture of poverty”, or miners to stupid to realize their woes. In reality however, it was a very complex issue that had illegal activity on both sides of the conflict, which could never be easily simplified, and even to this day is an issue that isn’t entirely resolved. A second lesson the average American could take away is that it takes real political and social activism, and even force of arms when other options fail, to stand up for what you believe in and make it a reality, and it is never easy to do any of this. Today perhaps this lesson is most valuable in our current presidential election, where in many respects neither side is an option voters want, but seem forced into due to the money and power of the political parties involved.
Lastly, I would like to give a brief, somewhat more personal story, that demonstrates what I have continued to emphasize regarding the complexity and “not what it seems” nature of the union vs company conflict. My grandfather was a mining engineer who worked for a time in mines in the Pocahontas Coal Fields, and was strongly pro-union his entire life, and a member of a union for much of that time. However, while working for one company he was promoted to mine foreman. He could no longer be a member of the union and keep his job during this time, since men with “bossin papers” were not allowed in the union and the company needed him as a foreman to continue his job. Another result of this promotion was that during one strike, he had to go into work and break the strike. This did not sit well with the union coal miners, and as he headed home from work that day he was nearly shot, with a bullet smashing two of his car windows. In conclusion, I think this just goes to show that the conflict isn’t even as simple as just “Unions and Companies.” or even “Miners vs Companies”. It is instead, the story of men and women simply trying to live and work as they wish, hindered by the greed and stubborn pride others.
(1)Straw, Richard Alan., and Tyler Blethen. High Mountains Rising: Appalachia in Time and Place.