“The Mine Wars”: Turning coal into the diamond of solidarity

“In the first two decades of the 20th century, coal miners and coal companies in West Virginia clashed in a series of brutal conflicts over labor conditions and unionization. Known collectively as the ‘Mine Wars,’ the struggle included strikes, assassinations, marches, and the largest civil insurrection in the United States since the Civil War.”

So begins The Mine Wars, a magnificent PBS documentary tale of the birth of the United Mine Workers of America a century ago, in the dawning years of the 20th century. There is something about the industrial, proletarian labor movement that is hard to convey to those who have not lived it. The UMWA personifies this thing as perhaps no other union. That thing is solidarity. Solidarity is a value system of honor, discipline and cooperation formed by conditions where the truth that “No one will save us but ourselves – we are our own protection” becomes overwhelming, a life and death demand, and a moral imperative.

The Mine Wars bears powerful witness to the workers and families whose labors under the mountains of earth fired the furnaces, and set flowing the rivers of light, energy, and steel; whose work fueled and transformed the world, that allowed the awesome lift of civilization and labor itself from darkness; whose insurrection for recognition of their union and human rights secured the rights that today we cherish as no less dear than the oxygen we still freely breathe; and whose gift, by example, is the possibility of hope for a different future. It is said that Pandora, the first human woman according to Greek mythology, loosed (according to Zeus, anyway) evils upon the world from her box to assault the authority of the gods. Hope, however, she kept safely locked away from them – for the future of humanity.

Any who seek to understand the unique solidarity and defiant culture that enabled mine workers in West Virginia, and throughout the world, to prevail and strive for dignity in a multigenerational struggle against a raw, lawless, naked corporate dictatorship, should memorize this tale. Does their model for survival, indeed rebellion, against such enslaving and life-crushing conditions, speak to our times?

Does Bernie Sanders’ proposition that “revolution” best describes the shifts in relations of class power needed to accomplish a turnaround in the conditions aggravating inequality and injustices speak truth to you?

The Mine Wars has a couple of heroes who thought so: Mother Jones and Frank Keeney. Mother Jones was an inspiration to all miners. Standing down gun thugs, mine guards, death squads, deputies, prosecutors  and preachers, wherever Mother Jones traveled speaking for union organization, strength, courage, and a rising of miners followed her. Frank Keeney was a rank and file miner and socialist chiefly responsible for the mobilization, the multiracial mobilization in a segregated state, of the insurrection against the coal dictatorship in 1921. The insurrection failed, put down by federal troops. But its child, the upheaval of the 1930s under the leadership of John L Lewis, transformed the entire labor movement.

Want to teach the secret of beating the billionaire class in this time? Make this story one you tell and retell to your children, grandchildren and family, so they can tell it too. Times come, and may come again, where the fight for freedom against overwhelming odds, must be fought again, with little but Pandora’s hope to cast like a moonshot at a future generation. Miners poet Diane Fisher once wrote: “Who has heard the trump of the Last Day as the siren sounds at the mouth of the mine, as the children suddenly stop their games in horror, as mothers’ brooms are paralyzed in mid-thrash – drawn to, and through, the darkness and smoke spewing forth – they are bound beyond life to each other.”

That bond is and was the wellspring of the powerful solidarity culture that gave birth to and sustained the UMWA, under pressures as strong and fierce as those that transform coal to a diamond.

Here’s an excerpt from a Mother Jones speech from the first statewide campaign by the UMWA in 1912, in response to the murder of union miners by mine guards, and in an effort to build solidarity with miners striking in Pennsylvania. It was transcribed by a court reporter for use in a court injunction against her. Later, Jones was accused of inciting violence in the West Virginia coal fields, convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced to twenty years in prison. The sentence was later commuted:

“The whole machinery of capitalism is rotten to the core. This meeting tonight indicates a milestone of progress of the miners and workers of the State of West Virginia. I will be with you, and the Baldwin guards will go. You will not be serfs, you will march, march, march on from milestone to milestone of human freedom, you will rise like men in the new day and slavery will get its death blow. It has got to die. Good night. (Applause).

Now this was my takeaway, though from a different desperate context, spoken by Clint Eastwood giving advice on confronting insurmountable odds: “When things look bad and it looks like you’re not gonna make it, then you gotta get mean. I mean plumb, mad-dog mean. ‘Cause if you lose your head and you give up then you neither live nor win. That’s just the way it is.”

The Mine Wars aired on PBS beginning on Jan. 28. Available online and in DVD. The film can be accessed on the website, with substantial additional video and print documentation.

Photo: PBS


John Case
John Case

John Case is a former electronics worker and union organizer with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE), also formerly a software developer, now host of the WSHC "Winners and Losers" radio program in Shepherdstown, W.Va.