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

Reviewed by Robert J.S.

James Green, The Devil Is Here in These Hills: West Virginia Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press), 448 pp., $28

Many years ago, while he was a Visiting Professor at Brandeis University, the late great Ralph Miliband remarked to a group of academics who had gathered to discuss political issues, that American labor history was the most violent of the then industrialized nations. I was then a very junior professor and neither a professional historian nor a labor relations expert, but Ralph’s comment helped me make sense of the labor history I had absorbed from my family and as a committed advocate for workers’ rights.

Those who read, talk about or otherwise absorb American labor history know, if only vaguely, about the Haymarket affair; about the Homestead strike and the Ludlow Massacre; about the Lawrence Textile strike and the earlier “Uprising of the 20,000” among shirtwaist workers. But – strangely – few know about the largest insurrection in American history but for the Civil War, when up to 10,000 armed miners faced a smaller (but vastly better armed) force of sheriff’s deputies and private mine guards in 1921 in the Battle of Blair Mountain. This was the second and larger of two armed conflicts in the West Virginia minefields that Jim Green, a truly great chronicler of peoples’ history, has catapulted into our field of vision.

In the broad story of US labor and social history, miners have played a central and sometimes heroic role. John L Lewis, the bushy-browed prophetic-voiced leader of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), for forty years provided the money and organizers to launch the CIO and the industrial union form (one firm, one union; one industry, one union) which breached the racial/ethnic/skill divides in the mass production industries.

Beyond the political and labor organization contributions of the Appalachian miners have been their songs birthed from the rich Appalachian culture where American mining was centered, and from the trouble and strife the miners suffered for over a hundred years. Ralph Chaplin’s 1915 “Solidarity Forever” was inspired by the first of the two wars that Green chronicles (1912-18). “Dark as a Dungeon” by Merle Travis, a 1940s creation, was among the “cross-over” songs of the folk revival, as was Travis’s “Sixteen Tons.” “Which Side Are You On?” was written by a mine union organizer’s wife, Florence Reece, during the struggles in Harlan County in 1931. “Miner’s Lifeguard” came from the coalfields of the 1880s. Except for the pop stardom of Merle Travis’s songs, all of these were carried through to the Folk Revival of the Sixties by the Almanac singers (in the 1940s) then the Weavers.

Central to the story that Green recounts is a little known -- or little understood -- dimension of the miners’ struggles. Recall the line from “Sixteen Tons”: “I owe my soul to the company store,” and focus on Green’s subtitle: West Virginia Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom. The wars the miners fought from the late 19th century through to the mid 1930s were, of course, about pay and working conditions and union recognition. What has faded from our view, and is brought under bright light by Jim Green, is the tyranny that was exercised over miners’ lives by the coal mine operators – a tyranny that West Virginia law enabled.

The small town settlements along the creeks and rivers that flowed down the mountain valleys from the hills into which the miners burrowed were located on land owned by the mining companies -- the “operators”. The operators ran the settlements as private property. The schools, churches, and yes, the law enforcement agents were their property and employees. They were thus able to prevent, on their private property, public meetings of which they disapproved. They could and did exclude persons, speakers, and groups from even entering the property. Miners had to struggle to get paid in money -- instead of company-issued scrip which could only be spent in the… company store.

In the nonunion mines they were paid at “piece rate” by the ton, and the operators’ agents weighed their output. “Keep your hand upon the dollar and your eye upon the scale” is a line from another miners’ folk song -- “Miner’s Lifeguard.” Miners fought for decades to get a union checker at the weigh scale.

The fabled Mother Jones enters prominently into this tale. She comes to inspire and organize the miners, which she does repeatedly over 20 years. But to arrive at the mining camps she is often smuggled into the towns by local guides who take her over ridges evading the mine operators’ private army of thugs. Green’s version of Mary Harrison Jones, by the way, takes off the rosy patina and the New Age varnish. She’s not a pacifist, but a calculating strategist, and at one crucial moment councils the miners against what would become their biggest battle (of Blair Mountain).

Among the many virtues of this work is Green’s elevation to visibility of the role played by Debs era Socialists in the miners’ struggles and their close integration among the gritty lives of the miners’ camps. In another contrast to the current era, where for better or worse, socialist minded people are apt to be more educated and white collar, socialist thinking in the first third of the 20th century in southern West Virginia was an active stream of thought among the miner militants. The appearances of Gene Debs for election events were notable, and large scale Socialist party rallies gave the mine operators reason to fear their opponents as socialists.

One part of this large scale but geographically contained insurrection has almost entered popular culture. John Sayles’s film Matewan (1987) focuses tightly on one heroic episode told in fine detail by Green. In Matewan, a “free” town in the southern West Virginia mine fields, the miners had managed to elect a loyalist mayor who in turn appointed a police chief who was also a supporter of the UMWA.

During the 1920 strike, and throughout the period Green narrates, the coal operators used the Baldwin-Felts private guard force as a private army. This was the Eastern version of the better known and dreaded Pinkerton private army -- but in fact the Baldwin-Felts thugs were the ones that participated in the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado in 1914.

The Matewan police chief -- Sid Hatfield -- a distant relative of the fabled Hatfield clan -- and his deputies engaged in a shootout initiated by the Baldwin-Felts private army. The Matewan miner loyalists killed seven of the private army, though their mayor and two other supporters  were killed. Hatfield was exonerated for that incident, but when he and an associate approached the county courthouse later the next year to begin yet another trial, they were assassinated by Baldwin Felts agents – who in turn were exonerated on the ground of self-defense. From this came the miners’ outrage that sparked the Battle of Blair Mountain.

It is notable that the cause of the minefield strikes over more than a 20-year period was a “package” of grievances. They were not only pay-related, but also always qualitative: freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and of association.

It is also notable how drastically the legal political and cultural matrix of strikes has changed. Almost all of the 20-year war (interrupted by a temporary truce during World War I) was spiked by the determination of the miners to prevent scabs (in today’s anesthetized language -- “replacement workers”) from making their way by rail up the valleys to the mine pits. The striking miners attacked these trains with every means at their disposal, including shooting at them. To break through the defending miners, the operators hired the Baldwin thugs to fire machine guns installed on the newly armored trains.

Today it is normal for strikers to be enjoined from physically preventing scabs from crossing picket lines. And the cultural discourse of the mass media prioritizes “order” and “nonviolence” over “solidarity” and “survival”. Unions rarely risk the fines or contempt of court jail threats that would follow on physically preventing scabs from entering struck worksites. With no ability to obstruct replacement workers, contemporary strikers find their employers have no legal barrier to giving replacement workers their jobs. A culturally poignant example from the not-so-recent past made all these changes dramatic for me.

In August 1997 the Teamsters union, led by the reformer Ron Carey, struck (successfully) against the giant UPS (United Parcel Service). Among other themes the strike proposed that “Americans need full time jobs”.  Teamsters’ picketers outside of UPS sites were not polite when strikebreakers attempted to cross the picket lines.

After the strike was settled I was able to host an unusual event at my private (middle class plus) New England college. Rand Wilson, who had played a strategic communications role in the Washington IBT headquarters, helped recruit local Teamster leaders to discuss the strike. The audience was without precedent at my joint. A large contingent of very large guys wearing Teamster buttons, sat side by side with scores of young undergraduates. The discussion was stimulating.

The next day I debriefed my students. A few were a bit taken aback by the vehemence of the Teamsters who had spoken; but those who had encountered the Teamsters’ picket lines in the region were reeling. They had thought they were sympathetic to workers’ rights. But the harshness of the picket line language and the verbal attacks on the scabs really put them off. Some of the students had in fact been union members – retail workers in summer jobs, and not too happy with paying dues. Most had no such experience. Nor their family members. The concept of a strike as struggle for survival, and strikebreaker as a bread-taker has not survived into the 21st century.

Green is a great historian, not a social theorist, but the story he tells allows important insight into how workers can advance in a capitalist country with elements of democratic political structure. The West Virginia miners were -- perhaps by contrast to current local subcultures -- amazingly solidary. They overcame racial divides and language and immigrant origin differences. They held out for recognition through truly rigorous physical and political and legal oppressions. In 1919-21 hundreds lived in tents, near starvation for almost two years – evicted from their erstwhile homes owned by the operators.

They literally fought and died to get a union. Yet, despite their solidarity and their physical courage and toughness, miners in the southern counties of West Virginia did not get stable union recognition or union protection until national law cleared the way -- first the Norris-LaGuardia Act (1932) that outlawed yellow-dog contracts and then the NIRA (1935) which facilitated union recognition and industry labor standards.

The matter of the “yellow-dog” contract bears entirely on the “fight for freedom” theme. The phrase denotes an agreement as a condition of employment, whereby the employee commits not to join a union. These were normally imposed by the operators on the miners in the nonunion minefields in West Virginia. Various US Supreme Court decisions had turned back the few state laws forbidding the practice, and further, had upheld the right of employers to forbid union organizers access to their employees, and the right to fire employees who talked to such organizers. In contemporary language, yellow-dog contracts abrogated the right of association. Despite their increasing unpopularity in industrial and progressive jurisdictions, and even in the US Senate, it was not until the 1932 Norris-LaGuardia Act that yellow-dog contracts were forbidden throughout the US – an early victory of the new political alignments created by the Great Depression.

Green’s story therefore highlights the need for three pillars of decency for workers: their own self-defense and organization; their alliances with others -- including centrally reformers/ militants from other class or industrial locations; and the public policies these alliances leverage that support worker organization and labor standards. Organization and politics are -- or can be -- reinforcing. Labor must engage in alliance politics to advance workers’ conditions. Go-it-alone is a cul-de-sac.

Lurking behind the curtain of Green’s detailed account of miner solidarity and militancy is the current reality of the area whose history he chronicles. The Epilogue opens with a march of environmentalists and some labor groups against mountaintop removal (strip mining). Green notes, in but one sentence, that local hecklers attack the marchers – presumably in defense of the jobs they hold in the strip mining business. But there is a deeper, crueler paradox.

Green notes the long period of UMWA corruption and lassitude as the industry replaced people with machines, and the union lost both membership and leverage. He does indeed summarize the successful reform movement in the UMWA, Miners for Democracy. But the current conditions of Logan, Mingo and Lincoln counties in West Virginia, where the high drama of the story had been enacted, remain hidden from the reader’s view.

Briefly put, these counties are in the grip of racist reaction. In 2008, in Mingo County where 23% of the population was poor and 97% of the population was white, Barack Obama obtained 43% of the vote while other Democrats were in the 75-77% range. In 2012 Obama got 27% of the Mingo County vote while the other Democrats obtained between 66 and 72 percent of the vote. The pattern was similar in Logan County.

It gets more dramatic than that: In the Presidential primary in 2012 a (white) felon serving in federal prison in Texas (Keith Judd) beat Obama with 55% of the primary vote. In Mingo County the gun-rights “libertarian” Judd, serving time for making threats at the University of New Mexico, obtained 60% of the vote. In Lincoln County he got 53% (and 40% statewide).

It might be comforting if, in view of the Affordable Care Act, voters in West Virginia and in those counties were partially victimized by Republican and anti-Obamacare propaganda and partially estranged by the union-unfriendly aspects of the so-called “Cadillac plan” penalties it envisions. But even before Obamacare, The Hillary trounced Obama in West Virginia in 2008. The simple reason seems to be racism.

Reflecting on the bravery, solidarity, and perseverance of southern West Virginia miners from a century ago, we are reminded that accomplishments are never final. Progressive institutions that seem powerful may disintegrate between breakfast and the evening meal. Remember Arlo Guthrie’s very lengthy recording of the very lengthy Alice’s Restaurant story-song. At one point his narration falls behind the pace of his guitar, but it’s time for him to break into the repeat chorus. He says, well, wait for it, it’ll come around again. Music and song teach; their teaching may outlast institutions.

In Southern West Virginia, Solidarity has not been Forever, but it may be Tomorrow.

Reviewed by Robert J.S. Ross Clark University