World War One and the
Miners of Southern West Virginia
April D. Wolfe
(Ms. Wolfe holds the BA in History from the University of Charleston and is an Americorps Service Volunteer at UC)
During World War I the miners gained new hope - hope for a worldwide democratic victory as well as for economic security. They hoped that the victory against the Axis powers would restore democracy across the globe and in the southern West Virginia coal fields. Fred Mooney, union official, stated that, "Kaiserism shall not dominate a people whose forefathers gave their blood that we might stand free." Coal field democracy, however, proved elusive. Having participated in the war against Germany, many miners now found themselves in another conflict, not against the Kaiser, but against the coal operators. The miners allied themselves with the United Mine Workers of America to maintain, and hopefully to increase, their standard of living and to end the control of the coal companies. Although the economic situation for the miners improved during the war, it was short lived.
While in some instances labor as a class appeared to improve its earnings as a consequence of the Wilson administration's war time policies, these improvements were due to special conditions that would not continue after the war: greater steadiness of employment, overtime opportunities, and larger earnings from piece-work.
In the post war years miners saw their gains slipping away and prepared again to confront the oppression of the operators and brutality of the detectives. On the other hand, the operators were equally convinced that they had to fight union organization for fear of losing their control over the mining process and the money invested in their companies. The resulting strikes in the Williamson-Logan fields were a rebellion against the social structures created by the coal companies. The miners were determined to change those social structures and the operators were equally determined to maintain them.
During World War I the miners worked to help the allied troops defeat worldwide evil. They were urged, through patriotic rhetoric, to increase the production of coal. Frank Keeney said, "Clean coal means greater efficiency; it means a greater output from our munition factories in a given time and an increased production in every industry that is essential to the winning of the war and a speedier transportation service on our railroads." The United Mine Workers Journal exhorted the miners to:
Dig More Coal!
Dig Still More Coal!
The Success of the War Depends on the Coal you Dig!
Not only did the union encourage the miners to produce more coal for the war efforts, coal operators wielded considerable influence on non-productive workers. The operators encouraged their workers through negative reinforcements. If a miner was considered to be slacking on the job, he was escorted to the local draft board and his draft exemption was withdrawn. In his book, on the coal fields, David Corbin notes, "the miners producing the lowest amounts of coal were fired, thus losing their draft exemptions." This program encouraged miners to work hard. If a miner was "highly productive ... [he was] given bonuses and 'honor medals' and placed on 'honor rolls".
The encouraging rhetoric and reinforcements were not the only way miners helped the allied victory. Miners were so enthusiastic about helping the democratic cause that many enlisted for military service. "Over 50,000 coal diggers throughout the country disregarded their draft exemptions and enlisted; 3,000 died in combat." According to Corbin, these miners were a great asset to the army because they were the ones that dug the trenches and performed engineering tasks. So, the miners did not just help on the home front, but also in the front lines. If miners viewed World War I as a democratic cause, the coal operators saw it as an economic opportunity. Profiteering among the operators in the southern West Virginia coal fields became a problem for the American government. "The chairman of the Council of National Defense found that southern West Virginia operators delayed shipping coal out of the state, hoping for an increase in coal prices." The coal companies came under the oversight of the Lever Act (August 10, 1917), which gave the Fuel Administration emergency powers. "It had the authority to set prices, and for all practical purposes to set wages, and to prohibit strikes." The U.S. Department of Justice charged fifty-two southern West Virginia coal companies with "profiteering" coal during World War 1.
Operators benefitted from state legislation during the war. At Governor Cornwell's urging, the legislature passed a bill that gave the Governor the authority "to call deputy sheriffs into state service to suppress insurrection and to preserve the peace." An obvious reference to controlling labor disturbances. Another law outlawed idleness. This law required able bodied men between sixteen and sixty to work thirty-six hours or more per week. Those found guilty of violating the law were subject to a fine of $100 or more and a sentence of sixty days at hard labor. Operators used this legislation to their advantage during the war.
Hopes for a measure of coal field democracy raised by World War I proved elusive. The oppressive nature of coal field institutions and the tyrannical attitudes of the operators led to new conflicts between operators and miners. The stress in the Mingo and Logan coal fields was caused by the wartime legislation, the absence of the War Labor Board, declining wages, the denial of various miners' rights, and the use of the mine guards.
The wartime state legislation was one of the reasons for the miners' strife. The state enacted laws designed to deter the organization of the coal fields during the war, and their impact continued after the war. For example, a law gave the operators the right to deputize anyone into an official position to stop the labor disputes. This legislation allowed the operators to deputize Baldwin-Felts detectives, or anyone they felt would carry out their wishes. Governor Cornwell requested the legislation because of his and the operators' fears of organization and the United Mine Workers. The union had begun to make some gains in the Southern West Virginia coalfields. Post- war hysteria over the "Red Scare" hardened attitudes toward union organizers who were frequently accused of being "Bolsheviks." Public fears of importing socialism to the state coupled with the conservative attitudes of business people led to polarization of miners and operators into hostile camps.
Miners, who had long been incensed at the close collaboration of legal authorities and coal operators, were made even more angry by legislation which placed law enforcement officials on the company payrolls. In his travels through strife torn West Virginia, Winthrop D. Lane noted that the miners saw the legislation as "an attempt to use the agencies of government against them." They viewed "this arrangement one of the strongest single factors that have so far prevented them from organizing Logan County." The operators, the miners maintained, were corrupting local government and using the laws and government to their advantage in the fight against the UMWA and organization of the southern West Virginia coal fields.
The absence of the War Labor Board also affected the social relationships in the coal fields after World War 1. The National War Labor Board dealt with labor disputes, so representatives were sent into the coal fields to stabilize the atmosphere between the operators and the coal miners. The Board "limited its jurisdiction in labor disputes in industries not under direct government control." Since the coal industry was not under the direct control of the government, but under the control of the companies, a division of the War Labor Board, the bureau of labor, was created to resolved the labor disputes in the coal fields. In effect, the War Labor Board and the bureau of labor eliminated much need for intervention by controlling prices and wages. In addition, they both forbade miners to strike for the recognition of unions, but also prohibited the firing of miners who joined the union. However, after the war, the War Labor Board was no longer in existence, thus no impartial agency in the region to stabilize the industry, the workforce and, consequently, the coal towns.
There were a number of issues relating to wages which aggravated relations between operators and miners. Wages declined after the World War when coal production was reduced for a peace time economy, while the miner's costs for rent, food and other necessities were not reduced proportionately. Since many miners were forced to shop at company stores, the high prices exacerbated resentment toward coal companies and coal operators.
Another source of wage discontent was how the wages were earned. The non- union fields in West Virginia seemed to pay higher wages than the union fields. But, the difference was union fields were paid by the ton, and miners were given full credit for each ton, because of the checkweighmen who were chosen by the miners, not the companies. The non-union fields were not paid by the ton, and the coal was not weighed and instead, they were paid by the car, which varied in size. The miners' were dependent on the employer to determine the weight of the car, and this could be arbitrary since there were often no scales. Also, the superintendent could require the miners to fully load the cars and the miners would actually be producing more coal and getting paid less. Perhaps the most fundamental causes for the miner discontent that broke out in the violent strikes of 1919-1921 were the systematic denial of constitutional rights and the use of brutal mine guards throughout the southern coal fields. One Mingo County man wrote:
the iron hand of oppression has ruled us long enough ... We here, are followers of Patrick Henry, whose immortal words, 'Give me Liberty or give me death' will go ringing though the history of the ages.
The miners were being denied their right to due process, freedom of speech and their right to organize. Due process was constantly being violated through evictions. The evictions were often the result of the miners joining the unions, which broke the "yellow dog" contracts. The contract was an "innocent-looking, legally binding, politically explosive, little written agreement." The "yellow dog" contracts used by the operators varied from town to town, to ensure that the company remained non-union. The Red Jacket Consolidation Coal and Coke Company's contract stated, that if "for any reason, said employment cease ... said party of the second part shall immediately vacate said house without notice. In other words, if the employment ceased because of a strike, the miner could be evicted without notice. If a miner did join the union, he and his family were forcefully evicted from the home and escorted by the Baldwin-Felts detectives from the the coal camp. This reenforced the relationship of the coal operator and coal miner as "one of master and servant, not one of landlord and tenant."
The evictions were not the only violation of due process. On occasion, miners were jailed for no reason other than joining the union. In protest to such treatment, George Echols stated in his testimony regarding the March on Logan, "that no man should be condemned or jailed until we have had a free and impartial trial." Fred Mooney, a union official for District 17 said that the miners were unjustly evicted and denied their right to due process of law for not complying with the operators' wishes.
The gunmen were unscrupulous and evicted miners from coal company houses without due process of law. They framed and jailed miners who would not agree with their terms. They cracked heads, maimed , and in many instances, killed miners outright because they would not renounce the union.
Furthermore, miners claimed that the operators denied them basic rights to freedom of speech and religion. The operators controlled what was said, written, and believed. Frank Keeney lamented that, "'The constitution and bill of rights have been repealed, free speech and free assembly absolutely denied, the elementary laws of justice contemptuously kicked into discord." The company store clerk often functioned as the postmaster, because the post office was located in the company store. Company officials looked through the miners' mail for any union literature. "Unfriendly newspapers, not only pro-union ones, but any that dared to criticize, even mildly, the coal companies, were kept off company grounds." The mine guards and operators, because of their fears of the union, also violated the miners' right to assembly. If two or more miners met in a home or in the street it suggested organization. William Petry, vice president of District 17, said that the miners ... "cannot meet in halls or homes; to suggest organizing is to invite assault or worse at the hands of the so- called Deputy Sheriffs."
The miners' freedom of religion was ignored in the company towns as well. The ministers were usually hired by the operators to preach anti-union sermons. If a minister preached a pro-union sermon the minister would be banished from the town. The operators determined the miners' beliefs, both religious and political. Elections were frequently rigged by the company officials who were supported by the mine guards. Mine guards were often assigned as pollsters and were given instructions to inspect the miners' ballots. If the miner "voted contrary to the company instructions, he was discharged, sometimes violently." On occasion, the miners were just handed ballots that were already marked with the operators' choice candidate.
The operators' control of coal towns and coal miners was facilitated by the use of mine guards, as previously mentioned. The primary source of these mine guards was the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, "an anti-union, labor baiting, strikebreaking organization headed by William G. Baldwin and Thomas L. Felts with headquarters in Bluefield, WV."
The agency "served purposes both constructive and malevolent." Baldwin- Felts Detectives constructive purpose was to serve as a "civilizing or at least stabilizing force in the absence of adequate public law enforcement." The guards were used by the industry not only to suppress strikes, but also, to gather rent and to prevent organizers from entering company grounds. The malevolent function was to carry out "policies of brutal repression which helped to incite some of the nation's most violent industrial conflicts." Malicious actions of the Baldwin-Felts detectives made the agency notorious in the southern coal fields of West Virginia, as well as across the nation. They were known for their use of brutal force to carry out the coal operators' wishes. The Baldwin-Felts guards used terrorism to keep the coal fields unorganized. When the Baldwin-Felts detectives got involved in the strikes, they often became bloody. They would attack UMWA organizers and open fire on the miners. The abolition of the mine guard system was important to the miners and one of the main reasons for striking. "No Russia for us. To hell with the guard system."
Following the World War, a combination of violations of rights, the absence of mediating government agencies, the repressive wartime legislation, and the declining wages, led the miners to strike to improve their conditions. Through the strike the miners were trying to accomplish unionization of the coal fields. The miners believed that it was their "important and fundamental right." Also, they thought that through joining the union they would receive "certain tangible advantages." They specifically sought: checkweighmen, better wages, better working conditions, their Constitutional rights, the end of the mine guard system, and better housing.
The miners viewed the UMWA as a light in the dark. The UMWA gave the miners hope. Miners had expectations that the union would restore democracy and higher wages, but the light quickly dimmed as the strikes failed, and the coal field in southern West Virginia would not be organized for another decade.
The miners resorted to strikes because it was their only weapon, their power "to refuse work." They had the power to shut the mines and apply pressure to the operators. The strikes would interfere with the production of coal, which would hit the operators where it hurt - the pocketbook. Striking was their only way to lash out at the autocratic society of the coal camps. "Who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might? Is there anything left to us but to organize and fight?" Though the contest was bitter, the miners were still unable to accomplish their goals. The only thing that was accomplished in the aftermath of World War One was to bring national attention to the miners' plight. Salvation for the miners had to wait until the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, some thirteen years in the future
1. David Alan Corbin, Life, Work and Rebellion in the Coal Fields: The Southern West Virginia Miners, 1880-1922 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), 176.
2. Richard D. Lunt, Law and Order vs the Miners: West Virginia 1907-1933 (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1979) 66.
3. David Corbin, ed., "Clean Coal - The Keynote for an Early Victory: A Speech by Frank Keeney" in The West Virginia Mine Wars: An Anthology (Martinsburg, WV: Appalachian Editions, 1997) 68.
4. Corbin, Life, 180.
5. Corbin, Life, 181,184.
6. Corbin, Life, 184.
7. Corbin, Life, 184.
8. Lunt, 64.
9. Corbin, Life, 185.
10. Corbin, Life, 187.
12. Winthrop D. Lane, Civil War in West Virginia (New York: B. W. Huebsch, Inc. 1921) 56.
14. Lunt, 65.
15. Lane, 111.
16. Corbin, Life, 195.
17. Howard B. Lee, Bloodletting in Appalachia: The Story of West Virginia's Four Major Mine Wars and Other Thrilling of Its Coal Fields (Parsons, WV: McClain Printing Company, 1969) 78.
18. "Company House Lease," in John C. Hennen, Jr. and Ronald L. Lewis, eds., West Virginia: Documents in the History of a Rural-Industrial State, 2d Ed. (Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1996), 197.
19. Lane, 49.
20. David Corbin, ed., "Testimony of George Echols: Sunday, September 18, 1921," in the West Virginia Mine Wars: An Anthology (Martinsburg, WV: Appalachia Editions, 1997) 104.
21. Corbin, Anthology, 66.
22. Corbin, Life, 195.
23. Corbin, Life, 117.
24. Ibid., 242.
25. Ibid., 11.
26. Lee, 11.
27. William E.Coffey and Richard M. Hadsell, "From Law and Order to Class Warfare: Baldwin-Felts Detectives in the Southern West Virginia Coal Fields," West Virginia History, 40, 3 (Spring 1979), 268.
30. Corbin, Life, 94.
31. Lane, 16.
32. Corbin, Anthology, 28.
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