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This Day in Labor History: May 19, 1920

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On this date 92 years ago, the Matewan Massacre took place in the small town of Matewan, West Virginia.

In January 1920, the United Mine Workers of America had a new president: John L. Lewis. Lewis, who would become one of the most powerful labor leaders in American history, wanted to organize the miners of southern Appalachia. The coal companies ruled West Virginia as a fiefdom. In those hollows, where people or information could not easily come in or out without the companies knowing, miners lived as it if were the Middle Ages. Little schooling, shoddy housing, high-priced company stores, debt, mining accidents, and black lung disease defined people’s lives. The UMWA had fought for decades to organize these workers, but in such remote areas, far from eastern cities and the attention newspapers would bring, the mine companies had no problem beating and murdering union organizers, blacklisting union supporters and throwing them out of their homes, and doing everything possible to keep the miners under their thumb. The coal companies controlled politics throughout the region but nowhere more so than West Virginia, where they completely ruled the state.

Miners from across the region rushed to get charters from the UMWA when Lewis announced the new campaign early in 1920. The UMWA had a complex interest in organizing the miners of West Virginia. Lewis had just won major victories in other coal areas around the nation. Not only did he force the companies to recognize the UMWA as the bargaining agent for coal miners and sign contracts, but they agreed to pay raises of up to 27%. However, as part of the contracts, the coal companies forced Lewis to agree to organize miners in West Virginia and Kentucky in order to keep the union companies on a level playing field with nonunion companies. As Lewis already wanted to organize these workers, it had great potential for the UMWA. But mining was not as monopolized as it is today and operators in Illinois or Pennsylvania were not always gigantic multinational corporations with interests around the world. The UMWA might have add support from companies far away, but in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, that meant nothing.

Among the areas to acquire a charter from the UMWA was miners near Matewan, a tiny town in the western part of the state, on the border with Kentucky. In 2012, as in 1920, you have to really want to get to Matewan. This area was somewhat famous in American culture for it was the home of the famed Hatfields and McCoys feud in the 1880s that both captured American imaginations in outlaws and riveted stereotypes about Appalachia in American minds, although this feud was in fact grounded in the Civil War, when the Hatfields were Confederates and the McCoys fought for the Union. In any case, the mine owners knew this history of violence and responded to unionization there with maximum violence. They hired the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to deal with the union.

Matewan, West Virginia, 1922

And the thugs had a lot of union members to deal with for the UMWA saw immediate success in the area around Matewan. By May, over 3000 miners had joined the union, desperate to improve their lives. Unlike many towns, the local political structure supported the miners, including the chief of police, Sid Hatfield and the mayor, Cabell Testerman. Hatfield attempted to keep the Baldwin-Felts agents out of his town, but the mine owners quickly saw him as their open enemy. On May 19, 1920, Baldwin-Felts thugs, including the three Felts Brothers, arrived in Matewan to evict miners from company housing. Hatfield attempted to intervene and miners from around the region rushed to the town to protect the workers. That afternoon, Hatfield attempted to arrest Al Felts for illegally kicking people out of their homes. Armed miners were stationed around the town, ready to fight the thugs. As the two sides faced off, someone fired a shot. No one knows who or which side that person was on. A firefight raged. Mayor Testerman and Al Felts were both shot and killed. When it ended, 7 detectives, including 2 of the 3 Felts brothers, as well as the mayor and 2 miners were dead.

The Matewan Massacre is one small piece of the larger story of Appalachian resistance to the coal companies in the early 1920s. In 1921, the companies had Sid Hatfield murdered for his actions at Matewan on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse in Welch. This murder sparked the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest workplace insurrection in American history, which I wrote about before I began this series. 10,000 miners walked off their jobs and went to war against the coal companies. Over five days, 30 thugs and 100 miners died in pitched battles before President Warren Harding called in the Army to crush the strike. The UMWA attempt to organize West Virginia failed, but Lewis would eventually lead his union to victory, at least reducing if not ever ending coal corporation control over miners’ lives.

The grave of Sid Hatfield

Most of us might only know about Matewan only because of John Sayles’ excellent 1987 film, which brought him a good deal of attention and began a decade where Sayles was arguably the most vital and important American filmmaker working (sadly, the quality of his films fell off after this and he has almost faded back into obscurity). Without Sayles telling this story, Matewan is just another forgotten incident in the history of American labor, another attempt for working-class people to take control over their lives erased from our collective memory.

This series has also discussed such events as the Centralia Massacre of 1919 and the murder of Jock Yablonski in 1970.

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