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This Day in Labor History: June 22, 1922

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On June 22, 1922, a night and early morning of angry United Mine Workers of America members massacring strikebreakers and mine guards ended in Herrin, Illinois. Twenty-one people died, 19 of which were the strikebreakers and guards. This spasm of violence is a rare example of American labor history where workers killed more people than the forces of order. It’s also a sign of the desperation and anger of coal miners by the 1920s over the terrible treatment of themselves and their unions. Finally, the UMWA strategy of avoiding blame for this incident by blaming nonexistent communists for leading the mob proved a pioneering incident of a long history of American organized labor redbaiting.

In April 1922, the United Mine Workers of America, led by their new president John L. Lewis, began a nationwide coal strike. Lewis wanted to establish his union as a power in the labor movement and his members took a strong stance against strikebreakers. Herrin, Illinois was in the center of an area called Little Egypt, a bituminous mining zone in the southern part of that state.

Owners did not want to cave but some did not want to have a showdown with the UMWA either. The Southern Illinois Coal Company was one of those, as it was a union shop. Originally, it agreed that while its members would continue to mine coal, it would not ship any of it until the strike ended. The UMWA agreed with this because the mine was newly opened and heavily indebted. The miners did not want the mine to close permanently, so this somewhat odd arrangement developed. By June, the miners had dug out 60,000 tons of coal that waited for shipment.

But when coal prices rose because of the strike, William Lester, the company’s owner, could not resist selling it, even though he had earlier counseled the state to let the strike go on without interference. Realizing he would pull $250,000 in profit if he broke the agreement, he hired 50 strikebreakers and private guards for them. The private guards soon intimidated local residents and hoped to bully the UMWA out of the strike. On June 16, he shipped out sixteen rail cars filled with coal, guarded by his private police force armed with machine guns.

Tensions rose quickly. 30,000 UMWA members lived in the area and they were shocked. They held a mass meeting. Lewis sent a message to them saying the local was “justified in treating this crowd [the scabs and private police] as an outlaw organization.” The head of the Illinois National Guard came to meet with Lester to get him to ease those tensions. By this time though, the coal owner was determined to crush the union. On June 21, a group of miners attacked a train of scabs, killing its driver. Later that afternoon, another group looted a local hardware store for its guns, went to the mine and started shooting the guards. The county sheriff was a UMWA member and did nothing to prevent this.

Eventually, the guards and strikebreakers surrendered after a night of shooting. But the miners and town residents were infuriated over the lies of Lester and how the guards had treated them. The scabs were beaten and pistol-whipped by the union members. Someone evidently said they should be killed, but it’s impossible to really know what started the next stage, which was opening fire on the guards and scabs. One of the first to die was mine superintendent C.K. McDowell, who had led the guards. The killing lasted into the morning of the 22nd. Some were forced to crawl on their hands and knees to the town cemetery before being killed. By the end of it, 19 strikebreakers and guards lay dead, along with 2 UMWA members. The local police force, evidently sympathetic with their miner friends and families, never showed up.

Nationally, opinion was strongly against the UMWA. President Harding and General John Pershing demanded prosecutions against the guilty while the Illinois Chamber of Commerce put out a fundraising appeal to subsidize the case. But while an inquest took place and 214 indictments were handed down for murder, riot, and conspiracy, no one was ever convicted of any crime for the Herrin Massacre. The first jury acquitted everyone within an hour. The second acquitted seven more. The prosecution gave up. Part of this was an inability to actually prove who did what. Part of it was overwhelming hostility from the townspeople toward the investigators. They refused to assist the investigation at all and blamed it all on vague people from other towns.

Prominent in Herrin Massacre Trial

The UMWA responded to the criticism of its members’ actions by claiming the incident was led by communist insurgents that had nothing to do with the union. Union officials had previously told investigators that while they didn’t know anyone involved (which was certainly not true), there were certainly no radicals involved in the incident. But in 1923, John L. Lewis said at the UMWA convention, “in every instance where there has been any disorder or disturbance of the public peace in mining regions there has been there secretly men of this type.” The United Mine Workers Journal began publishing articles backing this up, albeit without actual evidence. One said, “in fact, the miners’ union was in no manner responsible for what took place. This revolting, inexcusable, terrible crime was fomented, promoted, and caused solely by the Communists.” The following year, it issued an pamphlet titled “Attempts by Communists to Seize the Labor Movement” to take this campaign to a wider audience. The coal operators rejected this of course, but the UMWA did find out how effective anticommunist politics could be for a labor union. Interestingly, the UMWA did actually uncover claims by communists that they were involved in Little Egypt, but historians have rejected this, saying there is no evidence of any meaningful communist organizing in southern Illinois during the 1920s. That the Communist Party would take credit for its own opportunistic reasons served Lewis’ purpose like nothing else.

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Ultimately, the United Mine Workers came out of the Herrin Massacre completely unscathed as an organization. Yet the 1920s ultimately would prove disastrous for the UMWA and it would not be until the Roosevelt administration that it would rise to become the power in the labor movement it is known as in the mid-twentieth century.

I borrowed from Jennifer Luff, Commonsense Anticommunism: Labor and Civil Liberties between the World Wars in the writing of this post.

This is the 148th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • Bruce Vail

    I’ve been reading a bio of Lewis and it is interesting that the first 10 years of his career as UMWA president were a terrible failure.

    They were losing strikes left and right. Membership shrank dramatically.

    The authors don’t blame Lewis for any of this, though, instead blaming coal operators emboldened by the conservative Republicans in the White House and in Congress.

  • Peterr

    A monument was recently erected in Herrin to the victims of the massacre, and efforts are under way to identify the bodies of those buried in the mass grave to give them a more proper burial.

    Most of the victims of the Herrin Massacre — three union coal miners on strike and 20 replacement workers and guards — were buried in June 1922 in a cluster of unmarked graves in an old pauper’s field at the city cemetery, forgotten by time and a collective desire to, if not ignore history, not call undue attention to it in a town that’s still a union stronghold.

    “No one really mentioned the massacre. It was a black eye,” said retired miner Bill Sizemore, 59, who said he didn’t know about it for most of his life. “The people of Herrin weren’t proud of it. They all felt like it was going to wash away like the river.”

    But since 2009, when a local talk radio host’s quest to honor a World War I veteran among the massacre victims led to an excavation of the grave site, the city started to change its approach, despite pockets of resistance. On Thursday, the anniversary of the mass burial, Herrin will unveil a monument that names 17 of the victims.

    • Bruce Vail

      A monument to scabs and the gunmen hired to break the strike? Whose idea was this?

      Note also that the inscription is just not accurate.

      • Salem

        Yes, the men so brutally murdered that day deserve a memorial. That is true whether or not you approve of their choice to cross picket lines.

        Note also that your description of the dead as “scabs” is just not accurate. Some of the dead were members of a different union, the IBSSD, who were not recognised by the UMWA, which claimed sole jurisdiction over all mine workers.

        • Bruce Vail

          I think the actions of the members of the International Brotherhood of Steam Shovel and Dredgemen qualifies as scabbing by almost any definition.

          IBSSD would later merge to form the International Union of Operating Engineers, which has a long history of crossing picket lines of other unions. Quite recently they helped grain elevator operators in the Pacific Northwest in their efforts to bust the International Longshore & Warehouse Union.

      • Brett

        A monument to 17 people murdered after surrendering and being disarmed. Good for the town for finally owning up to this, since they went to bat to defend the murderers in the first place.

        And you can go fuck yourself for defending those murderers. You’re no better than those assholes apologizing for whenever the police kill somebody and then cover for themselves.

      • tsam

        There’s a big difference between a lethal fight and a summary execution. Once they surrender, they shouldn’t be murdered or beaten.

  • Lurker

    The story about out-of-towners starting shooting is convenient but not necessarily untrue. It does happen and has historical parallels.

    In the Finnish Civil War, which was extremely bloody in proportion to population, most political violence was indeed committed by people who were not from the locality. (Both sides had so-called flying patrols exactly for the purpose.) There is a good reason for this. The local militias were usually led by persons with some previous standing in the community, with more life experience and less willingness for random killing. On the other hand, out-of-town people were more radical volunteers with no ties to the community. They had much fewer qualms about violence. There is no reason to believe that a report about some relatively unknown outsider starting shooting would not be true. There were several similar incidents in the Finnish Civil War.

    The worst thing that can happen to you in a civil war is to get caught by inexperienced, out-of-town child soldiers. Such will kill without any compassion or mercy.

  • Phil Perspective

    The coal operators rejected this of course, but the UMWA did find out how effective anticommunist politics could be for a labor union.

    One of the reasons unions have been winning battles here and there but losing the war.

  • Jhoosier

    Just to let you know, Erik, Out of Sight arrived in Japan today. I look forward to getting to read it, although that may not happen until the summer break.

  • Yankee

    Not really OP, but how do you force someone to crawl to the cemetery to be shot? You can shoot me standing up, thank you.

    • tsam

      There was probably an implied hope that they might survive…making it all the more cruel and nasty.

      • Brett

        Yep. The beatings probably contributed to that as well – after a period of torture, the victims are usually willing to say or do anything to stay alive and make it stop.

      • Yankee

        People hope for the stupidest shit.

    • joe from Lowell

      You beat and torture them into complying.

  • sc

    thanks so much for writing about this!

    i grew up four miles from Herrin and i’ve totally messaged you about this before.

    • Thom

      Herrin was my mother’s birthplace, though she only lived there briefly (her father was a pastor, who moved many times while she was growing up). I’ll bet she didn’t know this story. If she had it might have contributed to her relative lukewarm attitude about labor unions (though my parents, otherwise relatively liberal (anti-war, pro-civil rights) in their time, did observe the UFW grape boycott in the 60s-70s.

  • Hubbie LaCoss

    This is why we call them Union thugs.

    • MeDrewNotYou

      Exactly. I mean, look at those thugs at Homestead or especially Ludlow. Those thugs’s wives and kids definitely got what was coming to them! That’ll show them not to bully those poor mine owners.

  • MAJeff

    Those stupid redneck cracker scabs had it coming.

    • MAJeff

      THE CAUSE
      There are two different opinions regarding to the emergence of this world, some people think, that this world with all live and all events would be a tiny part of the logical causal chain which started with the big bang, the others are convinced of it, that it is finally the fault of Adam and Eve because they have not observed the holy law of God: “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” According to the religious view the emergence of this world through the big bang is a willfully deception of God, a scientific explanation, which was given because without the doubt in God it wouldn’t be possible to test the faith and unbelief of mankind and the sense of this world would get lost. On the other hand, a causal chain out of cause and effect can not have a beginning respectively emerge out of nothing, this contradicts to the laws of science, therewith there’s not only no cause before or for the big bang, but also no energy which would have been necessary for the big bang, even not a tiny disbalance between anything. If two fingers are pressed together, is nothing between them or rather no matter, thrust therein that the universe, the human himself and the bright world which surrounds the human not emerged out of the completely harmless nothing between two fingers or without God, this is simply an imagination which was invented by some humans and which is finally impossible. In the first states of the USA such stories were deleted successfully from the curriculum, so that they weren’t taught any more to the children in the schools. Depriving children of their faith is a serious crime, it’s in the hands of our generation to stop the systematic and unfair education of many million children to the unbelieve!
      If the big bang could have happened without God, practically everything could have emerged out of this, but this universe was made exactly so, that the suppositions for live are given, for example without voltage no brainwaves could flow, without radiation this world would be dark and ice-cold, without atoms and the possibility to build molecules live would be impossible, the same would be without many other chemical properties and reactions or without elements like oxygen or carbon or hydrogen or . . ., also the lost of continuity or time or space or matter or the three states of matter or movement or physical or chemical energy or different agencies or . . . would make live finally impossible. Without intelligence something absolute senseless would have emerged out of the big bang or out of nothing, but of course no live. Yes, the only possible explanation is that the universe was constructed deliberately exactly so, that the suppositions for live and higher live are given! “And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.” (Gen 1:16) God has made the world practically, the rain is not oil or anything else and its water can be drunk everywhere, enough oil for our economy was found in the ground to develop powerful solar cells, nuclear fusion and batteries for cars, through storing the surplus CO2 respectively carbon in form of trees and plants in the ground or as plankton in the oceans the weather can be regulated, not only the transistor and photolithography was possible to build the personal computer, its monitor, operating system and . . ., with the help of bacteriophages and genomic libraries we can produce antigens and vaccines . . ., when it’s winter snow falls from the heaven, everything is white and . . . Everything is as it shall be. For the alleged chemical evolution of live, a first living and survivable unicellular organism would have been necessary, but a just 10 µm large cell, a very complex, perfectly compound, three-dimensional puzzle or a survivable machine out of at least 10 quadrillion pieces (16 g/mol), atoms of different kind and attribute, impossibly could be washed together in an unrealistic puddle out of cytoplasm, be bound together in the same second by many different chemical processes into a flexible unit and get enliven also in the same moment, to start to breathe, to eat, to grow . . . and to produce randomly complete and living self-copies, which will grow up some day to intelligent structured humans. If we are honest we must admit, that even not only one single dead DNA strand could be washed together in a liquid. Already the DNA strands of the first survivable cell randomly must have conformed exactly to the cell construction, beside this DNA strands are written in a very high programming language, until today nobody can understand how or by which encoding systems this codes get transcribed into commands, movements and material constructions. For the DNA strands and for every of the different cell organelles of the first survivable cell must also have been directly there the belonging to copysystems or already the first cell division would have been impossible, the human even wouldn’t be able to build the technology of only one material system which can copy itself, try to build a computer which can copy itself! The functions of cells partially happen on the molecular and atomic level, if the dateless old atoms, out of which we and the cells are set together, would be as big as table tennis balls, an average human brain with a weight of 1250 to 1375 gram would take in more space than the whole planet earth with its diameter of 12700 kilometers (13,5 g/mol, the volume of a table tennis ball is 33,5 cm^3), it’s a wonder that a grown thinking machine of such complexity ever could work without going defect. If the 10 quadrillion atoms of a 10 µm large unicellular organism would be as big as table tennis balls, this unicellular organism would take in the whole city Tokyo by a hight of more than 500 meters. If God would build a machine out of 10 quadrillion atoms of different kind and attribute, this machine wouldn’t die any more after its commissioning, because it really would start to breathe, to eat, to grow, to move . . . to survive independently in its world and to divide itself many trillion times, to conquer the planet and to travel to the moon. If God would construct a machine with such properties, it would be so small, that we even couldn’t see it with our multicellular eyes. We have got no idea about the intelligence of God, the creator out of nothing, but surly it’s not grateful to use the by God constructed brain to say, that a dirty puddle was the inventor of live. A just 10 µm large unicellular organism is a very complex, perfectly compound, three-dimensional puzzle out of at least 10 quadrillion pieces of different kind and attribute, but a chemical evolution even wouldn’t be able to wash correctly together a DNA string or a two-dimensional computer program character string out of 1000 signs, which is written with only 10 different letters, because with every sign, which will be attached after the first sign, the probability that the program was written correctly sinks by the factor 10, so the probability that a computer program out of 1000 signs will be written correctly by random or will be washed together in a dirty puddle is 10^1000 (a 1 with one thousand 0). In contrast to this, today we know, that the whole universe contains less than 10^100 atoms totally and that it is less than 10^18 seconds old. If the universe would be 100 times smaller or younger, the chance that the chemical evolution really happened would be 100 times less, if the 1000 sign computer program would be 100 times shorter, the chance that the chemical evolution really happened would be 100 times bigger, so we can stroke out the zeros: 10^1000 – 10^100 – 10^18 = 10^882. We have reduced the whole universe to one atom and an age of one second through only 118 letters! So the iron proof for the absolute impossibility of a chemical evolution was written down! A long time ago a world was created which seems to be produced and controlled by random and in which we can decide without the fear of God. Even if this world seems to be produced and controlled by random, Jesus told us that God decides about everything, even on which side a coin will fall or when a bird will die. Quotations of Jesus: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” – “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” With the words “my blood, which is poured out for you” Jesus allowed us to drink wine, apparently Jesus not really wanted that we drink wine, but he let us the choice to decide independently over the God-given sin. Finally it’s wise to destroy everything evil: “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know (out of self-knowledge, with determination) how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets: Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction (the God-given sin), and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life (health and happiness), and only a few find it. Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognise them. Do people pick grapes from thorn-bushes, or figs from thistles (they defend the sin)? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (sounds politically).” (Matt 7:9-19) Without alcohol, caffeine, all other active substances, drugs, unnecessary medications and without too sweet fruits as, for example, figs, sweets generally and every gram of sugar the right intelligence and self-confidence emerges respectively not gets destroyed. Altogether Jesus taught us that it’s better to live for the other side. “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.” (Matt 6:19,20) More about Jesus can be read in the Bible (link – found with Google). The life in this world seems to be real and its existence is also only a wonder, so are we the causal chain out of nothing, a network in the dark which thinks about itself and starts to believe in God or are we made by an insidious and everything-observing intelligence? Some humans will be happy for 100 years and some will be sad for 100 years, but when this life ends the eternity will begin, so why to live for a worthless dust particle when it comes about the entire universe. And the LORD God commanded the man, You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil . . . (Gen 2:16,17) After Adam and Eve had eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil “they realised that they were naked . . .” (Gen 3:7)

  • lindenbaum

    There’s a family story that my grandmother used to tell about my grandfather, who was one of the miners arrested for murder in the aftermath of the Herrin Massacre. The story is simply that while my grandfather was in prison, she used to take my dad’s older brother, who was about a year old, down to the jail to see him and would pass him through the bars of the cell so that he could sit on his dad’s lap and have the other miners there fuss over him. It’s a vivid image, to say the least. By the way, in my grandmother’s telling, the strikebreakers were all “Chicago gangsters,” which was apparently the story they told among themselves to lessen the impact of their actions.

  • ASV

    Interesting how these histories live different lives. I grew up in Calumet, MI, and the Italian Hall massacre was a very prominent piece of local history. For the past six years, I’ve lived about 15 miles from Herrin, and I’ve never heard this mentioned here (only read about it on Wikipedia and now here).

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