On February 16, 1931, the Harlan County Coal Operators’ Association reduced wages for miners in that part of eastern Kentucky by 10 percent. In response, the United Mine Workers of America attempted to organize the miners. Violence erupted that would periodically repeat itself for the next eight years. The Harlan County Coal War is one of the last period of serious violence between labor and management before the development of American labor law in the New Deal.
Coal owners despised unions and routinely killed organizers. That got a little bit harder for them in the more liberal twentieth century, but the hollers of West Virginia and Kentucky were really remote. Whatever conversations were happening in Washington or even Lexington were pretty far away from the reality of life in Harlan and Hazard. On the ground, owners hired gun-toting thugs and showed little concern about the lives of miners. These were medieval fiefdoms existing in twentieth-century America.
In West Virginia, the late 1910s and early 1920s saw significant violence between the United Mine Workers of America and the employers. The 1920 Matewan Massacre, the shootout between UMWA supporters and members of the Baldwin-Felts Agency was one of the rare times where law enforcement sided with workers. For his trouble, the coal companies assassinated Matewan police chief Sid Hatfield, which spawned the Battle of Blair Mountain. That was the largest domestic insurrection in this nation’s history since the Civil War and one that nearly lead to a widespread massacre of miners. It was a total defeat for the UMWA. Owners pressed their advantage through the 1920s, that notoriously anti-union decade. By the late 1920s, the union, which was also John L. Lewis’ personal power base as he expelled anyone who would dare challenge him, was a shell of what it was a decade earlier. Its sheer survival was questionable.
So there was little reason for Harlan County coal bosses to think they would not overwhelm worker resistance by cutting wages. The Great Depression gave them an excuse and the guns of their hired thugs gave them murderous power. But that is not how it worked out. The workers responded with fury. Lewis sent his organizers into Harlan. The mine owners fired any worker known to be a union member. That led to the rest of the workers going out on strike in solidarity. The companies were prepared for this and brought in scabs. The companies also threw their workers out of the company housing, which was at the core of why and how they controlled the lives of workers so thoroughly. Between the housing and the company stores, it was really hard for workers to be independent of their greedy vile employer.
Harlan County had all of three towns not owned by the companies and all the homeless workers fled to these towns. Generally, the people in these towns hated the companies, in part because the business community despised the company stores and thus the inability of the workers to buy anything from them.
Meanwhile, law enforcement in Harlan was bought and sold by the coal companies. The cops escorted scabs in and out of the mines, kicked workers out of their homes, and served as a personal security force for the executives. Sheriff J.H. Blair considered all union members to be communists.
As part of the resistance, a mineworkers’ wife named Florence Reece wrote the song “Which Side Are You On?”, probably second only to “Solidarity Forever” as songs in the American labor canon. She did so after Blair went to search her home for her husband, tearing it all to hell and hoping to shoot her husband. As Reece later said, “There’s no such thing as neutral. You have to be on one side or the other. Some people say, ‘I don’t take sides – I’m neutral.’ There’s no such thing. In your mind you’re on one side or the other. In Harlan County there wasn’t no neutral. If you wasn’t a gun thug, you was a union man. You had to be.”
On May 15, strikers in the town of Evarts, one of the free towns, got in a fight with the police, which was bringing supplies to scabs in the mines. One of the most loathed anti-union cops was killed in the shootout that followed. That led to a pitched battle and over the next 15 minutes, three more deputies and one miner was killed. The National Guard was nearby and quickly put the town under military control. Eight miners were prosecuted, found guilty, and given life sentences for murder.
The workers couldn’t really hold out for very long. By mid-June, they were basically starving and had to go back to work with nothing achieved. The UMWA suffered another huge loss. A communist mining union, the Communist National Miners Union entered the fray and began signing up workers. One of their lead organizers was soon killed by the cops and their anti-religion position in a hotbed of American evangelicalism was going to limit its appeal.
Things changed with the arrival of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as president. Mine owners more or less still controlled the mines during the early years of the New Deal. The National Industrial Recovery Act did allow for company unions. But the National Labor Relations Act did not and when the Supreme Court ruled that constitutional in 1937, their company unions were forced to close shop. The anger miners felt had not dissipated over the years. There was a new wave of UMWA organizing in 1934, which led the cops to round up all the outside organizers and ship them out of Harlan County. In July 1935, when workers celebrated the passage of the NLRA in a public meeting, furious cops beat the hell out of them. A new round of organizing started and this time, the governor sent the National Guard in to protect the workers. Finally, over the next few years, the UMWA would organize the mines, win elections, and begin the era of dignity for Appalachian miners.
Today, there is not a single unionized coal mine in Kentucky.
This is the 470th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.