The period of late August – early September is historically associated with significant dates in the world history of the miners’ labor movement in the first half of the 20th century. A hundred years ago, one of the most significant local class wars took place in the North American state of West Virginia – an armed confrontation between coal miners and mercenaries of the owners of a coal corporation, who were supported by federal troops. The demonstration of the striking miners moved from the district to the center of the district to declare once again that they no longer want to endure the horrific conditions of miners’ work and life in the mining villages. This was one of the last performances of the beginning of the century among a series of “coal wars” – and after the defeat of North American miners under Mount Blair, the situation with the position of miners in the capitalist world remained and remains steadily close to the brink of survival. In the same period of the year, but 14 years later, in the first established socialist state – Soviet Russia, which managed to recover after the devastating civil war and the intervention of almost all the member states of the Entente – the world’s first labor feat in a mine face was performed by Alexey Stakhanov, who during the night shift, from August 30 to 31, 1935, together with two lamellar workers, he mined a record amount of coal – 102 tons, which, given the 7 tons norm in the Soviet Union at that time, meant that Stakhanov exceeded the norm by 14 times higher than this norm.

The whole world recognized the achievement of the Stakhanovite miners with delight and surprise: in 1935, the image of Stakhanov appeared on the cover of Time magazine. The name of the Soviet miner, drummer of labor, gave the name to the whole movement. The Soviet workers – the Stakhanovites – strove for new labor achievements, which motivated them – in the name of the prosperity and development of their socialist country. The reason for the success of Alexei Stakhanov and the Soviet workers who followed him in other sectors of the national economy is in the unique, socialist organization of labor, in the cohesion and collectivism that were characteristic of people of a new type that took shape 17 years after the October Revolution. Miners in the USSR were respected and honored, they were encouraged and helped to restore their health by sending them to national health resorts – free sanatoriums. After the victory of the Great October Revolution on a territory that occupies 1/6 of the earth’s land, a new form of labor relations developed: the miners of the Country of Soviets knew that they were mining coal not for the personal benefit of the capitalist mine owners, but for the development of the national economy in the country that belonged to working people. Against the background of the general plight of miners who descend into coal mines in different parts of the world, the socialist form of the division of labor, its modernization and the state’s utmost concern for the social security of workers was an unprecedented phenomenon. In the western hemisphere at about the same time, ten years earlier, the miners’ class struggle for their rights, called the “coal wars”, was defeated. The fate of miners for hundreds of years since then is still associated with the constant risk to life, beggar wages and infringement of basic labor rights by the administration of coal corporations.

The first two decades of the twentieth century. The USA was in a fever of real “coal wars”. The first coal conflicts between employers and miners, which took place at the turn of the century, moved on to a new stage. The largest clashes between miners and rangers-mercenaries were the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike in 1912, the Battle of Ewarts and the armed struggle of the miners at Mount Blair in 1921.

The state of West Virginia was then the backbone of the coal industry in the United States were the basins, with the largest number of mines. In the state, the vicious practice of transferring land with coal deposits to the undivided ownership of private companies flourished, beneficial to its administration. They organized mining villages isolated from the rest of the world, where strict, almost prison rules were introduced. The miner could not just leave the territory of the mining village, having settled with the employer, because he could not pay all the debts to his superiors. Where do the debts come from? The miners and their families bought everything they needed in their village, in the shops owned by the coal company – housing, clothing, and food at prices set by the company. In fact, no money was handed out, all calculations were carried out by means of entries in a special individual notebook. If a miner needed to get money, for example, for 10 years of work, it often turned out that not only was he not credited with money, but he and his family were in debt to the company, which reached $ 800. The eligibility of the debts was confirmed by checks and receipts. The production rate of miners from mines in West Virginia was at least 16 tons of coal per shift, in case of failure to meet the rate, the miner was assigned a certain fine for the shift. Coal operators paid private detectives to ensure that agents made sure that trade union organizers did not go from the center of the state to the regions, and did not “mess up” the workers, since it was on the extraction of coal in mines located in the provincial districts that the main profit of the owners of corporations was kept mining industry. Private company agents hired by coal operators used every possible means: bribery, intimidation, harassment, espionage, and even murder.

The political structure in Matevan, Virginia, was independent and democratic: local politicians refused to cooperate with coal operators and company agents. The mayor of the town of Matevan, in the vicinity of which a large mine, Cabell Testerman, was located, was one of those who sympathized with the miners: it was known that the mayor did not succumb to the persuasion and monetary bribery of agents insisting that machine guns be placed on the roofs of Matevan. The city police was headed by 27-year-old Sid Hatfield, who worked in coal mines as a teenager – in cases of conflicts between miners and the administration, he did not mindlessly abandon his cops to carry out the tasks of the almighty coal corporation, as was the case in other counties of the state. By 1920, the agitation of union activists — one of whom was Frank Keeney, president of the local union chapter — was greeted with enthusiasm by the miners: 3,000 miners in Mingo County had joined the union. But this was followed by the dismissal of all union members, and people from the Baldwin-Felts detective agency arrived in Matevan. They had a task – to evict the families of the dismissed miners from the mining villages. 11 armed mercenaries went to the village of Stone Mountain Coal Co and began forced evictions: at gunpoint, women and children were driven out of their homes in the rain, throwing their belongings onto the road. Neighbors – miners, who were not on shift at that time, and were eyewitnesses, flew into a rage and sent a message to the city. After leaving the mining village after the lawlessness they caused there, the agents returned to Matevan. However, on their way to the train station, where they were about to catch a train and leave the county, they were detained by Sheriff Sid Hatfield, who was sent to arrest private agents by the mayor of the city. One of the agents said he had an arrest warrant for the sheriff himself. By this point, Cablebell’s Mayor Testerman approached and told the agents that their arrest warrant for Syd was fake. After the words of the mayor, a firefight broke out: the agents were the first to open fire, and one of them was shot. As a result of the shootout, later called the “Massacre in Matevan”, and which served as the first impetus for further events, the mayor of Testerman was killed along with two citizens, and several representatives of a private agency. This shootout had a symbolic meaning for the miners: the detective agency, considered invulnerable, was stopped, and its agents were punished for injustice. Mayor Testerman has become a legend in the area, and Sheriff Sid Hatfield is a hero of miners who want to join a union against the wishes of the owners of the coal company. The victory of the defenders of the evicted miners’ families over the mercenaries became a symbol of hope that the oppression of the coal operators and their mercenaries could be overthrown. During the summer and fall of 1920, the union gained strength in Mingo County. At the same time, the repression of coal operators and their mercenaries grew. Above and below the Tugsir River, which crosses Matevan, skirmishes broke out from time to time throughout 1920. To restore order, the governor brought in the Virginia police, whose representatives in June 1920 raided the Lick Creek tent city: the miners inhabiting it were shooting back. As a result of the shootout, the state police arrested many miners at gunpoint: cops tore open tarpaulin tents and threw out the belongings of the miner’s families.

At the same time, Chief Hatfield, as the miners called the sheriff, was strengthening the resistance by transforming Testerman’s jewelry store into an armory. However, the sheriff soon received a formal charge from the state capital, and on January 26, 1921, Hatfield was tried for the murder of agent Albert Felts. These events attracted national attention to the miners’ case, which was facilitated by Sid Hatfield, who willingly went to talk with journalists, telling them how the events in Matevan really happened. Sheriff Sid and his friends were acquitted, as the victims were from both sides of the gunfight, and the mayor of the city was killed by agents. However, the repression of the mercenaries of the coal companies and the state police led to setbacks in the activities of the miners’ union: 80% of the mines in Virginia began to work, but only after the coal operators signed contracts with some of the former strikers, taking from them a promise not to join the union on pain of being fired or arrested. In the spring of 1921, the union launched a full-scale “offensive”, campaigning in non-union mines. The class battle has flared up with renewed vigor. The state government has declared martial law in the troubled district. The miners took this as a serious attack on their rights, and responded to the state of emergency with sabotage and guerrilla tactics. Hundreds of them were arrested.

On August 7, 1921, leaders of the South West Virginia branch of the UMW Miners ‘Union organized a rally outside the State Capitol in Charleston, at which the miners’ demands were voiced by social activists, veterans of previous class conflicts in the region – Frank Keene, Mary Harris and Ed Mooney. They initiated a meeting with Governor Morgan, and gave him a list of the miners’ demands. But the governor rejected the demands of the workers who were forced to fight against poverty in the conditions of a difficult existence in the mining villages. Then an idea arose among the miners – to go to Mingo in order to release the arrested miners and demand from the authorities the lifting of martial law and an end to unjust repression. Mount Blair was located directly in the path of the miners’ procession.

Despite the calls made by UMW activists on August 7 – not to take radical steps, but to strengthen the union in the localities – the miners, outraged by the refusal to satisfy their demands on the part of the governor, were ready to do anything. Most fervently appealing to miners for sensible decisions was an elderly labor union activist called Mary Harris, popular among West Virginia workers, known as “Mother Jones.” She feared that, outraged and burning with righteous indignation, the miners would provoke by their manifestation a clash with the forces of law and order in Logan County. It was known that the county sheriff, Don Chafin, with the help of financial support from the County Coal Mining Association, had formed a well-armed private army of nearly 2,000 men. Mother Jones rightly feared that a clash between unskilled and almost unarmed miners with drilled police officers and coal company rangers could turn into a massacre. But the miners understood that by starting to join the ranks of the UMW in an organized manner, they had already hardened the owners of the coal corporation against themselves, and there was no point in expecting a softening of working conditions, as well as an easier living conditions in the mining villages. To organize the demonstration procession, the miners gathered at Mount Lenz Creek, and on August 20, about 13 thousand people left there and began to move to Logan.

miners machine gun nest on hill at the foot of blair mt across from where blair babtist church sits now

The sheriff of the city of Logan, meanwhile, was preparing for the defense on Mount Blair. Previously, he mobilized detectives and mine guards, and also turned to the governor – with permission, if necessary, to use the summoned federal troops. On August 24, 1921, about five thousand miners crossed the Lenz Creek mountains. Aware of the events in the Virginia coal basin, US President Warren Harding sent a spokesman to negotiate with the UMWA. The envoy told the trade union representatives that the miners’ performance would be regarded as high treason, and ordered that the miners be ordered to return. But even if the miners agreed, transport for their possible transportation back was provided with a delay. On August 27, state police attacked a group of miners in Sharples, shooting two of them. Upon learning of this, the enraged miners moved decisively to Mount Blair. Some union activists feared local skirmishes would turn into full-scale hostilities.

Initially, rangers hired by the companies, a sheriff with police officers and representatives of the Pinkerton agency, detached by the governor, stood in the way of the march of the miners – there were about 3 thousand people. However, the insurgent miners put up unexpected stubborn resistance. Then the forces of the national guard of the state were brought into play. The confrontation between the miners, armed with whatever they could, and the representatives of big Capital, united with the forces of law and order and the federals, lasted for several days. By September 2, more than 100 miners had died in the fighting, and more than a hundred more people were injured. In addition to the fierce fire directed against the rebels, the explosions of bombs dropped by the corporation’s mercenaries from private planes were added. Realizing that in the event of further resistance, all the rebels would be destroyed by the regular army, and fearing the execution of members of the miner’s families, trade union leader Bill Blizzard turned to the miners with a proposal to disperse to their homes, having previously hidden their weapons – but it was too late. At the preliminary request of Sheriff Don Chaffin, the forces of the US Air Force that arrived in time to Mount Blair intervened in the conflict: by order of General Billy Mitchell, military aircraft were even transferred to the conflict zone.

In total, up to 15 thousand armed miners took part in the Battle of Blair Mountain. The fact that the forces of the US Federal Army were thrown into the suppression of the miners’ march caused special indignation in the States: after all, among the 15,000 miners there were also honored veterans of the US Armed Forces … armed sorties, leading partisan warfare. But, finally realizing that the unequal confrontation ended in defeat, the unharmed miners scattered. Some of them have arranged weapons caches in the mountain forest – in these places, over the past hundreds of years, boys, tourists and archaeologists have found and are still finding fragments of rusted weapons, bullets and shell casings.

Today we have again entered the era of the economic collapse of the capitalist system, which has engulfed all continents of the planet. There is an idea that in the modern world, which is experiencing an absolutely new stage in the development of productive forces, in a digital version – the proletariat as an active force of the class struggle – is not relevant. However, life shows that the profession of a miner, or a worker in the resource-extracting industry, has not died out. This very opinion, at different times, emerging in the pseudoscientific neoliberal discourse, is devalued. The army of mines and mines in the world, engaged in the extraction of ores and minerals in demand in the industry, continues to exist – miners extract copper, nickel, lithium and even coal, which is still needed, although not to the extent that that was in the past. Miners in almost every country in Eurasia and America now increasingly find themselves in exactly the same situation as the American miners of 1921, who were forced to rebel against the tyranny of the greedy owners of coal corporations, and, putting aside the pick and jackhammer, take up arms…

The struggle of workers for their rights and for a life worthy of man continues. Will we be strong enough to unite and challenge the ruthless Capital system, which has not softened since one of the class confrontations at Mount Blair 100 years ago? On the contrary, the Capital system has acquired a seeming gloss and invulnerability. The modern neoliberal system seems to be bursting at all seams. Its crisis is obvious, but together with it, it is ready to take with it all of humanity.

This is not a sentence to you and me. This is a statement of the need for that last and inevitable class battle that began with the appearance of the first exploiters and — with the first challenge to the exploited, thrown in their faces. This challenge should be taken up by all the conscious peoples of the world, since the transnational capitalist elites ruling in the globalized world represent the smallest quantitatively group, no more than 7% of the total population. Only by uniting in a single revolutionary communist international can we win the main strategic battle – the battle for life itself on this Earth.

Alyona Ageeva
Commissioner of the Russian section of
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