From the Files of: Infamies of Capitalism.

by kara on May 25, 2011

Mourners at Sid Hatfield's Funeral.

This nation has a sketchy history of dealing with the rights of its workers. Some might say, brutal acts of aggression against American workers have been a cornerstone of our Democracy! Unlike better known bellwethers of the labor movement like the 1911 Triangle Factory fire, and the Writers Guild Strike of 2008, the battle of Blair Mountain goes completely without mention in history books. Less than 100 years ago, in the West Virginia cole town of Matewan, then police chief Sid Hatfield – a staunch protector of the rights of coal miners against the coal company thugs  – was murdered. The coal companies were tired of Hatfield constantly noodling with their intimidatory tactics, so they hired “security agents” (union busting mercenaries), to kill him and his deputy, on the steps of the courthouse. (aside: the same “security agents”, also at the behest of the coal operators, had previously spearheaded the Ludlow, Colorado massacre in 1914, burning women and children alive in their tents, and murdering twenty people).

In August of 1921, after years of violent confrontations with mine operators, miners from across West Virginia answered a call from United Mine Workers of America leaders to march on Logan County, hoping to gather support to free miners unfairly imprisoned by state authorities, and unionize exploited workers living in dire poverty in company towns.

American Don Chafin

The sheriff of Logan County at the time was a porcine lunatic named Don Chafin. Chafin was a fierce opponent of unionization, receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from the coal mine industry in return for his violent commandeering of the suppression of the UMW. At the coal companies behest, he planned to stop the marching miner’s ascent to Blair Mountain. He assembled an armed militia of idiots to dig trenches, block roads, fell trees and mount machine guns along the 15-mile ridge line of Blair Mountain.

10,000 armed miners converged at the foot of the steep, brambly slopes of Blair Mountain, a 1,952 ft fault line between the heavily guarded part of the state under control of the coal industry and the unionized areas to the north. To access the mountain, the miners used natural pathways to mount the ridge and breach Chafin’s line. But, on a higher ridge above, Chafin and his militia; coal industry guards; private security forces; detectives and state police officers peered out from fortified positions, training Thompson submachine guns and high-powered rifles on the men below. In the air, private bi-planes hired by the (American) coal companies dropped crude bombs on the (American) miners.

The deadly skirmish lasted 5 days, and ultimately took 1800 federal troops to end —the largest peacetime deployment against civil unrest. The miners gave up when the feds arrived, unwilling to fight the federal agents, many of whom the miners had recently fought alongside in WWI.

The battle of Blair Mountain was the largest labor uprising in US history (NOT usurped by the WGA’s strike of 2009, as the Two and a Half Men writers would lead you to believe), and the second largest civil insurrection in U.S. history. 12 years later, it prompted then President FDR to sign into law the National Industrial Recovery Act, granting workers the legal right to unionize and bargain collectively without repercussions. United Mine Workers of America dispatched organizers across the country and “a wave of mountainous proportions” swept through the coalfields of Appalachia.

Footnote: As a result of his actions during the Blair Mountain uprising, Sheriff Chafin became a hero of the mine operators and enemy #1 to miners. In 1924, he spent two years in the federal pen for moonshining. After his release, he got rich as Croesus working as a lobbyist for the coal industry.

Appalachian Blue Ridge Parkway. Beauty: who needs it?

Appalachian meadow. Flora and Fauna: Who needs it?

90 years later, in a horrendous irony, coal companies are intent on ripping, bulldozing and blasting away at the very site of the Blair Mountain battle, to access the veins of coal that run beneath.

When I first heard the term “mountaintop removal”, I had no idea what it could possibly mean. The google search results gave me the heebie-jeebies. They do what??? Creepy and diabolical, it’s one of the most egregious human rights violations in our country, and has ripped apart 500 mountains in Appalachia, and destroyed 1,000 miles of streams (our water supply). Traditionally, miners tunnel deep into the mountains to extract the coal seam, but today, coal companies prefer the cheaper, more mechanized, more destructive method of lopping mountaintops right off their base. They decapitate our mountains and hurl their remains into the valley below.

Ugly American, Don Blankenship

After a decade of fighting to get the 1,600 acre site of Blair Mountain listed in the National Register of Historic Places, honoring the miners and protecting the land , it won a designation in March, 2009. 6 months later – and after the deadline for comment had passed – coal company lawyers produced a mysterious list of objections from (dead, fake) landowners. Local officials stripped Blair Mountain of it’s designation, opening the door for coal companies like Arch and Massey Energy – egregious offender of worker’s rights, pillager of natural resources, denier of global climate change, briber of legislators and murderer of Americans – to bomb away at the mountain. The coal goons creep closer to the site with armed security forces and Hummers to block access. At the helm is Massey CEO/depraved lunatic Don Blankenship, infamous for running the first mine EVER shut down by the Labor Dept for safety violations, and for the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, where a methane explosion killed 29 workers, and for which he has yet to be brought to justice.

Blair Mountain is an indelible part of our history, hallowed by the American blood spilled there, and cannot be “moved”. I mean, would any American agree to forget the Battle of Gettysburg, or Pearl Harbor? Actually, scratch that. Yes. Nothing is sacred, everything’s for sale. So, imagine if a thin trickle of coal was found under Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Boston’s Freedom Trail, or the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, and local officials connived a backdoor scheme of forged documents, intimidation and payola to allow an absentee coal company to blow up and strip mine the historic landmarks, for a handful of temporary, non-union jobs, as the rest of the economy sinks. Where’s the fervor that historians seem to have for protecting civil war sites from Wal-Mart?

Appalachian children. Poor People: Who needs ’em?!

The Blair Mountain fiasco is not simply about preserving the site of the largest armed insurrection since the Civil War, and tearing it’s top off does not merely dishonor the memory of the miners who sacrificed their lives for the rights of workers. It’s representative of a growing malignancy of the soul that consistently and unapologetically puts the man-purses of a handful of CEOs as –  not just the top priority – the only priority. The long-term jobs, the safety and health of the workers, the ecosystem, all are non issues. The people of the Appalachian Region have paid dearly for coal industry profits, with their homes, their communities, their health…they’ve seen the obliteration of their manufacturing jobs, the destruction of their natural resources, and the plummeting of their living standards while coal prices and coal company profits are at an all time high. Today, greed and graft are admirable character traits and the words “labor” and “worker” are pejoratives again (remember when Sarah Palin rolled her eyes at that woman after she identified herself as a “teacher?”). We have come full circle.

Fellow American citizens concerned with the faithful representation of America’s rich and often terrible history, listen up. As the mountains goes, so go we. As the top of Blair Mountain goes, so goes the history it has witnessed, already absent from history books. The places where labor history occurred, and the murals where it has been memorialized, are systematically being scrubbed. But that’s the point, right? To destroy all traces of history? Because history teaches us our lessons, provides us with our referential cautions, and prevents us from repeating mistakes. And if we don’t have reminders and symbols, murals and mountains, then we forget. And when we forget, the barbarians who profit from ruin, win. If that is too much of an abstraction, think about Doctor Zaius, sealing up that cave and blowing it to bits….obliterating all evidence of a world that once was, in a time no one left remembers and has been blacklisted from the collective psyche, a world that looks kind of like ours, but not as crappy, because it wasn’t run by “apes”.

On June 5th, a 7 day, 10 mile a day march from Blair Mountain to the crest of Blair will be held to put focus on preserving Blair Mountain, abolishing mountaintop removal, strengthening labor rights, and investing in sustainable jobs for Appalachian communities. For more information visit Friends of Blair Mountain.

Previous post:

Next post: