A century after the Battle of Blair Mountain, protecting workers’ right to organize has never been more important

Thousands are expected this week in the forested hills of southern West Virginia to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain—a key conflict in labor history.

In the late summer of 1921, at least 7,000 coal miners affiliated with the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) fought for their rights and their livelihoods in a weeklong fight against a private army that was raised by the coal companies and supported by the National Guard and the U.S. Army Air Force. The battle was the climax of two decades of low-intensity warfare across the coalfields of Appalachia, and it remains the largest battle on U.S. soil since the end of the Civil War.

The battle is also a stark reminder of the importance of protecting workers’ right to organize. It’s not simply about balancing the economic scales; it’s about power. When workers do not have power—when they have no voice in their workplace and no voice in how the nation is governed—exploitation and violence by the state are the inevitable result.

Today, workers still face a lack of power. A great way to empower workers would be through passing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which is currently being considered by Congress and was renamed after former UMWA President Richard Trumka following his passing earlier this month. The story of the Battle of Blair Mountain demonstrates how, a hundred years on, workers are at the mercy of the powerful unless they have unions and power of their own.

When workers don’t have power, companies too often govern themselves

The immediate origin of the battle was the conflict in Mingo County, West Virginia. Fighting during the previous year in Mingo County, including shootouts, ambushes, and bombings, was the basis for John Sayles’s 1987 film, Matewan. By the summer of 1921, the governor had imposed martial law when asked by the mine companies, as the historian James Green details in his 2015 book, The Devil Is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom. 

That isn’t an exaggerated description of the companies’ power. In many mining regions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mine companies for all practical purposes were the government. Seven years before the Battle of Blair Mountain, J.D. Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel and Iron Company paid the salaries of the National Guardsmen who opened fire on a tent city of strikers and their families in Ludlow, Colorado. Sixty-six people were killed, including at least 11 children, as the tent city was set ablaze. No one was charged with or convicted of any crime in connection with the massacre.

In West Virginia in 1921, the mine companies raised a private army of some 2,000 men, many of them World War I veterans, and imprisoned union leaders in Mingo County. The Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, hired by the Stone Mountain Coal Company and other coal mine owners to facilitate union busting, helped organize the private army.

There is a clear line to be drawn from the violent tactics of Baldwin-Felts to the smoother, legalistic strategies of present-day law firms like Morgan Lewis, which advised Amazon in its efforts to defeat the unionization effort in Bessemer, Alabama, earlier this year. (A new election is likely to be ordered based on Unfair Labor Practices committed by the company.) Corporations have always shown a willingness to spend money like water to suppress worker organizing.

On August 1, 1921, agents of Baldwin-Felts gunned down Mingo County Sheriff Sid Hatfield and United Mine Workers of America organizer Ed Chambers on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse. Hatfield had fought on the side of the workers at Matewan the year before, killing two brothers of Baldwin-Felts co-owner Thomas Felts. None of the gunmen were convicted for the murders.

When workers don’t have power, racial divides increase

By the middle of August, mineworkers across the state, angered by the murders and eager to take action to free the union leaders held in Mingo County, gathered near Lens Creek. The assembled force included both white and Black miners, and there were Black union leaders among those held captive in Mingo, as Lon Savage notes in Thunder in the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War, 1920–21. Some of the Black miners had been brought into the region by the mine owners, hoping to use them as strikebreakers, but solidarity prevailed.

When workers have little power, employers regularly try to divide them by race. Sometimes they succeeded: In 1898, for example, the “Battle of Virden” in Illinois broke out when white strikers tried to prevent Black workers from taking their place in the mines. The Black miners had not been told they were strikebreaking, but had instead been told that the white workers were off fighting in the Spanish-American War. Seven strikers and five guards of the strikebreakers were killed.

Too many of the labor conflicts of the Gilded Age were tarnished with racism. One of the first “triumphs” of the (white) organized labor movement in the U.S. was the 1882 passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned all immigration from China, and anti-Asian racism was a staple of the rhetoric of longtime American Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers.

Even in times of crisis, racism often prevailed over solidarity. The historic Pullman strike of 1894 was supported by the American Railway Union (ARU) led by famed American labor leader Eugene Debs. The ARU’s explicit purpose was to unite all railway workers under a single union, and yet, during the middle of the Pullman strike, the 1894 ARU convention voted (against Debs’s urging) to refuse union membership to Black Pullman car porters. The exclusion of the Pullman porters substantially hurt the strike effort, and it wasn’t until 1925 that the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was established under the leadership of the legendary A. Phillip Randolph.

While the UMWA struggled at times, it had been founded as an integrated union and often led on racial justice issues. One of Richard Trumka’s most powerful acts as President of the UMWA was, at the request of the South African National Union of Mineworkers, chairing the U.S. effort to boycott companies that supported the apartheid policies of the South African government. Recent research by Paul Frymer and Jake Grumbach shows that membership in a union helps reduce racial resentment among white workers. When workers are united, their shared bonds grow stronger.

When workers don’t have power, the deck is stacked against them

The makeshift army of strikers and their supporters marched from Lens Creek toward Mingo County, with scattered fighting starting as early as August 25. To get to Mingo County they had to cross Blair Mountain in Logan County, where the fighting reached its peak in the last days of August. The miners had the greater numbers, but the coal companies’ private army had better weapons and airplanes, which dropped bombs and poison gas on the miners.

Many died on both sides—there is no historical consensus on total casualties—until on September 2 the U.S. Army arrived. The Army was there ostensibly to restore order, but in reality, it intervened on the side of the coal companies. Hundreds of miners were arrested and charged with a variety of crimes. No one on the side of the coal companies faced criminal charges for their behavior in the battle.

The Army—and the whole apparatus of government power—is too often used to crush workers’ efforts at unity. In addition to military intervention in strikes, like the 1877 Railroad Strike or the 1894 Pullman strike, U.S. courts have kept unions in check with injunctions prohibiting picketing or strikes. State governments have passed so-called “right-to-work” laws whose only real purpose is to weaken organized labor.

One of organized labor’s greatest triumphs—the 1936–1937 Flint Sit-Down Strike—was successful only because organized labor had worked in 1936 to elect Frank Murphy governor of Michigan, and once in power he refused General Motors’ entreaties to call in the National Guard to subdue the strikers. We don’t have to guess what might have happened had he sent in the troops, because it happened just a few months later in Chicago, when 10 workers and supporters were killed during the Memorial Day Massacre after police fired into the crowd supporting strikers at the Republic Steel plant.

To build worker power today, Congress must pass the PRO Act

In the short run, the Battle of Blair Mountain was a defeat for the miners and the UMWA, but the union survived. By the mid-1930s, it was UMWA’s dues money that enabled the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which catalyzed the growth of unions and worker power. EPI has extensively documented the benefits worker power has for families, and how the decline in worker power in recent decades has brought inequality back to levels not seen since the days of the West Virginia Mine Wars. Once again, prejudice against Black and Brown workers is being used to draw attention away from this growing inequality. It must end.

Congress passing the Richard L. Trumka PRO Act would be a fitting tribute to those who fought and died at Blair Mountain. The PRO Act would help restore workers’ ability to organize with their co-workers and negotiate for better pay, benefits, and fairness on the job. The PRO Act would also promote greater racial economic justice because unions and collective bargaining help shrink the Black–white wage gap. Ultimately, the PRO Act would go a long way toward redressing the unequal power between workers and employers in the United States.