Last night, I caught part of a PBS series on Appalachia. The segment dealt with the coal wars in southern West Virginia in 1912-1925 or so. I did extensive research on this for a graduate seminar in anthropological theory and was taken aback at how little I had ever learned about this episode in American history. At one point, over 10,000 armed union miners, many of them veterans of the recent World War, marched on Mingo County from Charleston and vicinity to rescue their fellow miners from the iron grip of the Mingo County mine operators and their detective agency thugs. There was a battle at Blair Mountain, and peace was restored through the intervention of federal troops. The federals broke the union in Mingo.
This episode would never be taught in the schools in my hometown of Dalton, GA, carpet capital of the known universe. The chamber of commerce was very much involved in curriculum, and the only thing we were ever taught about unions was that they were bad. Every year, the chamber would bring a mobile classroom to the schools with exhibits and information about how horrible unions were. Unions were equated with Communism and the Soviet Union where you had to work ten times as long to afford a loaf of bread. Also, unions were equated with organized crime. We were encouraged to report suspicious union activity to the chamber.
Back to Mingo County. There, the mine operators owned the miners' homes, owned the mines, owned the churches and hired/fired the pastors, controlled the sheriff, controlled the judges, and controlled the legislators from their area. They colluded to blacklist any troublesome worker or any worker who advocated unionization. And if this was not bad enough, they attempted to control miners' access to publications, miners' freedom to assemble, and other aspects of the miners' lives outside the mines. This chafed, but what really got the miners riled up was when the operators began to cheat them with false weights (miners were paid by the ton) and to charge excessive amounts for tools and timber to shore up the shafts and for goods at the company stores. The collusion among operators also made it difficult for miners to vote with their feet and move to another mine if the operator got out of line, and this freedom was important to them and an important check on operator excesses. The miners had no recourse or remedy as the operators held almost all the cards. At length, the miners went to war and tried to shut down the mines. They attacked trains, besieged mines, harassed "replacement workers" and defectors, and otherwise did what was necessary to bring the operators to the bargaining table. The striking miners' families were evicted from their homes, and they passed miserable months living in the open.
The operators controlled the local sheriff and his deputies and had hired a private army of detective agency thugs to keep the miners in line. One law officer the operators did not own was Chief Hatfield of the Matewan police. He was involved in the shooting of several "detectives" in Matewan. The men who killed the thugs were tried but no jury could be found to convict them. The operators had tried to get the state legislature to limit the right to trial by jury, but the northern districts would not go along with this idea. All of the state apparatus that the miners had left was the jury, and the operators had not yet found a way to pack the juries with mine owners. Time and again, juries declined to convict miners and their sympathizers charged with crimes against miner operators or their thugs. The mine operators had to assassinate Chief Hatfield on the steps of the McDowell County courthouse to get revenge.
One of the lessons of Matewan is that the right to trial by jury, including the willingness and ability of the jury to act as trier of both fact and the law, is one of the most important protections that the ordinary man has against the excesses of power.
Another lesson is that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between what is private and what is the state. In Mingo County, the mine operators and the state were one and the same. It might be easy in a vulgar and cavalier way to declare that the miners were free to look for work elsewhere and that the operators were entitled to control their property as they saw fit, but the complex situation on the ground belies this kind of analysis. The operators' control and collusion rendered the miners' freedom of choice almost illusory. In theory, they might have taken their possessions and families and hiked to another more comfortable venue. In fact, they would have to leave their homes, their friends and kinsmen, and with considerable hardship go out in search of other situations that might well be just as unbearable. And they would do this with little or no money, as mining rarely afforded anyone an opportunity for savings.
A third lesson is that federal intervention in local conflict can be on the side of the powers that be.