Monday, January 26, 2015

Another Book About the Mine Wars

I'm reading a new history of the West Virginia mine wars by historian James Green, called The Devil Is Here in These Hills: West Virginia's Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom. The story, though told many times, is still exciting.
From the front page of the New York Times, August 2, 1921

Prof. Green says he is an "activist scholar," and his career has been one of advocacy for collectivism.  It is no surprise, then, that the book paints the union organizers, who were generally associated with the United Mine Workers of America, as heroic defenders of the working man. As for myself, I am no historian, just the descendant of "company men" who were caught in the middle of the so-called mine wars. When UMWA members were stockpiling guns and ammunition, blowing up tipples and killing company officials in 1921, my grandfather was working miles from home, because the mines back near his home in Ottawa, Boone County, were shut down by strikes. Later that year he was called back to Ottawa to help with an armed defense of the mines and to stop the miners' army from getting through to Logan County to continue wreaking havoc. So you can expect that I have a somewhat different take.

Apparently, public TV has bought the rights to this book and plans to make an American Experience episode out of it. You probably also know about the movie Matewan. A thousand times more people will read the book and see the TV show than read this blog, but still, one must try. It's not my contention that unions are always wrong and companies are always right. In fact, I would never have been born were it not for the UMWA hospital at Welch, West Virginia. But I will make the case that the mine wars were a tragic waste of lives and property that had little to do with workers' rights per se.

Like Green's book, most histories of these events uncritically support the union men. The only really objective one I know of is Bloodletting in Appalachia by Howard Lee. Nearly all the others see the conflict as a moralistic good-versus-evil battle pitting a grassroots movement of saintly miners against oppressive mine operators straight out of a Dickens novel. These kinds of fairy tales are not only condescending, they are by now boring.

You have to realize what a strike meant in the early 1900s. Today, a strike means a picket line. Back then, a strike meant shutting down an operation by beating or killing people on their way to work and by destroying equipment. It is easy to criticize the mine operators for hiring private armies to break strikes if you have the modern kind of strike in mind, instead of what strikes were really like in those days.

By 1912, both the mine operators and the union were using tactics that have no place in decent society. The operators were running company towns like lords over a medieval manor, firing and blacklisting any miners who spoke or acted in ways that displeased management. For their part, the union was using guns and dynamite to shut down nonunion mines.

The natural question is, who started it? Who set off the chain of events that spun out of control until the Army had to be called in?

Contrary to Green's telling, the mine wars were anything but grassroots in origin and anything but ignited by oppression. In 1898, a coal cartel called the "Central Competitive Field" was formed, covering Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and western Pennsylvania. It sought to preserve profits by limiting production, exactly like an OPEC for coal, preventing price competition that would have reduced the cost of coal to consumers. Ultimately, the CCF was willing to pay whatever wage the UMWA demanded and just pass it all onto the consumer. The trouble is, the plan could only work if it were extended over the whole industry, otherwise other mines could undercut the cartel. In exchange for high wages, the UMWA promised the CCF it would unionize West Virginia, which would stop mines there from selling cheap coal. Green claims this is a "conspiracy theory," but alas it was a real conspiracy, not just a theory. Here is a high official of the UMWA, complaining to Congress in 1921 that the CCF operators were not helping them carry out this very promise:

Let me point to the fact that the United Mine Workers of America have diligently and aggressively attempted to carry out the promise made in Chicago in 1898 that they have done everything in their power to redeem any promise they may have made to organize West Virginia. Since 1898 our organization has at various times spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to unionize West Virginia. We have also sacrificed human life in the attempt to redeem that promise. In view of the fact that we have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and that our organizers, our members who have gone there as missionaries in an attempt to redeem that promise have sacrificed their lives and their liberties, we should be given credit for what we have done. I want to ask the operators how much money they have spent and what they have done to aid us to organize West Virginia? 

I can guess that the CCF would respond by saying that it was ultimately their mines that were the source of every one of the hundreds of thousands of dollars mentioned above. In effect, the CCF gave the workers a raise, a good portion of which went to the UMWA's strike fund, which had a double function as a sabotage operation against the CCF's competitors. The CCF agreement is a much more convincing explanation of when and why the mine wars happened in West Virginia than any spontaneous uprising of oppressed miners.

It is worse than that. Not only were the "mine wars" sponsored by the CCF, they actually achieved nothing but to rain death and destruction on operators and miners alike. There is no definitive tally of deaths, but in reading these histories, there are one or two killed here, and ten killed there, and a powerhouse blown up here, and children starving in strike colonies there, so it adds up to a lot of suffering.

In the end, the strikes and violence did nothing to unionize southern West Virginia. It was unionized (in 1933) by the federal government, when Roosevelt's NIRA was passed. And once again, the welfare of the workers was incidental to the real goal. The NIRA was drafted by another cartel, this one covering much of American manufacturing. Even liberals came to recognize that the NIRA was crony capitalism at its worst. Most of it was found unconstitutional in 1935, but the labor provisions were retained by subsequent legislation.

The role of the UMWA and its leader, John L. Lewis, is outlined here:

Northern coal-operator associations joined John L. helping to draft Section 7(a) of the NIRA. Because most northern mines had been unionized long before 1933 and could not be deunionized, their owners had long sought the unionization of Appalachia's mines as the ultimate solution to Appalachia's low coal prices...Lewis accepted what amounted to price fixing under the exchange for labor leaders' treasured Section 7(a) of the legislation. Lewis reportedly said at this time that he was only looking out for current miners. Miners' sons, he reportedly said, would have to look for work in the cities. Lewis was manifestly not, however, looking out for all current miners, His initial proposal for a nationwide daily minimum wage of five dollars for all coal miners would have ruined many Appalachian operations, throwing their miners out of work.

Let's think about this. In the depths of the Depression, with people breaking up furniture and burning it in their fireplaces to keep warm, the main concern of the federal government is...that there is too much cheap coal being mined in Appalachia. That is some kind of crazy.

The UMWA, like all unions, promoted the idea that workers have a claim on profits which only the union can help them get. But the CCF and NIRA episodes show that the miners' gains didn't come out of existing profits, they came out of coal prices paid by the public that were inflated by monopolies set up with the connivance of the UMWA. It sort of undermines the whole union narrative.

The UMWA and its allies in the press tried to drum up support for the union by depicting the desperate conditions that existed at times in the mining camps as luridly as possible. It is true that life was desperate at times in the West Virginia mining camps. But whose fault was that? The papers complained that families were living in tent colonies with little to eat. But they failed to point out that those same families had been living in houses with a regular wage until the UMWA induced them to strike. And the very worst times in the coalfields happened in the late 1930s, after unionization.

The saddest chapter is that the UMWA sold out the miners partially after the 1921 battle and completely in 1951 when John L. Lewis accepted the mechanization of the mines in exchange for higher wages for existing miners. It fulfilled his threat that miners' sons would have to look for work in the cities. Mechanization was of course inevitable, and beneficial to the consumers of coal, but that argument would not have garnered any support from the miners, had they been asked.

Green acknowledges this repeated betrayal by the UMWA, which started the whole mess back in 1898, but ends the book by describing a utopian scene of union solidarity in which West Virginia miners enjoy safe working conditions, job security, and sunny days forever. In fact, that lasted about ten years, because the UMWA was bleeding the mines dry. Green says he went to West Virginia recently to see Blair Mountain, where the UMWA battled the coal operators and the police. Do you know what he didn't see? Any of my grandfather's seven kids or their descendants, because they had to disperse from West Virginia to five different states in order to make a living.

Somebody will say that West Virginia's problems were due to the decline of the coal industry, which the union couldn't control. Not so. Even with recent moves to restrict coal-burning power plants, more bituminous coal is being mined now than before unionization, but the industry supports only a small fraction of the families it used to. The UMWA didn't stop the process or even try to slow it down. So what did the violence achieve? Do we really need to hold up this blood-soaked history as something to be proud of, or as an inspiration to today's workers? Blair Mountain should be protected from mountaintop removal and preserved in the interest of history, but as caution, not inspiration.

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