How a year of teacher strikes was inspired by the bloody West Virginia Mine Wars




  • In Business
  • 2019-02-20 12:23:54Z
  • By USA TODAY
 

"AIR FLEET ORDERED TO W. VA. BATTLEFIELD'' - Page One headline, Washington Times, Sept. 1, 1921

The air fleet was the U.S. Army's; the order was issued by President Warren Harding; the battlefield was Blair Mountain, West Virginia, where about 10,000 striking coal miners fought about 3,000 private mine guards and police along a 10-mile front.

The Battle of Blair Mountain was the largest armed uprising since the Civil War and one of the most amazing episodes in the history of U.S. labor. It ended only after the Army arrived to break it up. By that time, as many as 100 men lay dead.

The battle came a year after another notorious episode in the West Virginia Mine Wars, waged over unionization of the coal industry.

2019 strike: West Virginia teachers will remain out Wednesda

The Matewan Massacre was a coal-country version of the shootout at the O.K. Corral. The gun battle pitted the city of Matewan's pro-union police chief, Sid Hatfield (of the family that famously feuded with the McCoys) and some deputized miners against agents of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. They'd been hired by coal operators to evict families of striking miners from company land.

Although it's still unclear who fired the first shot, 10 people were killed, including the mayor. Hatfield, charged with murder, was acquitted at a trial that made the charismatic "Smilin' Sid'' a national celebrity.

The following year, as he walked up the courthouse steps for another trial, the unarmed Hatfield was shot to death by a Baldwin-Felts gunman.

Meanwhile, many striking union miners had been jailed in Mingo County after martial law was declared. Other miners around the state headed to Mingo to free them. But they had to pass through Logan County, where the county sheriff, backed by mine owners, assembled a well-armed force in their way.

After five days of inconclusive skirmishing, the miners - who wore red bandanas and called themselves "the Red Neck Army'' - retreated, either hiding or dropping their weapons.

By breaking up the Battle of Blair Mountain, the Army froze a status quo that benefitted the mine companies, who fired the strikers and hired replacement workers. The United Mine Workers union had to wait until the New Deal, and laws such as the National Labor Relations Act, to organize the mines.

But the Mine Wars created what the labor historian James Green calls "a culture of resistance'' in the coalfields that never quite died out, even after changes in the demand for coal, and how it was mined, gutted the union. When public school teachers went on strike in 1990, it started in the coalfields.

That heritage resonated last year, when teachers again decided they'd been paid too little for too long.

"When we got desperate enough to ask, 'What are we going to do?' '' recalls Katie Endicott, a Mingo High School math teacher, "we had a model of what to do.''

Timeline: How the 2018 West Virginia teacher strike evolved

Poll: Even when teachers strike, Americans give them high grades. Unions fare worse.

Teachers in America: No matter where they work, they feel disrespect

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How a year of teacher strikes was inspired by the bloody West Virginia Mine Wars

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