Anniversary Post: Battle of Matewan (Kinda)

MatewanI’ll admit this is a bank-shot. John Sayles is 65 today. And in 1987, he made the film Matewan. I wrote about it last year, John Sayles and Matewan. And so I figured that I would write about the actual event today: the Battle of Matewan, which took place on 19 May 1920.

So it’s 1920, and mining is an even more dangerous profession than it is today. And they were paid very little. In this particular case, the workers living in the Stone Mountain Coal Camp in West Virginia were being paid in script that could only be used at the company store. Basically, these miners were slaves. But things were happening in other areas not far away. Union miners had earned large pay increases by going on strike. So when the United Mine Workers of America came to town, thousands of miners signed up. The coal company responded the same way companies do today: they harassed the workers that they didn’t just fire.

The workers then had a great advantage that workers in most times — including very much today — don’t: the mayor and the chief of police of the local town of Matewan sided with the workers rather than the coal corporation. The way it was supposed to go was that the mayor and the police chief would work together to brutalize the workers. But when that didn’t work, the coal company hired thugs from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency.

On the morning of 19 May 1920, a group of “detectives” arrived by train with the stated intent of evicting some mining families from the camp, but more generally to brutalize the workers. This is something that continues to bug me to this day: the idea that unions are violent. This is pure corporate propaganda. Certainly workers have been violent — no group is perfect. But the business community has used every tool available to them to keep workers in line, and that included huge amounts of violence both private and with the help of the state. Yet it’s the workers who we constantly hear about being violent.

The “detectives” went to the police chief to serve what turned out to be fraudulent warrants. A shootout ensued. The mayor and two miners ended up dead, as did seven of the “detectives.” It would be nice to think that this all led to the coal companies accepting the union and everyone getting along. It would be more than a decade later that some amount of fairness came to the region. And that was due to New Deal policies. So those of you who think it doesn’t matter who gets election, pay attention! It’s like the advice I gave to young Carey Wedler: it’s not about one election or one candidate. We have to push and win battle after battle. There is no other path to justice.

Oh, and: happy birthday John Sayles!

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