From International Socialism 2:66, Spring 1995.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
On 19 May 1920 a party of 12 Baldwin-Felts private detectives led by Albert and Lee Felts arrived in the small town of Matewan, West Virginia. They had been busy evicting the families of striking miners from company housing on behalf of the Stone Mountain Coal Company and were now on their way back to the Baldwin-Felts headquarters in Bluefield. Their presence in Matewan was deliberately provocative. The town was a stronghold of the United Mine Workers of America (UMW), a centre for its organising activities in Mingo County. Only a fortnight earlier the union had held a rally attended by over 3,000 miners, black and white, in the town. Now an armed confrontation was to take place on the main street between the Baldwin-Felts men and Matewan’s mayor, Cabell Testerman, and chief of police, Sid Hatfield, both former miners and staunch UMW supporters. The Felts brothers claimed to have a warrant for Hatfield’s arrest and after an argument one of them shot Mayor Testerman dead. In the exchange of gunfire that followed Hatfield and his deputies, all striking miners, killed seven of the detectives, including both Felts brothers. Two striking miners, Robert Mullins and Tot Tinsley, were killed. 
This gunfight was celebrated as a great victory by the UMW in West Virginia and led to a dramatic increase in membership. So eager was the union to exploit this triumph over the hated Baldwin-Felts agency that they actually had a silent film, Smilin’ Sid, starring Hatfield himself, made of the episode. The film was shown to enthusiastic, cheering miners throughout the West Virginia coalfield.  Over 60 years later, in 1987, the gunfight was to be the subject of another film, Matewan, written and directed by the radical independent film maker, John Sayles.
The so called ‘Matewan Massacre’ was, however, only one episode, and by no means the most dramatic, in the long bloody struggle to organise West Virginia. This particular phase, immediately after the First World War, was to culminate in the march on company controlled Logan County by over 15,000 armed miners and in the week long battle for Blair Mountain which only came to an end with the intervention of federal troops. According to one historian the Blair Mountain battle ‘was the largest single armed conflict between labour and capital in American history. In this confrontation blacks and whites fought side by side for a common cause’. 
This article hopes to achieve two objectives: first of all to discuss the Sayles’ film, both its strengths and its weaknesses, and second to examine the UMW’s great historic attempt to organise the West Virginia coalfield in this period. Although discrepancies between the film and the historical record will be mentioned, it is not the intention to criticise Sayles for deviating from the ‘facts’. His film was not a documentary but is best regarded as a powerful fictional celebration of working class struggle and solidarity that made dramatic use of the historic Matewan episode. It has to be judged in these terms. At the same time it will also be argued here that the UMW’s defeat in West Virginia was one of the decisive struggles in post First World War America. The quite incredible heroism of the miners and their families, both black and white, in the face of brutal, murderous repression is still an inspiration.
John Sayles is without doubt the most important radical film maker at work in the United States today. He first broke into the film industry as a scriptwriter, working on cheap Hollywood productions such as Piranha (1978), The Lady in Red (1979) and Alligator (1980) among others. All these scripts have ‘subversive elements’: ‘government-released piranhas in domestic waters, unionisation and feminism, corporate corruption and pollution.’ According to Sayles himself, his original idea for Alligator was to have the monster that emerges from the Milwaukee sewers eat ‘its way through the socio-economic system’.  His earnings from scriptwriting financed his own early films (his first film cost $60,000 to make and his second $300,000), but since then he has been able to raise more substantial sums: Matewan, for example, cost $4 million to make. Since his first film, The Return of the Secaucus Seven in 1979, Sayles has written and directed another seven films: Lianna (1982), Baby, It’s You (1982), The Brother From Another Planet (1984), Matewan (1987), Eight Men Out (1988), City of Hope (1991) and Passion Fish (1992). At the time of writing, another film – The Secret of Roan Irish – is in post-production. He has also directed a number of rock videos for Bruce Springsteen and wrote and produced the American TV series Shannon’s Deal. Sayles is also an accomplished novelist and short story writer. His best novel is the outstanding Union Dues, first published in 1977, but more recently he has published a controversial anti-Castro novel, Los Gusanos (1991). 
Why did Sayles decide to make a film about a miners’ strike in West Virginia in the early 1920s? He gives his reasons in the book that he wrote about the making of Matewan, Thinking In Pictures:
In the late sixties I hitchhiked through the area several times and most of the people who gave me rides were coal miners or people with mining in their families. They spoke with a mixture of pride and resignation about the mining – resignation about how dark and dirty and cold and wet and dangerous it was and pride that they were the people to do it, to do it well. The United Mine Workers were going through heavy times then. Their president, Tony Boyle, was accused of having his election opponent, Jock Yablonski, murdered. The coal companies and most of the political machinery that fed on them and even the UMW hierarchy denied even the existence of black lung disease and refused any compensation for it. All this was added to the usual mine accidents and disasters and wild fluctuations in coal prices. But every miner I talked to would shake his head and say, ‘Buddy, this ain’t nothin’ compared to what used to go on. I could tell you some stories’. The stories would be about their grandfathers and uncles and fathers and mothers, and the older men would tell their own stories from when they were young.
He goes on:
If storytelling has a positive function it’s to put us in touch with other people’s lives, to help us connect and draw strength or knowledge from people we’ll never meet, to help us see beyond our own experience. The people I read about in the history books and the people I met in the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia had important stories to tell and I wanted to pass them on. 
Matewan tells the story of an incident in the struggle to unionise Mingo County in the West Virginia coalfield. The film begins underground with a coalface being blown. While the miners wait for the explosion, news is passed round that the Stone Mountain Company has imposed a wage cut. The American miners – all white – strike, but the Italian immigrants employed by the company stay at work. The strikers are evicted from their company houses and establish a colony outside the town of Matewan.
Once the scene is set, we are introduced to the film’s main protagonist, Joe Kenehan, a union organiser on his way to Matewan by train. Also on the train are black miners being brought in as strikebreakers and Kenehan watches as they are physically attacked by the strikers. Kenehan’s first successful intervention in the conflict is to persuade the strikers that the way to defeat the company is to ally with the black and Italian miners rather than trying to drive them out. Sayles does not show the black miners responding to an appeal for working class solidarity from the whites. Instead Kenehan challenges the racism of the white miners and succeeds in persuading them to accept the appeal for working class solidarity made by the black miners who were unaware that a strike was in progress and make it clear that they are not scabs. His strategy works, and in a dramatic scene both the Italian and the black miners join the strike under the guns of the company guards.
Kenehan preaches a doctrine of working class solidarity and consistently argues against recourse to force. The strikers, he insists, must not allow themselves to be goaded into violence, no matter what the provocation. Instead they have to rely on their unity to bring them victory.
Much of the film deals with the conflict between the company spy and agent provocateur, C.E. Lively, who advocates the dynamiting of company property and armed attacks on the company guards, and Kenehan, who continues to urge restraint. Lively nearly succeeds in framing Kenehan as a spy, but is himself unmasked and forced to flee for his life. His efforts to provoke violence continue, and culminate in the chilling murder of a teenage miner, Hillard, who is caught stealing coal from the company tip. This killing is one of the causes of the climactic gunfight in Matewan.
Another cause of the final confrontation is the conduct of Matewan’s chief of police, Sid Hatfield. Much to Kenehan’s amazement, he does not side with the company. Although he is not shown as a union man, Hatfield nevertheless protects the rights of the miners against the company gun thugs. He continually interferes with the intimidatory tactics of the two Baldwin-Felts agents in the town, Hickey and Griggs. The decision is taken to eliminate him.
The gunfight on the main street of Matewan ends with the Baldwin-Felts agents either dead or driven off, but this victory is marred by the death of Joe Kenehan. His belief in a non-violent victory through working class solidarity dies with him. Although the film ends here, the narrator, the young miner Danny, tells of how the union went down to a violent defeat as Kenehan had foretold, but reaffirms his own commitment to the union cause.
Sayles quite deliberately decided to make Kenehan a pacifist. His intention was to give the film a parable quality, a moral dimension that questioned both the use of violence to win the strike and the viability of pacifism when confronted by the Baldwin-Felts agents. The first decision he made in writing the script:
... was not just to pick a side and then root for that side to be left standing when the smoke cleared, but to question the violence itself, to question it politically, strategically, morally ... To bring the questioning of this violence to the foreground I made the fictional protagonist of the story, the union organiser Joe Kenehan, a pacifist. Not a reformed gunslinger who pulls his holster and guns off the wall in the last reel to wipe out the bad guys and thrill the audience, but a real pacifist, a guy who does not kill people no matter what. A guy trying to preach turning the other cheek in the land of an eye for an eye. And in having Joe question violence, pacifism is also questioned.
For Sayles, ‘the backbone’ of the film is whether Kenehan can get justice for the miners ‘without a gun’. There are other questions, issues and themes in the film but ‘that is the spine you have to keep coming back to, the central question that drives the plot’.  Of course, how an audience will react to the issue of violence is determined to a considerable extent by the politics they bring to the film. A liberal audience, for example, would regard both company and union violence as equally appalling, while a revolutionary socialist audience would regret that the miners weren’t better armed and that some of the Baldwin-Felts agents got away. Nevertheless the film does make it absolutely clear that, whatever Kenehan’s beliefs, his own survival is in fact dependent on other men having guns and being prepared to use them, on Hatfield, on the striking miners and, on one occasion, on the intervention of the hill people. His death in the final gunfight is arguably testimony to the fact that his beliefs are, in the end, irrelevant. Once again, however, one’s view derive from one’s politics.
Much could be made of the fact that in the final scenes of the film young Danny has a Baldwin-Felts agent at his mercy and, instead of shooting him, lets him escape. This apparent endorsement of Kenehan’s pacifism has to be balanced against the fact that Danny’s mother, Elma, has just shot and killed Hickey, another Baldwin-Felts agent. The man Danny could not bring himself to shoot was unarmed and running for his life. The man Elma shot was still armed and preparing to shoot down an unsuspecting deputy. Danny’s act of mercy was only made possible because Hatfield and his deputies had already shot it out with the Baldwin-Felts agents and won. The test of pacifism is not sparing the unarmed agent but sparing Hickey and accepting the consequences that would have followed. At the very least, however, the film succeeds in raising important issues for thought and discussion.
One other point worth making here is that the whole question of pacifism which Sayles makes the backbone of the film would in fact have been altogether incomprehensible to the miners struggling to build the union in West Virginia in 1920. In circumstances where activists and organisers were routinely beaten and killed by company guards and private detectives, the readiness and ability to defend oneself was essential for survival. According to one union organiser, carrying a gun became ‘automatic, like putting on a tie or lacing one’s shoes’.  Clearly a man with Kenehan’s convictions would never have been able to play a leading role in the kind of struggle that took place in West Virginia. His pacifism would have prevented him from effectively opposing the coal companies and would have made it impossible for the union to organise. Only the fact that the striking miners were armed prevented the coal companies driving them back to work at gunpoint. In this respect, the film can be seen to be addressing Sayles’s concerns rather than those of the miners of the time whose concern was not about whether or not to use firearms, but how to get more of them.
It is worth briefly noting here a number of other ways in which Sayles has adapted the historical record for dramatic purposes. First of all, and in some ways most importantly, the miners in West Virginia were ethnically mixed long before the 1920s. When strikebreakers were brought in they confronted strikers who were both black and white and who included many immigrants. Sayles dramatises to good effect the achievement of black and white unity against the bosses whereas in fact this was not an issue in the West Virginia coalfield at this time. A related point is that the leader of the black miners, ‘Few Clothes’ Don Chain, marvellously played by James Earl Jones, was a historic figure, but in the earlier 1912–1913 strike, not in the post-war conflict.
Joe Kenehan is, of course, a fictional character, but more to the point is the fact that outside organisers did not play a leading role in the conflict which was locally led by men like Frank Keeney, Fred Mooney, Frank Ingham, Bill Blizzard and Sid Hatfield. Hatfield’s role in particular was crucial: far from being an even handed mediator enforcing the law, he was an active UMW supporter, a key figure in the union’s early successes in Mingo County and tremendously popular with the rank and file miners. Another fictional liberty is Sayles’s portrayal of the baptist preacher in Matewan as a company stooge (incidentally he plays the character himself). This was indeed the case in company towns, but not in Matewan, an independent town with elected officials, where the baptist church served as a union meeting place. Unfortunately C E Lively was a historic figure.
One critic of Matewan, Stephen Brier, has argued that the film:
lacks any sense of capitalism as a system, or of individual capitalists as human agents. Many of the actual coal operators Justus Collins and W.P. Tams are but two examples – lived in the area in new baronial splendour, dominating the official culture and politics of the region for nearly half a century. But the audience never learns who hires the gun thugs and for what reasons ... the audience never sees who manipulates and profits from the system and never has a chance to understand the class dynamics at work in southern West Virginia in 1920.
There does seem some validity to this particular criticism, but Sayles chooses to focus on developments within the ranks of the strikers, on the community they establish. Brier goes on to criticise the film for neglecting the aftermath of the Matewan episode, for not having more to say about the march on Logan County and the battle for Blair Mountain.  Certainly the story is incredible enough for any number of films, with armed miners hijacking trains, company aircraft bombing the tent colonies and an army of over 15,000 workers trying to fight their way into Logan County with the express intention of hanging the sheriff, Don Chafin. As Sayles has himself pointed out, however, to have carried the story further ‘would have sent us into David Lean territory, three hours with an intermission’.  The finance necessary for such a project could only have been raised at the cost of surrendering his control over the film which would inevitably have had an effect on its politics.
Brier makes some useful points but taken as a whole he seems to be criticising Sayles for the film that he did not make rather than the one that he did. Instead Matewan has to be welcomed as a celebration of working class solidarity and struggle made at the height of the Reagan-Bush era. A number of US video chains refused to carry Matewan. What higher praise could there be?
It is important not to regard the miners’ struggle in West Virginia as some sort of backwoods conflict that, no matter how terrible the circumstances, had no direct relevance to the American capitalist class or to the American labour movement. This was not the case. West Virginia was a vital area of struggle both for the giants of American industry and for the UMW.
The UMW had been established in 1890 by a merger of the Knights of Labour District Assembly No. 135 and the National Union of Miners and Mine Labourers. Previous attempts at union organisation had ended in often bloody defeat, but in July 1897 the UMW with only 10,000 members called a strike in the bituminous or soft coal mines across America that brought out 150,000 miners. This resulted in January 1898 in the establishment of the Central Competitive Field. The soft coal mine companies in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania were forced to accept a ‘landmark’ agreement that conceded ‘the eight-hour day, a standard wage for men who worked on a daily basis, and a standard tonnage rate with local wage differentials’.  The Central Competitive Field agreement was, according to David Montgomery, ‘the foundation of the UMWA’s accomplishments’, but, as he goes on to insist, ‘almost from the day the 1898 trade agreement was signed it suffered erosion at the geographic frontiers of the CCF. Non-union coal was available from Colorado and Alabama and above all from West Virginia.’ 
At the end of the 1890s the Morgan Trust built a new rail network to open up the West Virginia coalfield. This led to a massive expansion of the industry: in 1867 West Virginia produced 489,000 tons of coal, in 1887 it produced 4,882,000 tons and in 1917 it produced 89,384,000 tons. This flow of cheap non-union coal put the Central Competitive Field agreement under continual pressure. As the UMW president, John Mitchell, pointed out to his members:
The strength of your union is not the best organised districts. Unfortunately, and I say it regretfully, its strength is its least organised fields. You cannot be permanently safe, you cannot rest in security until West Virginia, the Irwin field, the Connellsville and Meyersdale regions of Pennsylvania, are organised. 
Mitchell’s solution was not an organising drive to carry the union into the non-union fields, but a strategy of class collaboration, accepting wage cuts, deteriorating conditions and fragmenting agreements in the Central Competitive Field. This provoked a rank and file revolt that led to the political radicalisation of the union: at the 1908 UMW convention over 400 of the 1,000 delegates were members of the Socialist Party. The union determined to resist further encroachments on the Central Competitive Field agreement and also to make a determined effort to organise the non-union fields.
The attempt to break into the non-union fields produced bloody conflicts in both Colorado and West Virginia. In both states the UMW met with the most fierce resistance. Best known is the union’s battle with Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. On 20 April 1914 company guards and state militia attacked a union tent colony at Ludlow, killing three strikers and 13 women and children. One of the dead miners was the union organiser, Louis Tikas, who was captured by the militia, beaten and summarily executed. By the time the union admitted defeat, nearly 70 people had been killed in this conflict. 
Equally bloody was the conflict in West Virginia. Here the UMW had already achieved a foothold in Kanawha County but in April 1912 this came under attack when the mine companies refused to renew agreements. After a two month strike most gave in, but in Paint Creek and Cabin Creek where nearly 100 pits employed 7,500 miners the employers continued to resist. Here the mine companies employed the Baldwin-Felts agency to break the strike and precipitated a small scale war.  According to David Corbin in his classic study of the West Virginia miners, Life, Work and Rebellion in the Coal Fields:
Armed and organised, the striking miners unleashed their rage upon the Baldwin-Felts guards. They hid in the hills and sniped at individual guards, and squads of miners attacked companies of Baldwin-Felts men. In one instance, miners surrounded a camp of guards during the night, cleared away the underbrush, and silently waited till dawn. When the guards awoke and began preparing breakfast, the miners opened fire, killing 13 to 15 of them ... The miners blew up the tipples of operating mines and the trains carrying coal that had been mined by scabs. They met trains that were bringing strikebreakers to the strike zone and forced the potential scabs to evacuate – an action that often pitted black strikers against black strikebreakers and immigrant strikers against immigrant strikebreakers. The solidarity of black and white, Protestant and Catholic, immigrant and native miners was unbreakable.
Hatred of the company guards and private detectives was ferocious. The coffin of one Baldwin-Felts man was decorated with the sign: ‘GONE TO HELL. MORE TO GO. DAMNED THUGS’. And on another occasion Mother Jones, a powerful agitator in the union cause, held up a company guard’s bloodstained jacket and told the assembled miners that this was ‘the first time I ever saw a goddamned mine guard’s coat decorated to suit me’. 
Despite blanket court injunctions that made union activity illegal, the murderous activities of the Baldwin-Felts agents, the proclamation of martial law, intervention by the National Guard, mass arrests, the suppression of the socialist press and an attempted sell out by UMW officials, the miners emerged victorious. It was this tremendous struggle against all the odds that inspired a Wobbly, Ralph Chaplin, to write the union song Solidarity Forever. As he wrote at the time, ‘Solidarity is something more than a word in Kanawha County; it is a tremendous and spontaneous force – a force born in the hot heart of the class struggle.’ 
But while the union succeeded in consolidating its position in Kanawha County with 16,000 members, southern West Virginia – the counties of Mingo, Logan and McDowell – remained non-union, controlled by company guards, Baldwin-Felts agents and sheriff Don Chafin.
Clearly West Virginia was of crucial importance to the UMW. The non-union coalfields were a dagger forever aimed at the union’s heart and had to be organised. What this involved, however, was not a confrontation with backwoods mine companies, petty local tyrants who had never heard of industrial relations, but with corporate interests at the heart of American capitalism. Over 90 percent of the land in Mingo and Logan Counties was owned by outside interests. The powerful Mellon family owned mines in the area, but the dominant interest was the fiercely anti-union corporation, US Steel, that owned over 32,000 acres in Mingo and Logan and another 50,000 acres in McDowell. British companies also had extensive holdings. The fact was that southern West Virginia was not owned and controlled by local capitalists but by capitalists resident in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore and London. The decision to wage murderous war on the union was taken by these men.
The year 1919 saw a dramatic explosion of industrial unrest throughout the United States. Over 4 million workers were involved in 3,630 strikes. In February there was a general strike in Seattle. Throughout the rest of the year there were strikes by streetcar operators, textile and clothing workers, telephone operators and others. Then in September the Boston police went on strike. The decisive struggles, however, were the great steel strike that began in September and the great miners’ strike that began in November. The American ruling class responded to this explosion with a ‘red scare’ campaign and a drive for the ‘open’ or non-union shop.
The steel strike was, in Philip Foner’s phrase, ‘the pivotal industrial conflict in the post-war period’.  The American Federation of Labour reluctantly sponsored a National Committee for Organising Iron and Steel which co-ordinated a union recruitment campaign. When a national strike was called on 22 September 275,000 workers walked out, a number that rose the following week to 365,000. The employers, dominated by US Steel stood firm, refused to recognise the unions and resolved to starve and intimidate the strikers back to work. The strike began to crumble. By mid-December the number of workers still out had fallen to 100,000 and the strike was finally called off on 8 January 1920. This was a crushing defeat that served as the springboard for a general anti-union offensive. Between 1920 and 1923 union membership in the United States was to fall by 1.5 million. 
Discontent was also building up among the miners with a rash of unofficial strikes in the summer of 1919 and demands for a general strike to secure the release of Tom Mooney , a revolutionary socialist framed for a bombing in San Francisco in 1916. This unrest came to a head at the UMW convention in September when delegates voted to demand a six hour day, five day week (at that time miners worked an eight hour day and a six day week, so this would have required an 18 hour reduction) and a 60 percent wage increase. Failure to concede would result in a national strike on 1 November. Inevitably the Democrat president, Woodrow Wilson, sided with the employers and his attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, secured a court injunction preventing the UMW from implementing the strike decision. The union president, John L. Lewis, complied but on 1 November 394,000 soft coal miners walked out on strike regardless. On 8 November the court ordered the union to secure a return to work. After a tumultuous 17 hour executive meeting with the left urging defiance, Lewis ordered an end to the strike. The strike continued and it was not until the end of December that a general return to work had taken place. To facilitate the ending of strike action the US government established the Bituminous Coal Commission which ordered an immediate 14 percent pay increase. When the commission made its final award in March 1920 the average pay rise was 27 percent, but nothing was conceded on hours. This was certainly a partial victory but it failed to exploit to the full the opportunities offered by the militancy of the times. Moreover, continued unrest and widespread unofficial strikes throughout the summer of 1920 secured a further increase in August 1920 that put miners in the organised coalfields on $7.50 a day. 
What of the threat of the non-union fields? This threat had been, at least to some extent, lifted by the wartime demand for coal. It now returned with a vengeance. In Alabama the mine owners refused to implement the commission awards and instead imposed wage cuts. Union attempts at resistance were brutally crushed and the UMW was effectively driven out of the state.  What of West Virginia?
West Virginia UMW District 17, under the leadership of Frank Keeney and Fred Mooney, both socialists, had successfully consolidated its hold in the northern and western districts. By the end of 1918 they claimed a union membership of 22,000 out of a mine workforce of 100,000, uniting black and white, native and immigrant, in the face of the most brutal repression. According to Fred Mooney, the union had recruited ‘men from many countries. Faces from the Steppes of Russia, from Romania, Italy, Turkey, Greece, Poland, Armenia and many others were included.’ He helped organise a union local at Monogah ‘in which about 27 different languages were spoken’.  Racial barriers between black and white workers were broken down by the severity of their common exploitation and oppression. Although racism still infected the consciousness of some white miners, it was overlaid by the need for and achievement of working class unity. Black miners were elected onto District 17’s executive, appointed as organisers and served as officers of union locals (one local had a black president, vice-president and secretary). They were in the forefront of the fight against the mine owners. 
Throughout the 1919 strike ‘long coal trains rumbled every day from the southern Appalachians’, clearly identifying southern West Virginia as the ‘one major fault’ in the UMW’s national position.  Rank and file miners throughout the country demanded that the hold of the mine owners and their company guards be broken and the region organised. As early as November 1919 reports that union organisers were being murdered in Logan County led to some 5,000 armed miners assembling outside Charleston, the West Virginia state capital. They intended to liberate Logan, drive out the company guards and establish union control. District 17’s president, Frank Keeney, persuaded them to disperse. Nevertheless, the UMW was determined to establish itself throughout the state.
Early in 1920 the UMW began organising in Mingo County, using the independent town of Matewan, with its union mayor and chief of police, as a centre of operations. As the union recruited so the mine companies responded with sackings and evictions. What transformed the situation, however, was the unsuccessful attempt by Baldwin-Felts agents to take over Matewan. First Sid Hatfield was offered bribes to allow the agency to establish a guard post equipped with machine guns in the town and then on 19 May the attempt was made to kill him. Hatfield’s devastating victory ended the climate of fear maintained by the Baldwin-Felts agents and thousands of miners flooded into the union. By the end of June over 90 percent of the county’s miners were enrolled in 34 locals and the union’s state wide membership had risen to over 50,000. On 1 July the UMW called its members in Mingo County out on strike.
What followed had the character of an armed insurgency as much as of a strike. Throughout the county armed miners fought it out with company guards and state police, enforcing the closure of the mines. At Mohawk, for example, union delegations were sent into the town on three occasions to persuade the company to remove imported strikebreakers and close the mine. They were unsuccessful. On the fourth occasion hundreds of miners opened fire on the town from the surrounding hills until the company complied. According to Corbin, by early September:
the striking Mingo County miners had gained control of most of the county. The state police and company guards did not try to reopen the closed mines. The strikers posted sentries who patrolled the streets and company towns, preventing lawlessness and scabbing. Telephone repairmen were forced to ask the strikers’ permission to fix telephone lines that had been shot down during one of the gun battles. 
Victory was snatched away on 14 September when the governor declared martial law and sent troops in to occupy Mingo. The mine owners reopened the mines and imported strikebreakers, while the striking miners suffered a hard winter living in their tent colonies. A guerilla campaign continued throughout the winter months in which a number of soldiers were killed, but the union had lost the initiative and faced defeat by attrition. Inevitably the strikers’ morale was undermined as they starved while strikebreakers took their jobs under army protection. Keeney was determined that this should not happen and threatened to extend the strike throughout the whole West Virginia coalfield if the troops were not withdrawn. On 15 February the Governor gave in and the troops were pulled out. The miners now attempted to regain the initiative.
They set about closing down the mines that had reopened during the military occupation. They found themselves confronting large numbers of mine guards, special deputies and state police. A large scale confrontation took place at Merrimac in May. Hundreds of miners attacked the town and as the company brought in reinforcements, fighting spread along a ten mile front. The battle lasted three days and left at least 20 men dead. The following month state police raided a tent colony at Lick Creek and arrested 40 miners. Alex Breedlove, a black miner who had been one of the first men in Mingo to join the union, was singled out and summarily executed. News of this killing outraged union opinion. Clearly the UMW faced an uphill struggle.
Meanwhile pressure was building up for decisive action to support the Mingo miners. Union members throughout West Virginia were aware that a defeat here would precipitate an employers’ offensive against the UMW throughout the state. One incident brought this pressure to a head. Sid Hatfield, still a key figure in the union campaign in Mingo, had been charged with organising the attack on Mohawk the previous year and was due to appear in court in the town of Welch in McDowell County. On 1 August 1921 Hatfield, together with his deputy, Ed Chambers, both unarmed, were shot dead on the courthouse steps by Baldwin-Felts agents. Hatfield was shot 15 times when C.E. Lively walked over, in front of a crowd of onlookers, to finish him off with a bullet in the head. None of those responsible were ever brought to trial. When Hatfield was buried in Matewan 2,000 mourners followed his coffin.
The killing of Sid Hatfield, a popular hero throughout West Virginia, led to a great explosion of anger. On 7 August Keeney told a meeting of 3,000 miners in Charleston, ‘You have no recourse except to fight. The only way you can get your rights is with a high-powered rifle, and the man who does not have this equipment is not a good union man.’  Meetings were held throughout the organised areas and the miners were urged to assemble in arms at Lens Creek, ten miles south of Charleston on 20 August. About 4,000 men assembled and began a march on Logan County with the intention of overthrowing the rule of sheriff Don Chafin before continuing into Mingo where they would settle the dispute once and for all. Once the march got under way, numbers increased to over 15,000 men, not just miners but other workers as well, coming to strike a blow against the mine companies. According to one account:
The strikers constituted a fully fledged proletarian army, complete with a uniform consisting of overalls with a red bandanna, with red flags tied to their guns, a medical corps, and a variety of arms including one machine gun. Bill Blizzard, a union official, was ‘General’ of the army. 
The marchers, who included some 2,000 ex-soldiers, were formed into disciplined units, many of them commanded by former officers from a variety of armies. They effectively took control of the area from south of Charleston up to the mountain range surrounding Logan and Mingo Counties.
Meanwhile in Logan County sheriff Don Chafin, the local Democratic Party boss who ran the county on behalf of the mine owners, prepared to resist the invasion. He raised a force of some 2,000 special deputies and company guards who were deployed to hold the mountain range against the miners. Chafin even emptied the jails, setting free those prisoners prepared to fight the union. At least one prisoner, a bricklayer named Comiskey, arrested carrying an IWW card, was shot dead on the spot when he refused to take part. 
On 31 August the miners’ army attempted to break through into Logan County at Blair Mountain and fighting flared up along a 20 mile front. Chafin hired private aircraft to drop bombs on the miners’ camps. Slowly the miners pressed forward in a series of outflanking attacks until they had captured half the mountain ridge. It was only a matter of hours before Chafin’s army disintegrated. On 3 September the day was saved by the arrival of over 2,000 US troops sent in by President Harding. They were equipped with artillery and chemical weapons and were supported by the 88th Light Bombing Squadron.  They found Chafin and his lieutenants blind drunk. Coincidentally, Harding’s secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, one of the richest men in America, was himself a substantial mine owner in Mingo and Logan Counties.
The union army retreated and dispersed. The attempt to organise southern West Virginia had failed. How many men were killed in the march on Logan and the battle for Blair Mountain is not known. The official estimate was four, but both sides deliberately concealed their casualties and buried their dead in secret. The union’s defeat was now followed by a legal offensive. Between September and October 1921 grand juries in Logan County brought in 1,217 indictments for complicity in the insurrection including 325 charges of murder and 24 indictments for treason. Hundreds of miners including Keeney, Mooney and Blizzard were thrown into jail. The trials were held in the courthouse where John Brown had been convicted in 1859. Blizzard was singled out as an example but after a trial lasting over a month he was acquitted in May 1922. The great majority of charges were later dismissed but two miners, a baptist minister, the Reverend J.E. Wilbur, and his son, were convicted of murder for shooting a special deputy. The last case was not heard until 1924. Writing 50 years later, Art Shields, a socialist journalist who had reported the march on Logan County, summed up ‘the biggest armed struggle in US labour history’:
It was a grass-roots movement, to use an old phrase. It was a movement of men united by strong class feelings. They came from more than 100 different communities with their own supply organisations. The march demonstrated some of the creative qualities of a militant working class that will in time take power. And it left behind a feeling of pride that persists after 50 years. 
The harsh reality of the situation in southern West Virginia was that the employers’ determination to resist union organisation was so great they were prepared to mobilise on a scale the miners could not hope to defeat. The intervention of the army in September 1921 made clear that the mine owners’ uncompromising stand against the UMW had the full backing of the capitalist state. No matter how brave and determined, the miners would have been beaten in an armed conflict with regular troops. This does not mean that defeat was inevitable. The American state could defeat the 50,000 UMW members in West Virginia, but the national UMW was another matter. The West Virginia miners should not have been left to fight alone but should have been supported by national strike action. This was not an empty pipedream.
On 1 April 1922 ‘the largest single coal miners’ strike in United States’ history’ began.  Some 600,000 miners walked out on strike in opposition to proposed wage cuts and in support of union recognition. Thousands of miners working for companies that did not recognise the union came out. This became the central issue of the dispute because of recognition that the union’s long term survival depended on organising the non-union fields. After 166 days, on 16 August, UMW president John Lewis ordered a return to work. The $7.50 a day had been safeguarded but the question of union recognition was conceded. Those thousands of miners who had walked out of non-union mines were left to fight alone and to secure whatever terms they could. This was a disaster. Lewis’s betrayal of the 1922 strike was to condemn the UMW to fight a losing war of attrition throughout the 1920s as the unorganised fields succeeded in undermining the organised. By 1928 UMW membership nationally had fallen to 80,000 with Illinois the only area where it had any real strength. Lewis fought off all rank and file challenges to his leadership by a strategy of red baiting, corruption, ballot rigging and gangsterism. 
For the miners of West Virginia the 1922 strike was too late. The organising campaign in the southern counties had been defeated and the mine owners followed up their victory by driving the union out of the rest of the state. By 1925 union membership was down to 10,000 of whom over 7,000 were unemployed. The unity between black and white miners was in serious danger as the Ku Klux Klan made headway within the union, a consequence of defeat.  The UMW both locally and nationally, was not to recover from these defeats until the great explosion of labour unrest in the 1930s. 
John Sayles’s film Matewan is a marvellous celebration of working class solidarity and courage in the face of the most brutal employers. It focuses on the rank and file experience of the 1920 strike with the intention of inspiring similar solidarity and courage among the working class today. This is to be wholeheartedly welcomed.
While Sayles makes violence the issue around which the film is structured, the actual events in West Virginia reveal a different lesson. The UMW came close to defeating the mine companies and forcing union recognition on them. This was despite the murderous activities of the company guards and private detectives. What turned the tide was the intervention of the federal government and the arrival of troops and bomber aircraft to crush the miners’ army at Blair Mountain. Victory was still possible. National action by the UMW and solidarity action from other unions could still have won the day. Instead the struggle remained localised and despite all their courage, sacrifice and endurance, the miners went down to defeat in West Virginia.
1. H.B. Lee, Bloodletting in Appalachia (Morganstown, West Virginia 1969), pp. 55–56.
2. Ibid., p. 57.
3. R.L. Lewis, Black Coal Miners in America (Lexington, Kentucky 1987), p. 164.
4. J. Hillier, The New Hollywood (London 1993), p. 47.
5. Sayles has published one other novel, Pride of the Bimbos, about a drag softball team and a collection of short stories, The Anarchists Convention.
6. J. Sayles, Thinking In Pictures (Boston 1987), pp. 9–11. This is Sayles’s own account of the making of Matewan and includes the screenplay.
7. Ibid., pp. 16–17.
8. D.P. Jordan, The Mingo War: Labor Violence in the Southern West Virginia Coal Fields 1919–1922, in G.M. Fink and M.E. Reed (eds.), Essays in Southern Labor History (Westport, Connecticut 1976), p. 119.
9. S. Brier, A History Film Without Much History, Radical History Review 41 (1988), pp. 123, 125. Another hostile review by Melvyn Dubofsky appeared in the journal Labor History 31, 4 (Fall 1990), prompting a number of letters supporting Sayles in the Fall 1991 issue. For sympathetic reviews of the film see in particular P.S. Foner, Matewan: The story behind the movie, Political Affairs (January 1988) and R. Lewis, Matewan, Journal of American History 75 (1988).
10. J. Sayles, op. cit., p. 34.
11. J.P. Johnson, The Politics of Soft Coal (Urbana, Illinois 1979), p. 26.
12. D. Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labour (New York 1987), p. 342.
13. A.F. Hinrichs, The United Mine Workers of America and the Non-Union Coal Fields (New York 1923), p. 119.
14. See Z. Papanikolas, Buried Unsung: Louis Takas and the Ludlow Massacre (Lincoln, Nebraska 1991).
15. The Baldwin-Felts agency had been established in the 1890s and was fast used to strikebreak in the West Virginia coalfield in 1902. See R.M. Hadsell and W.E. Coffey, From Law and Order to Class Warfare: Baldwin-Felts Detectives in the Southern West Virginia Coal Field, West Virginia History 4 (Spring 1979). The professional strikebreaker or ‘fink’, whether working as a spy or strongarm man was very much an American phenomenon. Studs Terkel gives a good indication of the hatred with which finks were regarded in his autobiography, recalling his days working in agit-prop theatre in the 1930s: ‘A union hall. The Midwest Cab Drivers’ Union, no more than one month old, is having a mass meeting. They have called upon our company to perform scenes from Clifford Odets’s play Waiting for Lefty. It is highly appropriate, dealing as it does with a cab drivers’ strike. Its locale is poetically enough a union hall. Something happens this evening wholly unplanned. In the play, a striker exposes his brother as a fink. The actor, portraying the fink, runs off the stage, through the aisle, and out. On this occasion, he doesn’t quite make it. The realism is too much for the striking cabbies in the audience. Several reach out and clobber the unfortunate actor. I, playing the role of his brother, holler, "Don’t slug him, don’t slug him, he’s only an actor!"’ From Studs Terkel, Talking To Myself (London 1986), p. 120.
16. D. Corbin, Life, Work and Rebellion in the Coal Fields (Urbana, Illinois 1981), pp. 90–91. This is a volume in the University of Illinois Press’s excellent The Working Class in American History series which is unfortunately not distributed in this country.
17. Ibid., p. 91.
18. P.S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States: Postwar Struggles 1918–1920 (New York,1988), p. 148.
19. For the 1919 steel workers’ strike see D. Brody, Labor in Crisis: The Steel Strike of 1919 (New York 1965).
20. Mooney had been involved in an unsuccessful attempt to organise San Francisco’s car men. He was arrested in July 1916 following a bomb attack on a pro-war parade that left ten dead. Despite 12 witnesses and conclusive photographic evidence proving he was elsewhere, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. A campaign was launched to save his life with demonstrations taking place in over 40 cities on ‘Mooney Day’, 28 July 1918. An [un]successful attempt was made to call a general strike on 9 December 1918. The protest did save his life with the sentence being commuted to life imprisonment. The campaign to secure his release continued throughout the 1920s and 1930s. He was finally released in January 1939, returning to San Francisco at the head of a celebratory parade and going on to address a rally of 25,000 people. See R.H. Frost, The Mooney Case (Stanford, California 1968).
21. For a discussion of Lewis’s role see P.S. Foner, op. cit., pp. 146–148.
22. In Alabama nearly 80 percent of the UMW’s members were black. For the 1920 strike see R. Straw, The United Mine Workers of America and the 1920 Coal Strike in Alabama, Alabama Review 18 (April 1975), and G. Feldman, Labour Repression in the American South: Corporations, State and Race in Alabama’s Coal Fields 1917–1921, Historical Journal 37, 2 (June 1994).
23. F. Mooney, Struggle in the Coal Fields (Morganstown, West Virginia 1967), p. 60.
24. D. Corbin, op. cit., pp. 76–79; R.L. Lewis, op. cit., pp. 156–164. For a more sceptical view of relations between black and white miners in West Virginia, see J.W. Trotter, Coal, Class and Color (Urbana, Illinois 1990), pp. 105–115. For the UMW and black miners generally, see H. Gutman’s essay, The Negro and the United Mine Workers of America, which is collected in his Work, Culture and Society in Industrializing America (Oxford 1977). This essay has been the subject of a heated academic exchange: H. Hill, Myth-Making as Labor History: Herbert Gutman and the United Mine Workers of America, Politics, Culture and Society 2, 2 (Winter 1988), and S. Brier, In Defence of Gutman: The Union’s Case, Politics, Culture and Society 2, 3 (Spring 1989).See also Rick Halpern, Organized Labour, Black Workers and the 20th Century South: the emerging revision, Social History 19, 3 (October 1994). For an excellent overview of the question of black and white working class unity, see L. Sustar, The Roots of Multi-racial Labour Unity in the United States, International Socialism 63 (Summer 1994).
25. L. Savage, Thunder in the Mountains (Pittsburgh 1990), p. 14.
26. D. Corbin, op. cit., p. 204.
27. Ibid., p. 217.
28. H.N. Wheeler, Mountaineer Mine Wars: An Analysis of the West Virginia Mine Wars of 1912–13 and 1920–21, Business History Review 50 (Spring 1976), p. 80.
29. H.B. Lee, op. cit., pp. 99–100; L Savage, op. cit., pp. 140–141.
30. M. Maurer and C. Senning, Billy Mitchell, The Air Service and The Mingo War, West Virginia History 38 (1968), p. 343. Mitchell told a reporter that if the UMW army did not disperse, ‘We’d drop teargas all over the place ... then we’d open up with artillery preparation and everything’.
31. P.S. Foner, op. cit., p. 227.
32. M. Dubofsky and W. Van Tine, John L. Lewis (New York 1977), p. 82.
33. John L. Lewis is probably the most remarkable opportunist in international, let alone US, labour history. One recent study of the UMW assesses his career up to 1933: ‘His years in office to that point had been filled with the almost virtual destruction of the United Mine Workers ... It had lost its contracts, its wage scales, its membership. Its once great treasury, the pride of America’s unions, was thin and insecure. It had no strength to resist the operators, who could even count on the support of Lewis himself when they needed it. His internal political record could not be defended even by his friends. No man was permitted to defy him. Those who fought him could face almost sure expulsion from the union. Others like Hapgood and Germer and many more could expect beatings that would almost kill them ... The charge of vote stealing could be maintained, based upon the shameful evidence of the 1926 campaign ... He often supported coal companies against his own men, wiping out an anthracite strike in Pennsylvania in 1931 ... He was regularly called one of the most reactionary men in American labour, with no program, no vision, no concept of the future’, J. Finley, The Corrupt Kingdom (New York 1972), pp. 73–74. This reactionary union boss was to go on to become one of the leaders of the great working class revolt of the 1930s, beginning with a campaign to rebuild the UMW in 1933. He was the architect of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). No one could better exemplify the ability of the union bureaucrat to face left in order to remain at the head of the movement. Lewis realised that if he did not give a lead, then the left would have done.
34. P.S. Foner, Organised Labor and the Black Worker 1619–1973 (New York 1973), pp. 169–170.
35. For the great revolt see A. Preiss, Labor’s Giant Step (New York 1972), and I. Bernstein, Turbulent Years (Boston 1971).
Last updated: 7.4.2012