The Battle Ground of Coal

OCTOBER, 1922

BY JAMES M. CAIN

I

As you leave the Ohio River at Kenova, and wind down the Norfolk and Western Railroad beside the Big Sandy and Tug rivers, you come into a section where there is being fought the bitterest and most unrelenting war in modern industrial history. The country furnishes a suitable setting. Rocky hills, small mountains, rise on each side. They are gashed by ‘creeks’; looking up these, you see that the wild region extends for miles back from the railroad. There is no soft, mellow outline about these hills. They are sharp and jagged; about their tops grows a stunted, scraggly forest. Their color is raw: glaring reds and yellows, hard, waterstreaked grays. Here and there you see the blue-black ribbon of coal.

In this untamed section of West Virginia two tremendous forces have staked out a battle ground. These are the United Mine Workers of America and the most powerful group of nonunion coal-operators in the country. It is a battle to the bitter end; neither side asks quarter, neither side gives it. It is a battle for enormous stakes, on which money is lavished; it is fought through the courts, through the press, with matching of sharp wits to secure public approval. But more than this, it is actually fought with deadly weapons on both sides; many lives have already been lost; many may yet be forfeited.

As the train carries you southeastward, you see some signs of it. You pass many coal mines, and some of these are closed down. At the stations, pairs of men in military uniform scrutinize all who alight. These are the West Virginia State Police; a strong force of them is on duty here, for bloodshed became so frequent that one of these counties, Mingo, was placed under martial law. You pass occasional clusters of tents — squalid, wretched places, where swarms of men, women, and children are quartered. Everywhere you are sensible of an atmosphere of tension, covert alertness, sinister suspicion. It is not by accident that these State policemen appear always in pairs.

If you get off the train at Williamson, county seat of Mingo, you will be at the fighting front. People there will tell you that this struggle has been going on for three years. They will tell you of the bloody day at Matewan, May 1920, when ten men, including the mayor of the town, fell in a pistol battle that lasted less than a minute.

They will tell you of guerrilla warfare that went on for months; how Federal troops had to be called in twice. They will tell you of the ‘three days’ battle,’ which resulted, in May, 1921, in the declaration of martial law. Union partisans will tell you of the exercises on May 30 last, when the graves of a score of union fallen were decorated with all the ceremony accorded soldiers who have died for the flag. The operators will tell you of attacks from ambush: how their men have been shot down from behind; how witnesses for trials were mysteriously killed before they could testify. The atrocity list and quantity of propaganda give this war quite an orthodox flavor. It is very hard to sift out the truth.

II

Back in 1898, when the coal industry was quite as unsettled as it is now, the union and the big operators evolved a working plan to stabilize conditions and equalize opportunity. This was the conference in the Central Competitive Field, whereby a wage scale was arrived at for this region, and scales in all other union districts were computed by using this scale as a basis and making allowances for different operating conditions, freight rates, and so forth. This was in order to give all districts an equal chance at the market. Coal is probably the most fluid commodity sold: coal from one section competes with coal from another section remote from the first. It is not analogous to a trade-marked article, for which an arbitrary price can be obtained by advertising campaigns and kindred methods. No amount of advertising can make coal of a given grade from one section outsell the same grade from another section at a higher price. This peculiarity of the coal market was the reason for the basic wage-scale arrangement which gave all districts as nearly equal chances as possible, and precluded the possibility that a miscalculated rate might put whole mining fields out of business altogether.

The plan worked fairly well for a time. Within a few years, however, it was discovered that large new areas of coal lands had been developed, and that most of these were being worked with nonunion labor. They had been left out of the original calculation, largely because the existence of such large virgin fields was not known until after the opening of the present century. Some of them were in Pennsylvania, but most, and by far the largest, were in southern West Virginia. Employing nonunion labor, they worked at a lower wage-scale than the union areas, and had become a formidable factor in the industry, for they were underselling union coal constantly. In the years just preceding the war, their effect on the market — and particularly the greater number of days their labor worked during the year — had become definitely noticeable. During the war, there was demand for everybody’s coal, and there was no pinch then. The pinch came, however, in the year following the peace.

In 1919, there was a big strike, and the country saw that the nonunion mines had become a big factor in the industry. During the six weeks of that strike, the nonunion mines averaged about 4,000,000 tons of coal a week, and the bulk of this came from southern West Virginia. There was a demand for much more than 4,000,000 tons; but it was clear, too, that these fields were capable of much greater production, had transportation been available. The chaos incidental to government control of the railroads precluded an adequate car-supply, and so production was retarded; but the potential strength, the strategic position of these fields, had been demonstrated.

In 1919, even before the strike, the union had realized the necessity of getting into southern West Virginia. Early in that year, it began to send organizers into Logan County, one of the most important in the whole area. It encountered a stone wall. For when these fields were opened (which was only about twenty years ago), the operators there had determined that they were not going to be hampered by the union. In this determination they were doubtless reinforced by big subsidiaries of the United States Steel Corporation, — the great antiunion capitalist group in this country, — which had acquired large holdings in several of these counties. To keep out the union, they had developed a system of ‘ mine guards,’ or ‘ private detectives.’ The duty of these guards was, ostensibly, to protect property, but, in fact, to maintain an armed barrier to the union. The operators discharged all employees suspected of union leanings, and compelled all others to take oath that they would never join a labor organization. It was a rule of iron, backed by pistols and rifles, and it worked. The union had never obtained even a foothold in the big southern West Virginia field, including Logan, Mingo, McDowell, Wyoming, Raleigh, and Mercer counties.

It was this system the union met when it tried to organize Logan. In this county there was a slight variation. Back in 1912, Don Chafin, the legendary sheriff of Logan, had done away with the private-mine-guards system, but had substituted one of his own that was in all essential respects the same. The guards were sworn in as deputy sheriffs, but they were still paid out of an operators’ pool, and their duties included ejection of union sympathizers. When the union entered Logan, its organizers were beaten, its members were discharged, evicted from their homes, and made to leave the the county. Its meetings were broken up.

Finally, word came over the hills that women and children friendly to the union were being murdered. The report was not true, but a thousand or more union miners gathered at Lens Creek, about fifteen miles from Charleston, the state capital, and marched on Logan. They were halted by Governor John J. Cornwell and C. Frank Keeney, president of District 17, United Mine Workers. Governor Cornwell promised the men an investigation, and kept his word. A volume of startling testimony was compiled, and there was a wide demand that something be done. Governor Cornwell asked the legislature to act; so did the next governor, E. F. Morgan; but the legislature has done nothing, and the mine-guard system is still in effect.

And the union had failed to organize Logan. Next, in 1920, it struck at Mingo. It encountered the same obstacles here; but the resistance was not so effective, for Mingo is on the Kentucky border, and is easier of access than Logan. The union quickly got a foothold. Some of the county officers saw that its meetings were not disturbed, and locals were organized. The union demanded a wage conference with the operators, and, when they were refused, called their men out on strike.

Then the operators acted. They began to evict union miners from their homes (for in a coal camp the company owns homes, stores, churches, Y.M.C.A., and everything else). A party of Baldwin Felts detectives went to Matewan, to evict miners, and the big shooting ensued. Evictions went on, however, and as fast as the miners’ families were ‘set out,’the union lodged them in tents. Within a short time there were some five thousand persons under canvas. They have been there ever since. The union feeds them, clothes them, and buries their dead. They sit by the Tug River, watching the coal trains pass on the railroad, flotsam cast up by the backwash of a mighty struggle, pathetically loyal to a cause of which they understand nothing.

‘It’s kinda slow-like,’ they will tell you, ‘and sometimes a fellow don’t hardly know what to do to pass the time. Some of the boys fishes a little, and some of the women raises a few chickens and gardens around, on’y you cain’t raise much on them mountains, like-a-that. But most of the time we jest set around and talk about when they ’re a-goin’ to sign up.’

Then came the guerrilla warfare. Recall that these people, who were being evicted by thousands, were the same who had become such picturesque characters in popular fiction. For two centuries they had been frontiersmen; they had interbred and lived to themselves so much that there had come into being an atrophied race, a weaker strain of American stock. It was inevitable that they should furnish the labor for the mines. Nevertheless, although to the eye they seemed a singularly shiftless type of poor whites, they had high spirit of a sort. They were capable of cherishing life-long feuds. In the prosecution of these they had a most peculiar code, and resorted quickly to the rifle, whether the enemy was a family inheritance or a federal revenue officer looking for moonshine stills. The evictions aroused their bitterest resentment, and in these circumstances atavism was predominant. Shootings and reprisals became the regular order of the day and night, whether union officials or coal-operators sanctioned them or not.

Federal troops came and went, and came and went a second time. Their departure both times was the signal for renewed violence until, in May, 1921, Governor Morgan proclaimed martial law.

The state martial-law commandant forthwith promulgated a set of regulations. The union was given so many days a week in which to visit its tent colonies. There were to be no meetings, and it was decreed that three or more union men gathered together would constitute a meeting. For violation of this last fantastic order, scores of union men were jailed. The union fields to the north, as in 1919, were thrown into a state of seething indignation. Then Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers, two union sympathizers, were shot dead by Baldwin Felts detectives at Welch, in McDowell County (August 1, 1921). The volcano went into full eruption. The march of 1919 was reënacted, on a scale three times as large, and with the additional object of going through Logan to Mingo and liberating the prisoners in the jail there. The marchers were turned back once by Keeney. Two days later, however, two union miners were killed and three others wounded by Logan deputies and State Police.

The miners reassembled, and whereas, at first, they had numbered hundreds, they now numbered thousands. At Blair Mountain, in Logan County, the mob was met by a force gathered to defend Logan, and a three-day battle was fought. The operators hired four airplanes, and bombed the miners. Both sides used machine guns; both sides had a number of men killed. Civil war had broken out afresh. It did not stop until two thousand Federal troops were sent in on September 3.

This aroused the public again, but the thing was quickly forgotten, and, except for a Senatorial investigation, nothing was done. The union, moreover, now had Mingo on its hands. It was hampered by a set of regulations more effective than all the mine guards it had ever encountered. For, however they were intended, the martial-law rules worked to preserve the status quo, and the status quo was precisely what the operators wanted. The tent colonies became a heavy drain on the treasury. The union has spent on them in the two years of their existence not less than $1,500,000 (the figure is probably over $2,000,000). The money is the smallest part of the tent-colony story; however, these staggering figures suggest the iron determination of the union to get into these fields; suggest, too, the magnitude of the issues it thinks are at stake. At present, it is absolutely stalled in Mingo; yet it is hanging on desperately, pouring out money there at the rate of $11,000 a week. At first it was $25,000.

III

What happened during the 1922 strike makes it clear that it is a life-and-death matter for the union to get into these fields. There was probably never a strike when the union shutdown in its areas was so complete; union miners to the number of more than 600,000 walked out and stayed out. Yet the first week of the strike, with consumption averaging 8,000,000 tons a week, there were mined 3,784,000 tons. In the next few weeks the price began to climb; it soon became profitable for every little mine in the nonunion area to start up. Mile-long trains of coal gondolas began to groan and creak around the bends in the Tug River, past the idle staring tent colonies; began to come out of the Winding Gulf, the great Pocahontas field. The weekly production rose. It passed the 4,000,000 mark, the 4,250,000 mark, the 4,500,000 mark.

Finally, by the end of June, it had passed the 5,000,000 mark, and the great mine-strike was hardly 40 per cent effective. It was fortunate for the miners, but quite fortuitous, that the strike of the railroad shopmen came on July 1. Again, transportation was a factor; the physical equipment of the carriers deteriorated so quickly that they could not supply coal cars, and prodaction slumped sharply. It fell away below the 4,000,000 mark weekly, and, with reserve stocks already depleted, there was a crisis which brought the situation to a head and gave the miners an advantage they could not have secured otherwise. But the lesson was as plain as in 1919: the nonunion fields could practically break any strike henceforth, and the Gibraltar of the nonunion fields was southern West Virginia. These West Virginia fields mine more than a third of the tonnage for the whole country; and, leaving out of consideration the locally consumed output of small fields in the South and West, they produced much more than half the coal available for general distribution.

It would be a mistake, however, to consider the union’s position only with reference to its effectiveness in time of strike. These fields are a menace to it in time of work as well. For the nonunion mines always have work, boom times or slack. If times are good, demand brisk, then all operators can sell their coal, the nonunion along with the rest. If times are bad and prices slump, then the union operator closes down, for there is a price below which he cannot afford to run his mine. The nonunion operator then gets the orders that might have gone to the union mine, for his costs are lower, and he can sell cheaper. The price that closes his mine is much lower than that which closes the union mine.

This is not theorizing. It is precisely what happens — what happened during the past year. In the union field of Allegany County, Maryland, for example, operators could not afford to run their mines. They offered the union miners work if they would take less pay. In view of the principle of 1898, the union held that this would be in violation of other contracts, and would not permit it. There was no strike, but there was no work; privation and suffering were widespread. Yet the operators who could not run their own mines, having contracts to fill, bought coal in the nonunion fields of Connellsville and Somerset, Pennsylvania, and filled their contracts more cheaply than they could, have done by mining the coal themselves.

Most often, the way it works out is not so easy to trace as this. The union mine, unable to sell at the price offered, closes down and its men lose a day. The nonunion mine, able to sell at a lower price, can accept its orders. Its men do not lose a day.

All this can be checked up by a glance at government tabulations of the average number of working days to the year in union and nonunion fields. In 1916, the year just before the war, the average number of working days in three wholly-union states was: Ohio, 197, Indiana, 187, Illinois, 198. The average for three nonunion states was: Georgia, 280, New Mexico, 292, Alabama, 262. The partly union state of Pennsylvania averaged 259; the partly union state of West Virginia, 237. In 1920, which was another fairly typical year, the averages were as follows: (union) Ohio, 188, Indiana, 192, Illinois, 213; (nonunion) Georgia, 294, New Mexico, 302; Alabama, 247; (partly union) Pennsylvania, 244, West Virginia, 198.

Statistics for 1921, one of the worst years the industry ever knew, have not been completed. The tendency, however, may be traced by the current weekly bulletins issued by the Geological Survey for that year. These bulletins include an estimate as to the percentage of full-time production attained by mines in various districts. The reports are divided by fields, hence it is not necessary to examine partly-union figures, as is the case when returns are made only by states.

For the week ending June 4, 1921, when the market had entered the second slump of the year, the percentage of full-time output was as follows: (union) Ohio, 25.5, Indiana 34.8, Illinois, 37; (nonunion, in West Virginia) Winding Gulf field, 68.9, Pocahontas, 52.9, Logan, 55.6, KenovaThacker, 53, Tug River, 74.2. This relative activity continued, with the union fields gradually gaining ground, until October, when the peak for the year was reached. Percentages of fulltime output for the week ending October 22 stood: (union) Ohio, 47.8, Indiana, 55.9, Illinois, 62.4; (nonunion, in West Virginia) Winding Gulf, 65.5, Pocahontas, 63.7, Logan, 62.9, Kenova-Thacker, 44.3, Tug River, 55.1. From then to the end of the year, production in the union fields fell off sharply, as the market went into another slump, with the nonunion fields holding their own, now and then gaining a little. Nonunion mines supplied a large proportion of the coal used last year, for the reason that they were the only ones which could afford to run. The union miner has come to such a pass that, even though paid at a reasonable rate, he is starving to death because he cannot get work. And the net result is that not only the union itself, but unionism as an idea, an economic scheme, is getting the blame for this condition. The union faces the most persistent fight against it that it has ever known — a fight no less in earnest because it usually appears under the guise of agitation for the open shop. The union is literally on the defensive for its very existence.

IV

From the foregoing, it would seem, indeed, that the nonunion fields are far more soundly organized than the union, and that the solution of the problem lies in putting the whole country on a nonunion basis. This is just what the operators are trying to prove. Not only the nonunion operators, but the union operators as well, distribute this sort of propaganda; newspaper offices are flooded with it. Yet it is clear that the argument of the operators is valid only in a superficial sense, even though present conditions lend it considerable plausibility. For obviously the prosperity of the nonunion fields prevails, not through any superiority of nonunionism per se, but from the artificial advantage they have on account of their lower wage-expense. One third of the industry, the nonunion, works at one level of costs; the other two thirds, the union, work at a higher level; and all slumps and reverses are born by the less fortunate two thirds. At the first sign of hard times, they are stranded high and dry, while the nonunion fields still feel the pulse of business — a bit slow, perhaps, but enough to sustain life.

It would be a step back to the Dark Ages to put the whole country on a nonunion basis. No sooner would this be done than there would begin a cut-throat hammering of wages on the part of every operators’ association in the country. It would be forced on them. If coal mined in Pennsylvania, with 70 cents a ton, say, as a wagebasis, began seriously underselling coal from Indiana, which might have 75 cents as a basis, Indiana operators would have to cut wages to survive. Pennsylvania, to retain its advantage, would cut wages in return; and so the thing would go on.

When you recall that coal from every big section competes with coal from every other big section, you can get an idea where this sort of thing would lead. The miner would be reduced almost to peonage, and the troubles of the industry would be multiplied a hundredfold.

Nor is the regional wage-agreement plan, recently advocated by the operators, much better. Indeed, this looks suspiciously like a move to divide the union against itself and thus pave the way for the end.

The trouble with this plan is that it allows independent agreements to be arrived at between operators and union representatives in a given section, whereby that section may enjoy a temporary prosperity comparable to that of the nonunion fields at present. Then the operators and union heads in another section will agree on an underselling scale, and this section will be prosperous while the first section will be stranded.

There is a point below which district presidents of the union would hardly dare go with this sort of thing; so the plan might work better than no union at all; but it is apparent that it holds unlimited possibilities for sharp dealing, and for disorganization of the business more serious than that which obtains at present. It should be borne in mind that subordinate union leaders, under pressure in their communities, are often willing to make clever bargains with the operators, and have to be restrained by international headquarters. But the trouble is that this kind of dealing, if carried on long, would inevitably bring the miner to a more degraded living than he has reached at present.

With these palpable defects in the nonunion and the regional-agreement schemes, there is one plan left, — short of a big government corporation to run all coal mines, — which promises some sort of solution. This is to put the whole country on a union basis, and give all operators an equal chance at the market, and all miners an equal chance at regular work.

There is probably no Federal agency that could compel this; it is questionable, indeed, whether it would be wise to try to accomplish it by government agencies. Yet it could be accomplished if there were sufficiently insistent public demand that the armed-guard system, by which the union is forcibly kept out of the nonunion fields, be abolished. With the public more and more inclined to think of coal as a national problem, a sort of public utility, it is less and less inclined to put up with the amazing mediæval methods whereby the nonunion operators maintain their advantage. It is their declaration that they are opposed to unionism as a principle; that their labor does not want it; that they are splendidly isolated and intend to remain so. Their reason, in fact, is that under the nonunion system their coal mines have become gold mines; their object in keeping out the union is money, and nothing else. Their labor joins the union whenever it gets a chance. When it becomes more generally known that this sort of industrial feudalism is what is wrong with the coal business, more than any other single defect, then the public may voice a persistent demand that it be abolished.

V

In West Virginia, the union, of a sudden, has a chance to profit by the greatest blow that has been dealt unionism in years, that is—the Coroñado decision. This makes unions liable to suit, but it also gives them the right to sue. There is a law in West Virginia which prohibits private payment of deputy sheriffs. It carries no penalty, and has always been considered a dead letter. But it now becomes possible for the union to go into court as a plaintiff, and invoke the old bête noir of labor, the injunction proceeding, to prohibit such a system as is maintained in Logan County, and, on a lesser scale, in several other West Virginia counties. That is, it might ask the court to enjoin payment of deputies by the Logan sheriff, out of the operators’ pool. It might also ask the court to enjoin mine guards from interference with union meetings and union organizers. Its attorneys, indeed, are considering such a step now. If it should succeed, and the union could get its organizers into southern West Virginia, then the unionizing of these fields would be virtually accomplished. And if this end could be attained peaceably, the long war in West Virginia might be ended, to the great advantage of the coal business all over the country.