By Sophie Muller
Aug 25th – Sep 2nd marks the 101st anniversary of The Battle of Blair Mountain, a fight for fair unionization for coal laborers in West Virginia and the largest labor uprising in U.S. history. This battle goes down in history as the largest armed conflict on American soil since the Civil War, and was a turning point for coal miners and mine working conditions.
The Battle of Blair Mountain was a period culminated after years of anger and violence that stemmed from the United Mine Workers of America’s struggle to unionize West Virginia’s coal country. And as the coal industry tried to stifle the rising support for unionization, southern West Virginia’s political climate became more and more turbulent. In the weeks leading up to the battle, many union leaders were thrown in jail without grounds for arrest. Miners who had spent over two decades fighting for their rights to unionize were fed up with the unjust precedent for laborers in the coal industry, and began to march on Mingo County in southern West Virginia.
On their way to Mingo County, the miners were intercepted at Blair Mountain by an anti-union army, and for five days pro-union miners fought against anti-union forces (who were paid by local politicians and coal companies alike to put an end to union supporters). The fight only ended when the U.S. army arrived, because many pro-union fighters refused to fire at the troops.
The short term repercussions of the battle were devastating. Many miners who had fought to unionize were jailed for murder charges and treason, and coal labor membership dropped by tens of thousands of workers. The coal industry appeared victorious.
But The Battle of Blair Mountain had brought to attention the appalling conditions that coal miners were forced to work under, and helped union supporters realize that change could only occur when the law was in their favor. The battle occurred in 1921, and in 1933, twelve years later, the New Deal helped orchestrate a much larger organized labor victory.
Now, over a century later, we can’t forget that part of the reason we have good working environments and supportive unions is in part due to the brave miners who were willing to sacrifice everything to fight for their right to safe and fair working conditions. The Battle of Blair Mountain is such an important moment in history and for Appalachia, and it’s just as important to remember it. But the fight is not over yet—due to the passing of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, there are a lot of federal dollars coming our way, and ReImagine Appalachia is working with our labor partners to make sure these go into creating good-paying, long-term, family sustaining jobs. Those at the Battle of Blair Mountain fought for crucial workers’ rights and we can honor them by creating 21st century labor standards, community benefit agreements, and implementing prevailing wages. All while mitigating the effects of climate change!
Watch our webinar from last year that celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain featuring Phil Smith, Director of Government Affairs, United Mine Workers of America, Myya Helm, summer research associate at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, and Stephen Herzenberg, Keystone Research Center economist and Co-Director of ReImagine Appalachia , and Hannah Halbert, Executive Director of Policy Matters Ohio.