Coal Reignites A Mighty Battle Of Labor History In 1921, 15,000 coal miners took on the most powerful coal companies in West Virginia for the right to unionize. Today, there's a new battle brewing over the site of the battle — whether to preserve it or blast it apart for coal.

Coal Reignites A Mighty Battle Of Labor History

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GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

What's happening in Wisconsin may be a big turning point for organized labor in America. It's not yet clear whether Governor Scott Walker's plan to end state workers' collective bargaining power will destroy the unions in the state, or whether it'll actually re-energize them both in Wisconsin and nationally. What is clear is that we're all spectators in a pretty significant chapter of history, the history of organized labor in America.

And recently, we went to a place that can probably be described as a kind of Bastille or Lexington and Concord of that history. It's called Blair Mountain, and it's located in a southern pocket of West Virginia.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Fifteen years in a coal mine, course ain't a very long time.

RAZ: And in late summer 1921, Blair Mountain was the site of the largest uprising in American history since the Civil War, and the only time in history that U.S. air power has been used against American civilians.

Mr. KENNY KING (Chemical Analyst): This is what's left of the town of Blair. There's probably, maybe - I think I counted 35 houses left.

RAZ: We meet Kenny King alongside the stream that passes through what's left of Blair, West Virginia. He's a third-generation coal man. His grandfather and father were miners. Kenny works as a chemical analyst for a coal company. And here in Blair, Logan County, West Virginia - well, this is the heart of coal country.

Mr. KING: It's been underground mined a lot, but there's still, you know, still quite a bit of coal left. Yeah, there's millions of tons, I'd say, in this area.

(Soundbite of song, "Sprinkle Coal Dust on my Grave")

Mr. ORVILLE JENKS (Singer): (Singing) I'm just an old coal miner and I labor for my bread. This story in my memory I hear told.

RAZ: West Virginia has been called the Saudi Arabia of coal. It produces more than a third of all the coal mined in the U.S. And more than half the energy we use is powered by burning those black rocks - the lights in your house, your TV, maybe the radio you're hearing this story on. They all work, thanks to coal.

The other thing about West Virginia is its poverty rate, one of the highest in America, even though coal prices just hit a 15-year high. Almost a quarter of the people in this county, Logan, live below the poverty level - people left behind by the changes in technology and technique that have allowed coal companies to earn more money and hire fewer miners.

This story, though, is only partially about jobs. It's really about history, the battle over what to remember and whether to remember it at all.

Kenny King leads us up an uncleared path to the top of Blair Mountain. It's wintertime, no leaves on the trees. And at the top, you can see for miles in each direction.

Mr. KING: OK, we're on the south crest of Blair Mountain. This would have been the defensive line here, where the guards and detectives, volunteers, whatever came up here and dug in. There's several trenches over here, and we're shooting down at the miners as they were trying to make their way up White Stretch Branch there.

RAZ: No one knows the exact details of what happened here in late August, early September 1921, but here's the basic story. For five days, around 10,000 coal miners took up arms against the private militias employed by West Virginia's Stone Mountain Mining Company. They were demanding the right to organize, to join unions.

Mr. KING: From all the artifacts found here, there had to be hundreds of men up here. I mean, there's probably thousands of shell cases scattered in this area here.

RAZ: As many as 100 men died in the fighting. And it got so bad that President Warren G. Harding sent a detachment of federal troops to crush the rebellion.

(Soundbite of song)

RAZ: Now, none of this happened in a vacuum. Tension had been building up for years. Just a year before, union-busting mercenaries, who worked for a private agency called Baldwin-Felts, shot and killed the pro-union mayor of the nearby town of Matewan. The director John Sayles made a film about it in 1987.

Anyway, at the time, most states had laws against organizing. It didn't help that President Harding's administration was decidedly anti-labor. The worry was the unions would bog down industry, and put the brakes on America's rapid economic growth. Take a listen to this rare recording from Harding's 1920 acceptance speech at the Republican convention.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

President WARREN G. HARDING: I want the wage earners to understand the problems, the anxieties, the obligations of management and capital.

RAZ: The problem for the wage earners - at least those in Logan County, West Virgini - was they didn't have a whole lot of options.

Here's Doug Estepp, a local historian who runs tours of the area.

Mr. DOUG ESTEPP (Local Historian): They had the yellow dog contract, which said that basically, if you took a job at this mine, you could not associate with anyone with the union, you couldn't join. If you did, you were basically fired, blacklisted and evicted - and probably beaten on your way out by the guards, just for good measure. But yeah, that was standard procedure.

RAZ: The coal companies owned your house. They paid you in credits that could only be spent on highly inflated food at the company-owned store. And if you complained about safety, you were fired. Their private security men from Baldwin-Felts would threaten, beat and sometimes murder agitators, all with impunity.

And so, it all came to a head in late August 1921. The miners of Logan and Mingo counties had had enough.

Back in the 1970s, a documentary called "Even the Heavens Weep" featured a few of the survivors of the battle, including Paul Maynard.

Mr. PAUL MAYNARD: I don't know, there was thousands around here, but they was coming in from Illinois, Pennsylvania and Ohio - the miners was. They told the government that if they didn't open up Logan County, that they was going to open it up themselves and blow it away.

RAZ: Now, although the workers outnumbered the coal company guards, they were also outgunned.

Mr. ESTEPP: The coal operators had machine guns. They had tommy guns, a lot of high-powered rifles. They even had a small artillery piece up on one of the mountains here - we're not sure where. But it was a small, ex-U.S. military field artillery piece, a one-and-a-half pounder. But it wasn't fired, as far as we know. But that's what the miners were facing.

RAZ: And after five days, the rebellion was crushed. Hundreds of rebels were tried for insurrection and treason. The legal fees bankrupted the United Mine Workers Union. And for the next decade, it almost disappeared.

(Soundbite of metal detector)

RAZ: Every few weeks, Kenny King comes up here to the top of Blair Mountain with his metal detector, to find spent bullet casings. More than a million rounds were fired in those five days in 1921. And every time he's up here, Kenny finds them.

Mr. KING: OK, we got one. Wow. That's a .351 SL.

RAZ: Two years ago, Blair Mountain was entered into the National Register of Historic Places. And then, just a few months later, it was taken off by state officials.

Lawyers hired by West Virginia's largest coal companies came up with a list of landowners who, they said, objected to the designation. And why would they object?

Mr. GORDON SIMMONS (Labor Historian): There's apparently a lot of money to be made by blowing this mountain up and taking the coal out from it.

RAZ: That's Gordon Simmons. He's a labor historian who we'll hear more from in a moment. And what he's talking about is mountaintop removal.

(Soundbite of tractor)

RAZ: A lot of the land around Blair Mountain is owned by coal companies, including the biggest ones, Massey and Arch. For now, the state hasn't given permission to mine this immediate area. But judging by the number of tractors and heavy machines already deployed here, preservationists like Kenny King think it's just a matter of time.

Mr. KING: They've already approved that area over there, 333 acres for mountaintop removal.

RAZ: Where we are standing right now, you fear that this will not exist if this is no longer designated as a national historic site.

Mr. KING: No. I'll just be a flat, grassy field.

RAZ: Kenny believes this is hallowed ground, like Gettysburg or the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma - places where America's history was forever changed. But he's had a hard time making that case to the folks in Logan County, a place where every fourth person is out of work.

At the Go-Mart gas station, about four miles from the mountain, mine workers stop by to grab pizza and hotdogs before heading off to the night shift.

There are only about 16,000 miners left in West Virginia today. Mountaintop removal doesn't require as much manpower as underground mining. These are coveted jobs; they pay well. And so for the most part, miners are more interested in seeing the economy grow rather than preserving what they see as just another mountain.

A 22-year-old we met, named Jordon, summed up the consensus view around here.

JORDON: We got to mine the coal to make the money. Period. That's all there are to it. Would you rather see trash up there - refrigerators dumped off on the side of the road, dishwashers, babies' diapers laying on the side of the road? Or would you rather see it stripped off, cleaned up, park benches on it with a big plaque commemorating the battle? My dad was a strip miner, my grandfather was. My dad was a deep miner also. I've been around it my whole life. That's all I've known, that's all I will ever do.

RAZ: About a 90-minute drive from Logan, at the ornate state Capitol building in Charleston, Gordon Simmons, the labor historian, has been part of a group trying to get Blair Mountain back onto the National Register. He says the struggle isn't only about jobs and mining rights. It's also about whether to remember Blair Mountain, or to sweep it under the rug.

Mr. SIMMONS: It shows in 1921, for example, that the political establishment of the state of West Virginia was wholly controlled by coal interests, so much so that the only way to have any effective opposition was to engage in armed insurrection. And it shows, currently, when the historic designation got withdrawn, that things haven't changed that dramatically - that the long arm of King Coal can't reach into the state government and make things happen in its favor.

RAZ: Just this week, West Virginia's Historic Preservation Office started the process to get Blair Mountain back onto the National Register. Landowners have until April 1st to file objections. Unless more than half of them do object, the application heads back to the federal government for consideration.

Mr. SIMMONS: This is a political fight. This is a social fight. This is a fight about our history, our heritage, our culture. It's a fight about what kind of society West Virginia's going to be going forward, and what it has been in its past.

RAZ: The irony about Blair Mountain is that it nearly destroyed the union. It would take 15 years, until the National Labor Relations Act, to help revive it. But Blair Mountain was a pivotal moment. And if it does finally get a spot on the Historic Register, there's a good chance the story of what happened there will also find a more prominent spot in America's collective memory.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I used to be a drill man, down at old (unintelligible). Drilling through slate and sand drop 'til it got the best of me. That dust has almost killed me. It's turned me out in the rain. A dust has settled on my lungs and causes me constant pain...

RAZ: And you can see photos of Blair Mountain, and more, at our website, Our story was produced by Lauren Silverman.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) ...but drilling is a job I love (unintelligible). It's killed two fellow workers here at old (unintelligible) and now I've eaten so much dust...

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