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A period of conflict


Henry D. Hatfield
Henry D. Hatfield

West Virginia’s industrial boom was accompanied by labor unrest, especially in the coal mines, where, despite the industry’s spectacular success, wages remained low and working conditions poor and dangerous. The industry was plagued with accidents. The worst disaster, an explosion at Monongah in 1907, killed 361 people. Mine owners stoutly resisted the miners’ attempts to unionize and bargain collectively. Numerous strikes throughout the state had little effect until 1912, when an extended strike at Paint Creek and Cabin Creek brought a year of violence, during which miners and mine guards were killed, martial law was declared, and about 100 people were sent to prison. When Henry D. Hatfield became governor in 1913, he persuaded the owners to guarantee the miners a nine-hour workday and to concede them the right to organize.

During World War I, miners and owners cooperated to ensure maximum production to meet the country’s fuel needs. Membership in the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) grew to about 50,000 in West Virginia by 1920.

After the war, the owners strove to tap West Virginia’s huge supply of coal by opening new mines and improving mining methods, despite the decreased demand for coal. By 1923 West Virginia was capable of producing more coal than the nation could use. With such overexpansion, owners kept wages low in order to undersell their competitors.

In 1920 a UMWA attempt to organize in Logan and Mingo counties came up against the owners’ determination to revert to prewar conditions and defeat the mine workers union at any cost. Violence broke out, federal troops were called in, and martial law was established. During the winter of 1920-1921, tension grew between police and strikers, who had been evicted from their company-owned homes and were living in tents.

Armed conflict began on May 19, 1921, and Governor E. F. Morgan proclaimed a state of war in Mingo County, which was now being called Bloody Mingo. That summer about 3,000 miners from Paint Creek and Cabin Creek marched to Logan to assist the Mingo County miners. On August 31, 1921, a force of 1,200 state police and armed guards faced miners entrenched along a mountain ridge. A four-day battle ensued, with miners coming from Kentucky, Ohio, and northern West Virginia to help the embattled workers. This Battle of Blair Mountain ended with the arrival of 2,100 federal troops and a squadron of U.S. Army bombers. The miners’ defeat discouraged workers throughout the state. During the next decade, court injunctions crippled the labor movement, and the miners lost confidence in the union’s ability to help them. Paid membership in the UMWA in West Virginia dropped from a peak of about 50,000 in 1920 to a few hundred in 1932. "West Virginia" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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