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Conflict, above and below ground

The miners strike in 1920 was the largest armed conflict in America since the Civil War

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At first glance, it seems veteran political reporter Robert Shogan (formerly with Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times) has exaggerated the importance of a relatively obscure chain of events in the coal-mining region of West Virginia during 1920-21. But by skillfully combining microhistory and macrohistory, Shogan makes a persuasive argument that unionized coal miners and their employers all those decades ago left a legacy that still bedevils labor-management relations today.

"By looking into this dark corner of American history," he writes, "my hope is to cast light on the forces that shaped the American political and economic order in the 20th century."

The elements for deadly conflict are all present here, even though nobody wanted to inflict death. On one side is the United Mine Workers union, led nationally by the charismatic, headline-seeking John L. Lewis and regionally by those experienced miners risking their safety below the earth's surface inside narrow, dark shafts. On the other side are the coal company operators hoping to maximize profits, assisted by state legislators, governors, law-enforcement officers, National Guard troops, and judges who care far more about the status quo than about distributive justice.

Shogan knows how to build the tension, which takes hold even though the outcome is known to serious students of American history. Chapter 1 opens like this:

"On a dreary morning in May of 1920, seven men carrying Winchesters and pistols boarded the Norfolk and Western's Number 29 at Bluefield, West Virginia, bound for the little mining town of Matewan on the Kentucky border. All were hirelings of the Baldwin-Felts detective agency, personally selected by their boss, Tom Felts. Half a dozen or so others would follow by later trains."

The miners viewed the Baldwin-Felts detectives as lawless thugs. The detectives viewed union leaders and, to some extent, the rank and file, as greedy socialists yearning to destroy admirable, entrepreneurial capitalists who often had built their businesses from nothing.


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