How West Virginia Lost the Workers' Revolution

Image: Jim Cooke/GMG, Photos: author, Shutterstock, NYTimes, Public Domain

I had only been in West Virginia for a day when Josh Sword, the head of the state AFL-CIO, told me casually that a revolution is coming. He is not a particularly radical guy. He was just giving an honest, matter-of-fact reading of the political situation. “I don’t know how bad things have to get. In West Virginia, it got to the point workers were paid in scrip. Mules were used to haul coal out of coal mines, and they were more valuable than human beings. As we trend back in that direction, at some point people are gonna say enough’s enough,” he said. “At some point they’re going to take it back to the point there will be some revolutions, and rioting in the streets, and strikes, and bloodshed possibly.” We’re not quite there yet, he allowed. “But it’ll happen. It’ll happen.”

There is no better place to go looking for evidence of American decline than southern West Virginia. The opioid crisis? Devastation of a once-great American industry? Obesity? Pollution? Climate change? General post-industrial hopelessness? It’s all here. This forgotten and abused land, home to some of the nation’s lowest life expectancy, found itself thrust into the spotlight last year by Donald Trump’s incessant promises to revive the coal industry. The state ended up voting 69 percent for Trump, second only to Wyoming. It is, on the surface, a simple story of a down-and-out population rallying behind a pro-business Republican who vowed to shake up the system.


But the story of West Virginia is much more meaningful than that. In the context of a nation in which economic inequality has grown so extreme that it is now smashing the entire political establishment, this is not just any state, and the coal industry is not just any industry. This is the state where the battle between labor and capital reached its most violent peak. West Virginia’s “Mine Wars” of the early 20th Century culminated in the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, which still stands as the largest labor battle in American history—the largest domestic armed engagement since the Civil War. Nowhere else were Americans more willing to kill, or die, for the right to unionize.

In the course of a century, southern West Virginia went from the Battle of Blair Mountain to Donald Trump country. What happened?

Marmet, West Virginia is little more than a few parallel blocks of small, squat homes, some tidy and some falling down, strung along the Kanawha River. It has a bank and a Wendy’s, and a combination GoodWill/Big Lots/Tastykake Bakery Outlet strip mall just down the road, qualifying it as a medium-sized town by the standards of this part of the country, though it is really little more than a village. (There are plenty of towns down here too small to have a store, but none too small to have a church.) In August of 1921, this is where hundreds, and then thousands, of miners began gathering with an audacious-bordering-on-suicidal plan: to march south to Mingo County in a show of power to help establish a union in the non-union coal fields at the southern end of the state, where the coal companies had been fiercely opposing the United Mine Workers of America for years. In order to get to Mingo County, the miners would have to first pass through Logan, home to the notorious sheriff Don Chafin, who was paid tens of thousands of dollars per year by the mining companies to have his officers serve as a de facto corporate security force.

Blair, WV

Chafin vowed not to let the “armed mob” cross his territory. That set up a showdown that culminated on Blair Mountain, just northeast of Logan, where thousands of armed union miners met the entrenched defenses of the sheriff and various vigilantes he had recruited from the surrounding area. As Robert Shogan relates in his book “The Battle of Blair Mountain,” some of the miners sang as they marched towards confrontation:


Every little river must go down to the sea
All the slaving miners and our union will be free
Going to march to Blair Mountain
Going to whip the company
And I don’t want you to weep after me

A weeklong shooting war ensued. This was full-on domestic warfare, waged by working class men intent on unionizing their state, and waged with even more ferocity by law enforcement and political figures acting as proxies for major coal mining companies that did not want to pay union wages. The fighting—complete with machine gun strafing, bombing from airplanes, and rifle fire in the woods—continued until federal troops arrived, and the miners voluntarily packed up and went home. Estimates of the death toll range as high as fifty; the miners’ army was estimated to reach 10,000 men or more. Never since then has an American union campaign descended into all-out warfare on the same scale. Ironically, the legal and political crackdowns that followed the Battle of Blair Mountain ended up devastating the UMWA, which saw its membership plummet for more than a decade until the New Deal helped organized labor begin to regain its strength. Before the battle, the UMWA had 50,000 members in West Virginia alone; today, after many ensuing ups and downs, the union represents fewer than 8,000 active coal miners nationwide.


Blair Mountain is the closest thing to Gettysburg that the American labor movement has. Its historic significance is immense. It also happens to sit in the poorest region of a state that is in desperate need of tourism dollars and economic development. Drive on Route 17 to the speck of a town called Blair, though, and all that you will find is a single historic marker for the battle, along with a trailer-sized post office, two churches, and a handful of houses. There is no museum. There is no trail. You cannot even wander up Blair Mountain yourself, because it is private property, owned by coal companies and patrolled by their private security. In fact, those coal companies have, since 2009, been waging a legal battle to prevent the Blair Mountain site from being added to the National Register of Historic Places, so that they can strip mine it instead of preserve it.

Blair, WV

“The coal companies and the landowning corporations and the state politicians have worked to destroy it. They don’t want a monument to unionism” says Chuck Keeney, a local professor and historian who has worked for years to promote the state’s labor history. “Some of these guys would rather take a pencil through the eyeball than to see a monument to the United Mine Workers of America.”

Keeney has a special attachment to the issue: His great grandfather, Frank Keeney, was the head of the UMWA at the time of Battle of Blair Mountain. Frank Keeney was a heroic organizer of West Virginia coal miners who was tried and acquitted of murder during the Mine Wars, and forced to flee the state during the Battle of Blair Mountain, fearing for his life. He was later pushed out of the UMWA by a rival, and finished his life as a parking lot attendant in Charleston. He was a titan of the labor movement, but labor gave little back to him during his lifetime, except hard work.


Today, Chuck Keeney describes his work as “identity reclamation”—trying to rebuild Appalachia’s true, astonishingly radical history in the same way that coal companies “reclaim” the mountaintops after they’ve torn them off to mine them. The term “redneck” originated with the red bandannas or scarves that the West Virginia miners wore on their fateful march to battle, a term of derision by coal company partisans. But Keeney points out that the miners marching to Blair Mountain forcefully desegregated restaurants in multiple small towns on their way down to Blair, even tearing out the walls of one segregated establishment in Sharples and forcing company cooks to serve black and whites alike in one big room. This happened in 1921. The original rednecks were far more progressive than most people would believe.

Ten thousand men taking up arms against major companies and their paid mercenaries is a rather uncommon occurrence in American history. Though the Battle of Blair Mountain did not end in victory for the union, the mere fact that it happened is a testament to the almost medieval conditions that coal miners worked under. The vast majority of them lived in company towns, entire communities built and controlled by the coal companies. The company owned your home; the company provided food, water, and medical care; and rent and bills were deducted directly from miners’ pay. Whatever was left over was often paid in scrip, which was only good at the company store, which was the only place in town to shop anyhow. Miners had to buy their own tools and safety equipment, and they were paid strictly by the weight of the coal that they brought of the ground, creating an incentive for company employees to systematically cheat them on the scales. No work, no pay. This setup was also a useful form of control for companies that wanted to crush any nascent union efforts: They would not only blacklist workers, but also evict entire families from their homes at the first sign of organizing. During the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike of 1912, a precursor to the Mine Wars that raged for the next decade, evicted striking families were forced to live in tents for an entire year. Coal company guards periodically rode by on a train and shot up the tents with a machine gun. Unionization for them was a life-and-death matter. “How many people today would be willing to make any of those sacrifices?” Chuck Keeney asks. “We can’t do without air conditioning.”


Today, in the town of Beckley, an old coal mine and part of a company town has been transformed into a picturesque tourist attraction, a sort of Disney version of coal mining life. There is a miner’s house (small) and a “company store” with a souvenir shop. But you can also take a tour deep into the old coal mine—the closest you can get to experiencing what the job was like, since the real coal companies today are rather unreceptive to requests for tours.

The Beckley mine has been widened a bit to alleviate claustrophobia, but even so, it only takes about a minute’s journey down the tracks to get a sense of the work environment: dark, damp, and creepy. Water drips constantly onto the muddy gravel. The temperature is that of a cool, air-conditioned room. Miners of the early 20th century worked with only a flame for illumination, a setup which gives the exact impression of being on a tour of a haunted house. The coal seam, visible on the wall, rises only three or four feet high, and the ceiling would not have been all that much higher during its excavation. On a typical day, miners would carve out a section of coal with a pick, hand drill several holes into the wall, roll up their own charges with black powder, set the fuses, blast the wall, then go in and load the four tons or so of coal that came out in rail cars for transport to the surface. Then, they would repeat that two more times, per shift. Their working lives consisted of darkness, fire, coal dust, sweat, and explosions, purposeful and otherwise. Roof collapse, methane poisoning, and black lung were constant companions. In the early years, they didn’t even have hard hats.


After about 30 minutes underground for the tour, the little rail car emerges back into the sunlight. The green leaves and blue skies look especially electric after the mine’s utter gloom. It is easy to see how you would grow to love these hills, after spending your days in blackness. It’s also easy to see how you might become willing to fight like hell for a union. What else did you have?

Stand anywhere in southern West Virginia and you are guaranteed to be flanked on one or more sides by a frozen green tidal wave. The hills here bunch so closely together that they are not features of the landscape; they are the landscape. You can’t clear enough flat ground for a football field without tons of dynamite. Every populated area lies on a curving road between aggressively looming hills. This setting may be interpreted as beautiful or oppressive, but it certainly is not doing any favors for economic development. The small, unincorporated dots on the map down here consist of ultra-tidy homes with neatly mowed lawns interspersed with lots of mobile homes, many of which are being slowly reclaimed by the dirt. In many places entire houses have been left to rot, their side walls caving in, the real estate version of The Walking Dead. Occupied homes neighbor abandoned ones being pulled into the earth by creeping vines. Dollar General stores neighbor Family Dollar stores. The larger towns are hardly more prosperous. In Logan, home of sheriff Don Chafin’s brutal empire, “For Rent” signs dot the downtown streets on empty storefronts, side by side. The big Heilig Meyers furniture store is a permanently closed husk. There is a Wendy’s, a McDonald’s, and the usual assortment of the last things to hang on in a dying town: barber shop, funeral home, insurance office, bank, a few grim beauty salons and doomed knick-knack stores, along with the pawn shop, Legal Aid office, clinic, and Salvation Army. The Aracoma Hotel, which served as the headquarters of the forces fighting against the miners during the Battle of Blair Mountain, has burned down. It’s now an empty lot, strewn with the same rocky gravel as a coal mine’s floor.

Site of the Aracoma Hotel, Logan, WV

The one town in this part of the state that is truly making an effort to tout its history is Matewan, in Mingo County, hard against the Kentucky border. In 1920, Matewan’s chief of police was Sid Hatfield, a strongly pro-union man who was also a bit of a psycho killer. When coal companies sent a bunch of hired guns from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to evict miners from their homes in Mingo County, Hatfield met them at the Matewan train station and—stories differ on who exactly started what—had a big gun battle in which two miners and seven detectives were killed, along with the mayor of Matewan. This was dubbed the “Matewan Massacre,” and served to raise the temperature of the conflict in the year leading up to the march on Blair Mountain (which was headed to Mingo to support the union effort before it was stopped in its tracks). After the “massacre,” Hatfield enjoyed a solid year as a gun-toting, worker-friendly folk hero before being assassinated, shot down in broad daylight on the courthouse steps in the nearby town of Welch by a group of Baldwin-Felts agents seeking vengeance.


Today, Matewan has a small Mine Wars Museum, located in the same building where Sid Hatfield cooled his heels waiting to shoot up the detectives. It boasts artifacts dug up from Blair Mountain, lots of scrip from the company store days (including a coin reading “GOOD FOR ONE LOAF BREAD”), and a video clip of Smilin’ Sid Hatfield showing the blackened teeth that made him such a ladies man in his day. It is an admirable tribute to the Mine Wars history, and if you are ever in Mingo County you should visit it. But as attractions go, it is dwarfed by the local “Hatfield and McCoy” ATV trails, which draw riders who stroll Matewan’s main street in mud-splattered gear. Jim Simpkins, a retired coal miner, says that the local branch of the United Mine Workers has 800 members—and all of them are retired. The only coal miners left in Mingo County today are non-union.

The site of the Matewan Massacre

West Virginia remained a Democratic state far longer than anyone could have reasonably expected. Decades after the South, lured by the welcoming racism of Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, shifted from blue to red, West Virginia still operated with a strong Democratic majority on the state level, and voted for most Democratic presidential candidates from the dawn of the New Deal until the year 2000. The state’s strong union history, rooted in the coal mining industry, guaranteed that Democratic bent.

In the mid-90s, that began to change. The more the coal industry declined, the more desperate the fortunes of the state became, the more willing West Virginians were to blame the Democratic Party’s embrace of environmentalism for their economic problems. Ever since Al Gore’s embrace of the Kyoto protocol, the coal industry—which is suffering primarily from the increasing popularity of cheap natural gas—has worked to lay its problems at the government’s feet. That tendency reached its peak during the Obama administration, when the idea of a “war on coal” became conventional wisdom here, aided by diligent efforts from coal companies. It was into this fertile atmosphere that Donald Trump strolled, with a hard hat on his head, to proclaim that he would “Bring back coal,” macroeconomic issues notwithstanding. The promise alone was enough to earn him an overwhelming victory here.


Chris Hamilton, the senior vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, rates Trump’s presidency an “A-plus” so far. He says that he is hopeful that Trump’s policies can bring the state’s coal mining employment, which has fallen by half in the past decade, back near to its previous glory. Yet the coal industry’s plans for its own revival must prompt skepticism in any honest listener. “Can he cause greater volumes of steel to be produced here in the U.S.?” Hamilton asks. “Can the United States regain its prominence in manufacturing? Can we start making things again here, like we did 20 years ago?”

The honest answer to these questions is probably “no,” apart from some short term stimulus that a big government spending package might bring. (Hamilton also explained that one reason for coal’s decline is that Americans have been using less power, due to “unprecedented weather events—generally speaking, much milder winters.” Hmm.) The coal industry does not have a lot of diverse revenue streams. Its only hope for resurgence is to mine and sell more coal.


Unfortunately for the state of West Virginia, it has not developed a lot of diverse revenue streams either, despite the fact that it has been clear for years that coal is not a growth industry. All the money in West Virginia is coal; the political power is coal; therefore the state government desperately tries to do anything it can to slow the decline of coal, rather than investing in the sorts of things that might position the state for a post-coal future. The only counterbalance to the industry’s power here, historically, was union power. But the union power here was the UMWA, which has declined right along with the coal industry itself. As brutal as the Mine Wars were, at least the structure of company towns lent themselves to organizing lots of people at once. Today, the poor people of southern West Virginia live in mobile homes strewn across hundreds of miles of back roads, and work at McDonald’s or Tudor’s Biscuit World or nowhere at all. Who is organizing them? Nobody. If you want to see what happens in a one-industry state when organized labor loses its strength, just take a look at West Virginia today.

“There’s no state in this country that’s rural, white, deunionized, and undereducated that’s blue. Go find it,” says Ted Boettner, the head of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, a rare liberal think tank and lobbying group in the state. We are sitting in Charleston at a conference table in the group’s office in the aptly named Union Building—a building desperately in need of maintenance, with its best days behind it. Boettner is a front line witness to West Virginia’s rightward shift, propelled by the decline of unions and the disappearance of the generation whose politics were formed by the New Deal. He ticks off West Virginia’s fundamental problems: Though rich in natural resources, its wealth is constantly extracted from the state by corporations and investors, and not reinvested at home; the same absentee corporations own much of the land; it has relatively poor infrastructure, which creates little incentive for young and/ or affluent people to move there; its taxes on coal companies are too low to fund the many public investments it needs; its population is relatively poorly educated and unhealthy. Big government is the institution most suited to deploying the resources needed to fix most of these problems, yet the state’s politics have shifted in the opposite direction. Coal, the engine of West Virginia’s prosperity, is also its curse. “Any time an area is concentrated in one industry it tends to suck up the labor supply that’s there locally. And it can drive out other types of industries, because the labor pool tends not to have varied skills,” Boettner says. Though that state of affairs is fine with coal companies themselves, it is a recipe for devastation in a changing economy. “I think right now the state’s just trying to hang on for dear life. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that large parts of the southern part of the state are just gonna be completely uninhabitable in ten to twenty years.”

Mingo County, WV

West Virginia desperately needs to diversify its economy. Its citizens desperately need government investment to accomplish this, and to help them survive in the meantime. But the state’s politics make it very hard for this to happen. The only thing it has going for it is deep roots in the labor movement that could, in theory, set the stage for a revival of union power—an outpouring of left-wing populism that is, I believe, just as likely to succeed as Donald Trump’s right wing populism was. Bernie Sanders won every single county in West Virginia’s Democratic primary, and nearly half of those Sanders voters said they would vote for Trump over Hillary Clinton. This is what anti-establishment sentiment looks like.


West Virginia’s Republicans are doing their best to prevent a resurgence in labor power here. After coming to power in the state legislature three years ago, they immediately repealed union-backed prevailing wage and mine safety laws, and are currently fighting in court to implement a statewide “Right to Work” law, the standard recipe for sending union membership into the toilet by making it much harder for unions to collect dues. It’s a gruesome turn of events for the home state of Sid Hatfield and the Blair Mountain miners. Josh Sword, the head of the West Virginia AFL-CIO, says that the political problem is straightforward: West Virginians’ dislike for the Democratic Party’s positions on hot-button social issues has become stronger than their affinity for the party on economic issues. The Republican plan to use social issues as a wedge to draw working class voters to side against their own economic interests has worked like a charm. “We’re not getting enough people to vote on those economic issues,” Sword says. “Republicans saw an opportunity to dive into a Democratic stronghold in a state like West Virginia. And as a result, we’ve got a Republican legislature that has made it its top priority to hurt workers and their families... this is the Koch brothers agenda, and it does absolutely nothing to help people on the ground.”

Sword predicts that the state is on the path to a “revolution or a revolt.” But is it also on the path to a revival of the union power that made the West Virginia coal miners legendary in America’s progressive history? That is an idea that is harder to find support for. Ted Boettner puts the prospect for a union resurgence at “Zero. I don’t know of any future vision that labor has for West Virginia in terms of building up its membership.” Chuck Keeney rates the health of organized labor in the coal fields as “Hospice. It’s in terminal decline.” Jim Simpkins, the retired coal miner, muses about a future of unionized renewable energy companies, but there is no evidence of that happening so far. Meanwhile, the biggest issue faced by the once-mighty United Mine Workers of America is securing federal backing for the pension plans of miners who retired from bankrupt coal companies, so they can live out their final years in peace. Important? Absolutely. A sign of a vibrant, modern labor group with a bright future? Not exactly.


There is no gloom quite as profound as a poor rural place on a cloudy day. It is a gloom born of a sense that nothing new and good is likely to happen here for a long, long time. I felt this gloom hanging over West Virginia whenever the sun stopped shining. It is a beautiful state, but a hard place to be optimistic about. Even in Charleston, the state capital, the downtown streets were strangely empty and without life. The one fancy food hall in town, the Capitol Market, is directly across the street from a row of abandoned houses. The city’s tourism brochure bears the slogan “Hip, Historic, Almost Heaven!” over a photo of a crowd gathered at the downtown riverfront amphitheater. When I walked past it one morning, the only occupant was a homeless man asleep on the stage, wrapped, in a too-cute bit of symbolism, in an American flag blanket.

But West Virginia is also home to a history unparalleled in the American working class—one that shows that even the most radical ideas can become reality in the world’s richest country, in response to a certain level of abuse and neglect. The ingredients are still present today. Where the downward spiral of the coal chute to hell will ultimately end up is still an open question.


“You don’t study the mine wars to see how the companies were. This is how they are,” says Chuck Keeney, whose great-grandfather might be very sad if he awoke in West Virginia today. “The only reason they don’t do the same things today is because they can’t.”


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About the author

Hamilton Nolan

Senior Writer.