Thoughts on Labor Day

Staff Report

Last Monday was Labor Day, and I’m sure many of you took advantage of the day off. I certainly did! I spent the day exploring more of the Vermont countryside and, as I passed old mills and granite quarries, tried not to lose sight of the day’s history.

Labor Day as we know it was founded in 1882 in New York City, though it didn’t become a federal holiday until 1894. More or less forced through Congress, it was part of the reconciliation efforts following President Cleveland’s controversial use of the military to put down the nationwide Pullman Strike. Those reconciliation efforts were barely more than symbolic, but we still celebrate Labor Day as a reminder of what we’ve gained through the efforts of organized labor. Just a few of those victories include the 8-hour day, weekend, minimum wage, child labor laws, OSHA and worker’s comp, and collective bargaining.

Here in West Virginia, and even in Mason County, we have a fairly long labor history. In fact, two of the largest labor strikes in American history began in our state.

The first, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, began at the B&O yards in Martinsburg after the railroad cut wages for the third time that year in the midst of the Long Depression. Governor Matthews called out the National Guard, but they refused to fire on their own people. Meanwhile, the strike spread east to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Scranton and west to Cumberland, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. With the local militias in most city’s unwilling to fight, President Hayes called out the army to put down the strike city by city. The last strike ended 45 days after it began in Martinsburg after causing millions of dollars in damage and an untold number of strikers were killed. Nonetheless, it provided a push for labor organizations and led to the B&O’s offer of medical coverage, pension plans, and death benefits.

The second is, of course, the Mine Wars of 1912-21. All of us West Virginians, and even most transplants to our state, know about the horrible conditions in the mines before FDR’s administration. It wasn’t uncommon for coal operators to ignore dangerous conditions in favor of profit, leading to some of the deadliest mine disasters in history. If you were lucky enough to work in a safer mine, it was still common for men and boys (yes, boys, as young as 8) to come out of the mines with serious injuries. Add to this the fact that miners were forced into what was basically slavery by the company, with their pay in scrip taken to pay for the “rent” in the company housing and the rest worthless anywhere except the company store where prices were already higher.

Throw in the notoriously violent Baldwin-Felts agents and Pinkertons, machine guns pointed at the miners, and a state government willing to look the other way as companies murdered union organizers, and it is truly no wonder that the miners rose up in rebellion. For nine years, violence rocked the coalfields. It did not end until the Battle of Blair Mountain, when 10,000 coal miners went up against Sheriff Don Chafin, his private army, and his planes dropping leftover WWI bombs. The two fought to a near standstill until the U.S. Army got involved on the coal companies’ side.

Now, our mines in Mason County were not involved in this Mine War, but that isn’t to say they didn’t occasionally go on strike for better pay or working conditions. In 1878, “The miners in the Sehon Coal mines have struck, or quit work, because they have been asked to take 3/4th of their wages out of the store.” In other words, scrip in the company store. In 1879, “the men are all out except those at the Clifton bank.” In 1884, “the miners in the Pomeroy Bend are still on strike.” The Register is full of these, at least one every other year.

My personal favorite is from 1882. “The miners are on strike – so are the cows.” At least Editor Tippett had a sense of humor! Though, the miners and cows weren’t the only ones going on strike. Others include a dockworkers strike in Point Pleasant in 1884 and a coopers strike in Mason in 1899.

Now, I know that all of the strikes I’ve mentioned were well before almost all of us were alive, but we have to understand a bit about this history to appreciate what we’ve gained through organized labor. These strikes are why we have mine safety laws, why our kids no longer work the mines and steel mills, why companies can no longer require 12-hour days 7 days/week, and so much more. As Utah Phillips once said, “no root, no fruit!”

Information from the Point Pleasant Register, writings of Mildred Gibbs, and John Alexander Williams’ West Virginia: A History.

Staff Report