THE BATTLE TO SAVE BLAIR MOUNTAIN
Ninety years ago, in the summer of 1921, the largest labor uprising in American history occurred when over 10,000 coal miners marched to Blair Mountain, West Virginia. These coal miners came from a variety of backgrounds and nationalities, united in their determination to demand basic human rights from the coal companies which had virtually enslaved them for so many years.
Coal miners, and their young sons, worked 12 hour days in the mines and were dying from inhuman working conditions. They lived in shacks in coal company towns and were paid in “scrip” that could only be used at the company store. There was no protection for them since the rich and powerful coal companies controlled local and state politics and there was no right to collective bargaining. When they attempted to join the United Mine Workers of America union, coal company thugs assassinated their leaders and subjected them to horrible violence.
Outraged over the infamous killing of Matewan Chief of Police, Sheriff Sid Hatfield and others, thousands of union miners marched the 50 mile route to Blair Mountain. Yet this March was not supported by the union leadership nor was the strike at nearby Paint Creek in 1912. It was the rank and file union members from the southern coal fields who fought these battles and brought the UMWA to their un-represented mining brethren.
When these brave miners reached Blair Mountain, they found coal company forces along with mercenaries and state police arrayed against them with machine guns. The Federal government declared Martial Law and with the help of the local sheriff, using rented planes, pipe bombs and poison gas were rained down on the men. It would be the only time in American history when our government ordered the bombing of its own citizens. Hundreds of miners were arrested, and many were killed during The Battle of Blair Mountain which has become one of the most stirring and important events in labor history in the United States, and a galvanizing force for the UMWA.
The history of Blair Mountain resonates with the history of struggle that UMWA miners have consistently undertaken in spite of threats of economic ruin and physical harm. And of even broader significance, through this struggle, the UMWA miners who marched in 1921 set working standards that have long been taken for granted. Standards which include: the eight-hour work day, legal recognition of collective bargaining rights, health and retirement benefits, and passage of workplace safety and health legislation.
But the promise of Blair Mountain has not been realized for the people of Appalachia.
Today, Appalachians find themselves again engaged in a battle for human rights with the coal industry. The coal fields of southern West Virginia remain a sacrifice zone for coal companies that place profit ahead of our communities and even life itself.
Today, Blair Mountain is slated to be destroyed by mountaintop removal coal mining, the most destructive form of strip mining. Like over 500 mountains and millions of acres of our ancestral land, it will be blasted off the face of this earth. Every week in Appalachia, coal companies use the explosive equivalent of a Hiroshima bomb to level the most bio-diverse mountains in America. Thousands of acres of our streams, which feed the water supply of the entire East Coast of America, have been covered.
Communities nearby mountain top removal mine sites are ghost towns. Towns like Lyburn, Twilight and Lindytown are gone have almost disappeared along with their residents. Coal producing counties like McDowell have seen their population decrease from 100,000 to 20,000 in a generation due to the continuing mechanization of the industry, which uses large equipment and explosives but few miners. Mountaintop removal mining has cost us tens of thousands of jobs. Today, we have the highest production of coal, but the lowest employment ever due to the use of explosives and gigantic machines, but few coal miners on those sites.
But, the most disturbing result of this daily bombing has been that coalfield residents are dying because of the poisoning of the environment. Our children are sick with asthma and brain tumors and our retirees and other residents are dying at high rates of cancer and other diseases related to mining. Our homes are surrounded by valleys that have been filled with the rubble from decimated mountains, billion gallon slurry dams, and we are constantly covered in coal and blasting dust.
Despite our desperate pleas, much as it was 90 years ago, our politicians continue to support King Coal and have yet to diversify our economy. Coal miners still go to work every day deep underground, not knowing if they will live another day. Just last year, Massey, the non-union company most responsible for closing down union mines and doing most of the mountaintop removal mining, had the worst mine disaster in 40 years which killed 29 coal miners. Our elected officials have passed no new mine safety legislation to ensure this will never happen again.
Our US Senators, Joe Manchin and Jay Rockefeller have instead spent their time calling for the dismantling of the EPA and less regulation of the coal industry. Massey is the same company that plans to demolish, dismantle and strip mine Blair Mountain. We are left now as then to the absolute will of the coal companies. And while the coal industry hauls away billions of dollars from their land, the people in the coal fields of Appalachia are still among the poorest and sickest in the country.
But, one thing has changed in Appalachia in the last forty years. The once powerful UMWA that once represented 90% of all miners, has been broken. Now only 25% of miners belong to the UMWA. It has been so weakened, that the UMWA leadership now supports mountaintop removal mining for the few hundred jobs it provides, even as those operations result in the depletion of jobs for underground coal miners and the depopulation of our communities including many filled with UMWA retirees.
Cecil Roberts, current President of the UMWA and himself the great nephew of Bill Blizzard who helped organize the March on Blair Mountain, reminded us in a recent Op-Ed piece that “all God’s children have a right to prosper in a safe and livable environment where they can thrive without fear of sickness, disease or injury caused by the irresponsible actions of corporations motivated by profits at any cost.” Are we not God’s children, Mr. Roberts? When it comes to mountaintop removal mining, which side are you on?
Our ancestors who marched on Blair Mountain understood some things that we would like to remind our fellow Americans about. The coal miners who marched on Blair Mountain understood that Coal was not their Friend. And so did the UMWA. They understood that they must stand against coal company abuses, and their political enablers, in order to enjoy basic human rights. We call on all coal miners and union members to stand once again and March on Blair Mountain to save Appalachia, its land and its people from mountaintop removal mining.
On June 6-11, 2011, we invite you to join us as we call for the protection and preservation of the battleground on Blair Mountain and an immediate abolition of all mountaintop removal coal mining. And we call for coal to be deep-mined by union coal miners who are protected by strong government regulatory agencies. We call for the protection of our streams and our drinking water. We call for our politicians to end this environmental andhuman rights crisis. And we call for the UMWA to stand up again to the coal industry to save all our mountains, not just Blair. Our freedoms, our land, our very lives should not be destroyed for the profit of the coal industry. For more information, go to the website: MarchOnBlairMountain.org
Mari-Lynn C Evans
2010 WV Filmmaker of the Year
Executive Producer, Coal Country