Behind Wyoming, West Virginia is the second largest coal-producing state in the US. Coal development in West Virginia began in the middle of the 19th century; to meet the surging demand for coal at the time, more and more mines were developed in the state. The work environment for miners was particularly harsh, as they were closed off in the mine shafts for long periods at a time with only rudimentary tools to work with, and on top of that they faced a high risk of accidents. Nevertheless, the compensation, which was paid out by the ton (i.e. a performance-based wage structure), was a source of income that allowed those who possessed the motivation and physical strength (i.e. coal miners) to support their families.
The towns that developed via such single industries (logging, mining, etc.) in these remote areas were rightly called “company towns”. Within a coal mining town, the miners were leased shabby lodgings by the company, and were sold their everyday necessities at shops owned and run by the same company. The miners were paid in “coal scrip,” a kind of voucher that served as a substitute for legal tender but which could only be used at shops and other businesses owned by the mining company. As wages rose, the rents for housing and the prices for products at company shops rose as well. If an employee quit the company, he and his family, along with their belongings, would be evicted as a matter of course from company housing. Needless to say, the miners laboring under this system became trapped by their circumstances and increasingly exploited. At the time, the bulk of the costs of production consisted of labor costs, so for competing mining companies, it was necessary to keep labor costs to a minimum.
Given these factors, disputes between labor and management were inevitable. The unionization of labor in West Virginia began in the second half of the 19th century. Mining companies began to hire heavily armed guards to keep union organizers out of the camps of their workers. It was around this time that renowned organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones was successfully unionizing laborers. Jones, who had lost her husband and two children to illness, then saw all of the businesses she subsequently built destroyed in a fire, did not appear to be afraid of anything. She would unflinchingly visit places that even the toughest of union organizers (namely the United Mine Workers) feared to go, and fearlessly stepped in front of the muzzles of the guards’guns. Through the work of Mother Jones and other union leaders, much progress was made in unionizing many parts of West Virginia. Some forces in the southern part of the state, however, continued to resist unionization. It was in one of these areas that, in 1920, the forced eviction of fired miners and their families from company housing led to a shootout between miners and hired private security that resulted in a total of 10 deaths on both sides. Amidst subsequent, smaller skirmishes that produced more fatal casualties, Chief of Police Sid Hatfield, who had sided with the miners and organizers in the dispute, was shot and killed in front of his wife. Spurred on by this event, around 10,000 armed miners now members of the United Mine Workers began rallying in protest, leading to direct armed conflict against a total of about 3,000 armed men comprised of local law enforcement officials and private security personnel hired by the mining company. Mother Jones herself went to the site of the conflict and tried to reason with the miners, but at this point not even she could persuade them to stop fighting. The battle resulted in dozens of deaths on both sides. The local law enforcement authorities even resorted to borrowing aircraft and dropping bombs on the miners. The conflict was arguably the largest instance of civil insurrection among the nation’s citizens at the time, second only to the Civil War. Given the magnitude of the escalation of the conflict, the state and federal government sent in their armies to intervene and disarmed both sides. Many on the side of labor union were imprisoned on charges of murder, treason, and related crimes. With the failure of this uprising, the power of the union in West Virginia was largely crippled. In the short span of five years following these events, union membership shrunk from around 50,000 to just 10,000. It would be more than a decade until workers’ basic rights were broadly guaranteed with the passage of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act and similar legislation.