The Coal Wars and the Walkaways: Labor Rights in the Past, Present, and Future

Last year, I read and reviewed Walkaway by Cory Doctorow, and I… basically haven’t stopped thinking about it since. In my previous review, I only just touched on one of the aspects of the story that, with time, I’ve come to view as more critical to the themes of the book. This is, truthfully, because I’ve spent a good chunk of the past year learning and thinking about it. And that theme is… labor rights.

There’s a popular post going around tumblr that informs you that Smilin Sid Hatfield (a major figure in the Coal Wars, specifically the Matewan Massacre) was not shot to death on the steps of the McDowell County courthouse by company gun thugs for you to vote away Social Security. Also “Fuck your red hat and fuck your coal mine and fuck your flag and fuck your statues and most of all fuck you.” You know, I can get behind that.

I feel like in most history classes here in the States – at the very least, in all the ones I took – the labor rights movement is either glossed over or “cleaned up” or both. It’s not shown as the decades-long bloody war in which the workers of America rose up against a heavily corporate-influenced government. One of the lessons that most stuck out to me in my AP US History class (aka, the one where they’re supposed to teach you “real history”), was when my teacher had us read aloud a passage from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. I was selected to read a passage of the book featuring the gruesomeness of pig slaughter, while the teacher (who was a deeply conservative… immigrant vegan (yeah, a bit of a contradiction)) played a soundtrack of pigs squealing.

From what I understand, something like this is fairly common in history classes; The Jungle is a deeply important work from that era. And it focuses on the general public health violations and disgustingness of the meatpacking industry at that time. What it doesn’t focus on is what Upton Sinclair himself wanted the people to focus on: the conditions of the workers in the meatpacking plants. This is… kind of a repeated theme in history, I think. It seems like people would rather focus on almost literally anything else than workers rights.

I think, however, that it’s something that’s increasingly in the public eye, as West Virginia teachers strike to earn more than a poverty wage, while still taking on the responsibility of feeding their students in one of the poorest states in the country. As Facebook and Amazon and Google contemplate the possibility of bringing back the company town with a shiny gloss of Silicon Valley technocentric capitalism painted over it. As the best solution to the healthcare crisis in this country is “get a job that provides health insurance” but every employer would give anything not to have to provide health insurance.

I find it fascinating and kind of inspiring that the teachers’ strike has begun (and yes, I do believe it’ll spread) in West Virginia, the hotbed of the Coal Wars and where Smilin Sid Hatfield himself rose to notoriety (it’s a pretty safe bet that some of those WV teachers are descendants of these same mine workers). For a little backstory: Smilin Sid Hatfield, a mine worker and union man (specifically for the United Mine Workers of America), who was appointed Police Chief of Matewan, West Virginia. The miners of Matewan were striking, and the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency (the aforementioned company gun thugs) were brought in to break the strike and evict the miners living in the company town (I guess some terrible ideas never really go away). Sid Hatfield got a warrant from the Sheriff to arrest their leader, while their leader claimed to have a warrant to arrest Hatfield. In the end, Mayor Cabell Testerman determined that the Baldwin-Felts warrant was bogus and that Hatfield was in the right. This lead to a shootout between the two factions, which killed both Albert and Lee Felts, and Mayor Testerman. After Sid Hatfield was acquitted of murder charges on the ground of self-defense, he was shot to death by Baldwin-Felts agents on the steps of the courthouse.

This lead, in its time, to the Battle of Blair Mountain, a five day labor uprising in which over 10,000 coal miners rose up against the lawmen and strikebreakers in Logan County, West Virginia. The conflict only ended when the United States government dropped leftover gas and explosive bombs from World War I on the nearby towns, a crushing defeat for the unions. I am not exaggerating when I say that the labor rights movement was a war. The US government dropped bombs on its own citizens to stop them from organizing. This happened. To some, it sounds preposterous, but it did happen.

Growing up in the era that I have, it’s hard for me to accurately picture the power of a union. But there was a very real time when unions wielded tremendous power, pushing for the 40 hour work week (EIGHT HOURS FOR WORK, EIGHT HOURS FOR SLEEP, EIGHT HOURS FOR WHAT YOU WILL, GOD DAMN IT), the weekend, the end of child labor, the implementation of a minimum wage. A vast majority of workers wanted to be part of a union. Your union protected you. Your union took care of you. Your union protected and took care of your family.

And then the air traffic controllers went on strike in 1981, during the Reagan Administration. Ronald Reagan threatened to fire 13,000 people, and in one blow, undermined the power of collective bargaining, the power of the union in general, and halted the labor rights movement in America for 30 years (for this, for his handling of the AIDS crisis, for “Reaganomics”, for the War on Drugs, for so many things – I hope Ronald Reagan is rotting in hell). Union membership has been on a sharp decline ever since; in 2011, less than 7% of private sector workers were union members. The AFL-CIO had about 12 million members in 2014. There were about 125 million full-time employed workers in the United States that same year.

Unions have been declawed, by and large. This is, quite honestly, tragic – I think we need unions more than ever. Amazon wants employees to work under extreme surveillance, with wristbands monitoring their every movement. Facebook and Google are offering “employee housing”, thinly veiled company towns with company stores where 100% of your wages are given right back to your employer. The minimum wage is appallingly stagnant, and has been since the fall of the union. And as automation takes the place of human workers doing human work, we are seeing workers unemployed with no back-up plan, with no safety net, no way to provide for them, because in this world, the only way to prove yourself worthy of sustenance and shelter is to sell your labor.

What kills me, on the automation note, is that jobs (especially full-time, salaried, benefits jobs) are on the decline… but there’s really no shortage of work to be done. This country is full of starving people, failing schools and failing infrastructure (never EVER look at how long it’s been since certain bridges were last reinforced, you’ll never want to drive again), outdated systems that haven’t been updated since the 60s, an energy crisis, an aging population that needs care and to not have to work until they die. Fixing those problems… is work. But that’s not where the jobs are. This is a country with a surplus of work and a shortage of jobs.

America suffers from the prosperity gospel more than ever before, I think; this idea that if you have material wealth (and health, for that matter), it’s because god likes you and you’re clearly just more pious than those needy, grasping poors. It’s stupid, and it’s transmuted into the even stupider idea that rich people deserve to be rich and poor people deserve to be poor. This is, more than anything, what’s kneecapping the very idea of class mobility in this country. And, you know, I’m just going to throw this out there: there’s no such thing as a good millionaire, and definitely not a good billionaire. Hoarding wealth should be considered a capital sin (which, you know, in most religious traditions, IT IS). It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Anyway.

This is where I come back around to Walkaway, and to its ideas of fully automated luxury communism, which I’m sure is a deeply alienating phrase to many (the real dirty “C word” in this country is not the slang term for vagina… but communism). In a lot of ways, the future portrayed in Walkaway is one that terrifies me. The “zottarich” (the ultra mega 1%) have taken even more control of things than they have now, there isn’t enough work to go around but also no other way to “earn” a living. The labor rights movement shown in this book is a descendent of the ones we’ve seen before. The right that’s fought for in Walkaway isn’t just to work in a safe environment, or to make more than a pittance. It’s for the right to not work. Specifically, the right to not work but still be able to feed and clothe and shelter yourself and your family. The right to not work and to still “earn” a living. Because the simple fact is, you shouldn’t have to “earn” your right to exist and to live a life worth living.

Part of the reason this thought is so terrifying is because of the fight involved. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of people died for the simple idea that “maybe people shouldn’t have to work their entire lives.” Of course, that’s part of the trick – it’s something we take for granted now, but truly could not until the sacrifices of those who came before made it a “safe” idea. The Overton window was forcibly shifted to make this an acceptable idea (sidebar: Doctorow has a great quote on this, “the emperor’s new clothes cannot be contradicted on pain of defenestration through the Overton window”).

It’s easy to think that we live in a civilized age and there wouldn’t be literal company gun thugs roaming around anymore, would there? Of course there would. Even besides the fact that “new” rights are always fought and paid for with blood, we possibly live in even more of a corporatocracy than Sid Hatfield did. This, for the record, is why the argument that the Second Amendment is needed so that people can rise up and overthrow the government is insane. Yeah, there’s a lot of people with hunting rifles and handguns in America. The government has tanks, drones, chemical weapons, and extraordinarily advanced missile systems. I’m not just talking about the army either, I’m talking about your average metropolitan police force. The climactic scene in Walkaway, to me, echoes the Battle of Blair Mountain. It takes us right back to Logan County, West Virginia, 1921 and 2091 all together. The US government dropped World War I “leftovers” on the coal miners; I shudder to think what “leftovers” they might have hidden away from two decades of war in the Middle East.

Writing this post feels bleak; it feels like we’re forever doomed to re-fight the battles that our ancestors already won. Every 80 years, the extent of the living human memory, we seem to forget that we already did this. We already got an answer. We don’t need to do this anymore. But, apparently, we do. Apparently we need to do this once a generation just to remind ourselves that we do know the answers. I suppose there is a hopeful side to this, though: we’ll keep winning. The fights for labor rights, for civil rights, for progress… the wheel does not turn back. There is no “schedule”, no clock for progress, but time does not run backwards, and people do not soon forget the rights that they once won.

1 comment for “The Coal Wars and the Walkaways: Labor Rights in the Past, Present, and Future

  1. Andy
    February 4, 2019 at 12:57 pm

    I concur totally with your last para – the arrow of time is in a knot and normal working people allow their “betters” to tell them capitalism is great, trickle down works, public health provision is a lefty con, workers rights are a community plot (some truth in that at times in the UK), and the American dream is alive and well. And we won’t change society with the current human brain – our only hope imho is gene therapy to create a civilized human – otherwise we will have a repeated cycle of growth, collapse, war, starvation etc etc

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