The Mine Wars (2016)

Director: Randall MacLowry

Meeting of UMWA Local 4033

Meeting of UMWA Local

The Mine Wars is a documentary film that is a part of the PBS show American Experience. The film documents the various struggles between coal mine workers and the mine owners in southern West Virginia in the early 20th century. This piece of history has enjoyed a renewed interest because of the recent struggles against strip mining (or mountain top removal) in West Virginia where Blair Mountain was to be essentially destroyed after the state’s Historical Preservation Office refrained from adding the site to its register of historical sites. The struggles of the mine wars led to what would be the largest insurrection since the US Civil War at the Battle of Blair Mountain. The film also features an account of the violent struggle that was featured in the film Matewan.

The film is about the attempt by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and its supporters to unionize the largely non-union southern West Virginian coal mines. Most of the mines in the northern part of the state had been unionized by the turn of the century and those workers had been receiving better pay than their non-union counterparts in the south. In the non-union mines, workers faced more dangerous working conditions and no representation on the job and had for years tried to improve their awful working conditions. Their efforts to unionize were met with harsh repression by a mix of violent private agents hired by the mine owners (particularly the Baldwin Felts detective agency, who were quite similar to the Pinkertons), some local sheriff agencies, and the US Army.

State forces preparing for battle against miners

State forces preparing for battle against miners

Mother Jones is featured throughout the documentary for her support of the mine workers’ struggle, particularly early on when the UMWA first made attempts to organize the southern mines. Her role in the beginning of the struggle was crucial in rallying and mobilizing workers to the cause, but as the violence began escalating in the later years, she played a much more restraining role which highlights the conflict not only between the miners and the company but within the workers movement itself. Although it is made clear that she was simply trying to avoid a disastrous result, she ultimately played a demobilizing role as the the miners had begun to gain real momentum.

The film does an excellent job in analyzing the internal dynamics which led to perhaps the most militant action taken by workers in the United States in the 20th century. While explicit socialist politics didn’t play the driving factor in pushing the miners to directly confront both the state and the mining companies, a radical political orientation of the local leadership certainly helped to establish that compromise was not the best option. The efforts to use force to achieve their demands showed that the mine workers in that region had achieved a level of class consciousness that had not been seen in some time in the United States, and the fact that the US military itself intervened showed that even the most powerful in society were nervous about the potential of the situation to get “out of hand.”

Ultimately, the miners did not succeed in their efforts, and many of the miners who marched directly against the state were imprisoned which led to the union drive to largely be a failure. But some credit this action with laying the groundwork for an increased focus on labor rights and for setting the stage for the labor struggles of the 1930s.

The Mine Wars is a great contribution to labor documentaries and should be used as a resource for those looking to understand the history of militant labor struggle in the United States.


Documentary a Day: Mine War on Blackberry Creek (1986)

Director: Anne Lewis

This short (around half an hour) documentary is about a strike by West Virginian coal miners that got violent in the early 1980s.  It should be of interest today as some of the main players of the strike continue to make national news headlines: Richard Trumpka, who is now the president of the AFL-CIO, and Don Blankenship, Massey Energy CEO who got national headlines when a mine operated by Massey exploded a few years ago, killing many workers inside.  Massey Energy also engages in a lot of “mountain top removal” which has become quite a contentious issue in West Virginia, for workers, environmentalists and the coal industry.

This documentary accounts for a strike that got violent and was a very important event for the union movement of West Virginia (the unions have consistently been busted since).  Interviews with striking workers, and scabs that were brought in either from other states or interestingly were local police before the strike, are contrasted throughout the film.  The class consciousness of the striking workers is quite high, the violent history of West Virginia’s labor disputes remains an important lesson for them throughout these interviews.  It’s also interesting to note that a high level of solidarity with South African workers is kept with the striking workers who are well aware that Massey is exploiting workers on an international scale and that solidarity is important if they wanted to have a fighting chance.

Another interesting part of the documentary are the interviews with Don Blankenship and the scab workers.  Blankenship makes similar arguments as a boss of a profit-making corporation that the fictional boss in Godard’s Tout Va Bien makes to not only justify his company’s position against the workers, but to defend capitalism itself.  The scabbing workers often either are visibly uncomfortable about the backlash by the community and striking workers and are very open about the fact that they regret what they’re doing, or their excuses rest on relatively empty notions of “freedom” and the “right to work.”

This short film demonstrates the aspect of coal mining that is all too often left out of the current debate on moutain top removal, and reminds me of a Monthly Review article titled “What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism” that links these two important subjects.

The documentary can be viewed in its entirety here:

Links of interest:

Monthly Review Article – on strikes in West Virginia which includes the one this documentary is about

Ambush at Keystone – An account by Maoist Mike Ely about his invovlement in a wildcat strike in West Virginia in the 1970s

Matewan – A late 1980s film about earlier labor disputes in West Virginia.