A stunning re-creation of the great West Virginia uprising of 1921, when some 10,000 armed miners confronted coal operators and their hired guns in an attempt to unionize.
After WWI, President Wilson’s New Freedom was out, as were idealism, the rights of labor, and dissent. “The conservative trend was also marked by an enhanced reverence for free enterprise, its leaders and all their works, an attitude which served to reinforce the resistance of these worthies to the demands of labor,” writes former political correspondent Shogan (War Without End, 2002, etc.; Government/Johns Hopkins), sounding more like Big Bill Haywood than the free-thinking historian he mostly proves to be in these impassioned pages. Inflation was wrecking the old wage structure; demand was falling in the postwar economy. The United Mine Workers (UMW) had adopted the new work-within-the system unionism of Samuel Gompers, but in West Virginia, a more radical faction also had a change in the political landscape on their minds. It was obvious, Shogan writes, that all the West Virginia coal mines had to be unionized, or the nonunion mines would offset the production stoppages of the striking mines, giving the union a case of the dwindles. Wilson's swing to the right, the difficulties of unionizing the disparate West Virginia working classes, the role of federal troops, ancient enmities, and conspicuous actors like Sid Hatfield (yes, of those Hatfields), who turned a blood feud into union resistance, are among the volatile ingredients Shogan blends into a zesty narrative stew. He suggests that America’s “promise of opportunity, individual freedom and fairness under the law” led the miners to lay down their arms, but leaves open the possibility that they may have simply had a good sense of bad timing. Indeed, the time would never be right in West Virginia for social justice, though unions prompted employers to throw the populace a few economic sops.
A mesmerizing, rarely mentioned piece of labor history, crackingly told. (10 b&w photographs, not seen)