Monday, September 1, 2014

A true "Labor Day"

You can visit just about any long-operating city in this country and find a local monument to the rich capitalist who built the mansion during year whatever. But you have to look far and wide to find memorials to the people whose labor created those riches, to those who died in the battles for such modern-day givens as the eight-hour work day and weekends off, and to the organizers who brought the workers together into the unions that helped create the nation’s now-disappearing middle class.

Scott Martelle
Los Angeles Times
“Opinion: The new battle over Blair Mountain -- with lawyers instead of guns.”

Clyde Eastham
The crutches are due to a mine injury.
"On a hot summer day in 1921 Clyde Herbert Eastham slung his shotgun over his shoulder, kissed his young wife and babies goodbye, and marched out the door of his cramped coal camp cabin to join thousands of other West Virginia miners in a strike that had the attention of the entire country."

That is the beginning of a story I wrote about my grandfather, Clyde Herbert Eastham, and his participation in the struggle to unionize the coal mines of West Virginia. This particular attempt culminated in the Battle of Blair Mountain and ended in defeat. Thousands of miners marched in West Virginia tired of their working conditions, including the murder of many who tried to change the system.  They made a stand on Blair Mountain, against an army of “special deputies”, Baldwin-Felts thugs, state police, and eventually federal troops, accompanied by 14 armed bombers. My grandfather was blacklisted from the mines for years, but he continued the effort, even holding secret meetings at his home.

Clyde was in many mine accidents. His family and all families dreaded hearing the mine whistle blow. Once his back was broken and he spent a year in a body cast unable to support his family. Miners lived in company housing; for the most part when you didn't work you had no place to live. There was no help for injured miners. Widows and children were thrown out of their homes and left to fend for themselves. It was a rough way to live and people like my grandfather fought to make it better.

Granddad was still in the mines when they were finally unionized during the Roosevelt Administration. In part, due to the Battle of Blair Mountain and the revolt of the southern West Virginia coal miners, after forty years of strife, the “New Deal” National Industrial Recovery Act was enacted in 1933, giving U. S. workers the right to join a union. It was the beginning of new health, safety and financial standards for the mining industry. A coal mine is still a dangerous place to work, but thanks to those men who fought on Blair Mountain and the other labor uprisings early in the twentieth century, countless miners receive the benefits for which those “rednecks” sacrificed so much.

Now coal companies want to destroy Blair Mountain, just like they have destroyed hundreds of other beautiful mountains in the coal fields. I imagine they have to interest in preserving such a historically significant location. We have preserved numerous other battlefields on our soil. I think this one deserves to be preserved too.

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