Appalachia Today: Part 4 – The Triumph of Capital over Labor – The Demise of the UMWA

Photo: Coal miners returning from the mines

Coal miners have played a major part in building the labor movement in the US and in gaining improved wages, benefits and working conditions. In the early 1900s, as the miner’s union struggled to organize the miners, not only the coal mines but the coal towns where the miners lived were typically owned by the coal operator. Miners typically rented company-owned houses from the coal company and were paid in scrip, which could only be exchanged at the company store for often overpriced goods. In addition to being exploited economically, miners also faced great safety problems. According to historian David Alan Corbin, during late 1800s and early 1900s, mines in West Virginia had the highest death rate nationwide and an accident rate five times higher than any European country.[i] Coal bosses also employed private, armed mine guards to enforce rules and suppress union activity.

This oppressive work environment led miners of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds to support unionization and demand improved working and living conditions. In the late 1800s, while strikes were small-scale, there were several attempts to develop a national organization.  In 1890, the United Mine Workers of America was founded.

The UMWA is one of the oldest and historically one of the most militant unions in American labor history.[ii] The UMWA history is full of legendary yet tragic stories such as the “Matewan Massacre” and “Battle of Blair Mountain.” The UMWA struggled against great odds to achieve better wages, greater safety and fair working conditions: the eight-hour day in 1898, collective bargaining rights in 1933, health and retirement benefits in 1946, and health and safety protections in 1969.[iii]

John L. Lewis, a former miner and the president of UMWA from 1920 to 1960, was one of the most powerful of all U.S. labor leaders. By the time Lewis became President of the UMWA, the UMWA represented about 300,000 coal miners.[iv] As Barbara Freese wrote in her book “Coal: A Human History,” Lewis “filled stadium with cheering supporters wherever he went”, and under his leadership the UMWA became one of the nation’s strongest unions.[v] Lewis also played a major role in helping Franklin D. Roosevelt win a landslide in 1936 as the UMWA grew to 800,000 members[vi], but broke with Roosevelt in 1940.

Photo: A gathering of coal miners and their families amidst the labor movement in the 1970s.

Lewis was a brutally effective and aggressive fighter and strike leader who gained high wages for his membership while uniting the industrial unions into the Congress of Industrial Organization, which became for a while a political and economic powerhouse rivaling the American Federation of Labor.[vii]

However, the UMWA started to lose members to mechanization after World War I but membership slowly grew back up during Lewis’ presidency. However, during World War II, Lewis was widely criticized and his popularity declined for continuing to organize strike in the midst of an all-hands-on-deck war effort when he led an estimated 500,000 UMWA members to violate the labor movement’s no-strike pledge in a protest of frozen wages.[viii] [ix]

The labor movement in the US has witnessed a dramatic decline in its membership since the mid-1900s. In 1950, almost 30 percent of the private employees in this country were members of unions. Today the number has dropped to 7 percent.[x] Similarly, a general decline in UMWA’s membership and power occurred in the 1970s and 1980s when the union confronted aggressive anti-union management tactics. Other factors contributing to the decline in membership also include competition from other energy sources, environmental challenges, and automation. When Lewis retired in 1960, coal employment nationwide had already dropped below 150,000. In 1990, Southwest Virginia had nearly 12,000 coal miners, among which only 4,000 were represented by the union. By the end of the 20th century, the UMWA’s nationwide membership of active miner declined to 30,000. In 2003, roughly 6,500 people worked in the Southwest Virginia coal mines with roughly 350 of them belonging to UMWA.[xi] By 2014, UMWA was left with 20,000 active coal miners while responsible for pensions and health care benefits for 89,000 retired miners and their families.[xii] Finally, on December 29, 2015, Patriot Coal permanently closed an underground coal mine in western Kentucky, leaving not a single active UMWA miner in the entire state.[xiii]

The slow decline of labor power gave coal companies great power to set working conditions and mine how they pleased. The results were disastrous both for the miners and the people and environment of the coalfields.