Biographical note


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The district's inexperienced leaders were put to the test first by the national coal strike called in the fall of 1919. John L. Lewis had just be­come acting president of the UMWA. The strike was a national success but in Harlan County it merely led to another outbreak of violence. When the great strike of 1919 began, the UMWA claimed a membership of 3,900 in Harlan County. With the exception of United States Steel operations at Lynch and International Harvester Company at Benham, all Harlan County mines were closed by the strike. Geographical Survey figures showed that 81 percent of the capacity of Harlan County Coal Operators Association was out of production.

The national strike lasted from November 1 to December 12. There were two basic areas of dispute between the union and the operators. The UMWA, headed by Mr. Lewis, demanded a 60 percent wage increase and a 30-hour, 5-day week. The miners also insisted that the war had ended with the armistice and that a clause in the existing contract, which started that the contract could not be reopened for the duration, was null and void. Mr. Lewis pointed out that the UMWA could not be held responsible for failure of the United States Senate to ratify the Versailles treaty. The operators argued that in the absence of a formal declaration by the government that the war had ended, the existing contract held until March 31, 1920. Despite injunction proceedings initiated by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, the miners refused to return to work until President Woodrow Wilson agreed to appoint an arbitration commission.

The United States Bituminous Coal Commission, which was appointed by the President to settle the question of wages and hours, handed down its decision in March 1920. The Commission's award provided for an increase of 24 cents a ton in tonnage rates; an advance of $1 a day for day and monthly workers (except trapper boys and others receiving less than a man's pay, whose pay was raised 53 cents); an increase of 20 percent in pay for yardage, dead work, room turning, and similar opera­tions; a 48-hour week; and a contract which was to remain in effect until April 1, 1922. Compared with the rates in effect on October 31, 1919, the new scale represented an increase of approximately 27 percent.

Percentage wise this is the largest pay boost ever won by an American labor union and was the first big victory won for the nation's miners by John L. Lewis. The new contract was signed by virtually all coal operators in the United States, but anti-unionism persisted in Harlan County. The operators refused to accept the award of the Bituminous Coal Commission. When the national strike was called off, Harlan County operators began another concerted effort to destroy the UMWA. District 19 Secretary E. L. Reed reported that the anti-union campaign began in the traditional man­ner. Several hundred miners known to be active and loyal union members were refused work. They and their families were served with eviction notices and were forced to move out of company-owned houses. The UMW Journal reported that gunmen and thugs employed by the coal companies were running wild in the Harlan coalfield. The Journal said:

"Three members of the United Mine Workers were shot down in cold blood by these ruffians and murderers on March 20 at the Banner Fork Coal Corporation Mine No. 2. The following are the names of the victims:

"K. S. Taylor, instantly killed. Leaves a widow and seven children without any means of support.

"James Burk, deputy sheriff, fatally wounded. Died the next day in a hospital at Harlan, leaving a widow and family without support.

"General Gibson, fatally wounded. Died on an operating table in a hospital at Harlan, leaving a family without support.

"One of the gunmen, Jim Hall, was severely wounded and sent to a hospital at Harlan."

According to the UMW Journal, Jim Hall was one of six thugs paid $10 a day by the coal operators to intimidate union members. He was reported to have boasted that he killed a miner a month. During a fight where he killed three men, he himself was wounded in spite of the fact that he wore a steel breastplate for protection against bullets.

On May 1, 1920, the UMW Journal printed a letter to the editor that detailed other instances of violence committed by employees of the Harlan County coal operators. The correspondent said that at Wilson-berger a coal operator tried to evict union member J. B. Bryant from a company house. He refused so the house was dynamited while Mr. Bryant, his wife and six children were asleep. Through a miracle they survived. This letter also said truthfully that two men - Rockingham Smith and Boyd Kelly - who had been tried, convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison for killing the two Shipmans in 1917 had not only not served a minute of their sentences, but that one of them, Smith, was in 1920 chief constable of the County Court of Harlan County. This letter also reported that there were about 75 gun thugs working for the operators in Harlan County and that, among others, they had murdered Lee Clark, a UMWA local union secretary and a city policeman in Harlan.

With miners clinging tenaciously to the UMWA, however, the operators finally capitulated and the operators signed a new wage agreement on August 12, 1920. In accordance with the Coal Com­mission award, tonnage rates were increased 24 cents a ton and yardage. But in the agreement the operators inserted a clause providing "that men shall not be discriminated against on account of membership or non-membership in any organization nor shall any member of any organization interfere with or discriminate against those who are not members, nor shall men who are not members interfere or discriminate against those who are." This made the contract essentially an open-shop agreement and permitted a more orderly liquidation of the union by the operators later on. It should be remembered that the district officers who did not have the experience to realize what this clause in the contract signified signed this agreement.

Almost at once, according to reports of the miners, the check-weigh men disappeared from the mine tipples, notwithstanding the fact that the Kentucky law provided:

"That when a majority of the miners engaged in digging or mining coal in any coal mine in this state, request the owner or owners, or operator of said mines to allow said miners to employ, at their own expense, a person to inspect the weights at said mine, and see that all the coal digged and mined by said miner is properly weighed and accounted for, and do and perform only such other duties as will insure that said coal is properly weighed and correctly accounted for, said owner or owners or operator or operators shall permit such person to be employed by said miners making the request. Provided, the person so employed by said miners has the reputation of being an honest, trustworthy, discreet, sober and upright man. Said checkweightman shall be duly elected by a majority of the employees engaged in mining and loading coal and said election shall be properly conducted by secret ballot at the principal entrance to the mine."

The union’s national leaders discouraged local strikes in protest against contract violations of this kind because they recognized the fact that the post-war depression made strikes of any kind virtually im­possible of success. As a matter of fact, although the Harlan County opera­tors said that they had reached an agreement with the union, no union-management relationship existed in Harlan County after World War I. By 1921 even the wage provisions of the contract were openly ignored by the operators.

It was reported in one of the leading coal trade journals that operators in the southeastern Kentucky districts, including Harlan County, had cut wages from 27 to 30 percent. The article went on to indicate that while many operators paid the union scale during the latter part of 1920 and the early months of 1921, the union was never officially recognized and operators disregarded the dues check-off entirely. It was further reported that the miners in the district were so desperate for employment that they readily accepted the pay cuts.

A vivid indication of the inroads made in the union ranks in Harlan County during the depression of 1921 was reported by the government publication, "Mineral Resources of the United States," which showed the maximum extent to which the important coal producing districts were shut down by the great strikes of 1919 and 1922. As against 60 percent of the productive capacity of Harlan County rendered idle by the strike of 1919, only 21 percent was affected by the strike and on this account over-emphasized the shutdown in the district. In the official summary of the coal industry for the strike years, it was stated that strike losses in the Harlan field "were insignificant in 1922."

Breach of contract soon degenerated into a rough, tough union-busting drive by the Harlan County coal operators. Its complete success is a matter of record. It was many a long year, nearly twenty in fact, before Harlan County was again organized by the UMWA.

Typical of the strong-arm methods used by the operators are those outlined by Chester C. Watson, a miner who was working at Black Mountain at that time and who is now a retired representative of UMWA District 29 in West Virginia. He recently wrote:

"In January 1922 I went to work for the Black Mountain Coal Corporation at Black Mountain, Kentucky, (Post Office Kenvir, Ken­tucky), which mine was owned by the Peabody Coal Company, Chicago, Illinois.

"The Local Union at Black Mountain, No. 4492, United Mine Workers of America, had a membership of approximately 900 members and was working under a one-year, closed-shop contract, with complete check off of union dues, etc.

"There were two mines at Black Mountain, north and south. Conveyor belts from the top tipple down the mountain to the railroad tipple carried coal from these two mines.

"In 1923 when the Local Union sent a contract committee to Chicago to get a new contract signed by the Peabody Coal Company, they were told that the coal company had to compete in the coal market with the non-union mines in Harlan County and the Black Mountain Local Union would have to organize these non-union mines and bring them up to their standard and if this was not done, the Peabody Coal Company would not sign another one-year contract with the UMWA. The Black Mountain Local Union sent committees to the other mines in Harlan County but was unable to organize them.

"This contract expired on March 31, 1924, and having no contract, the Local Union went on strike April 1, 1924. On September 1, 1924, the Company brought in fifteen guards, deputized as deputy sheriffs, to Black Mountain with high-powered rifles and machine guns. Machine guns were placed on each top tipple and the mine was declared open for operation. A few outside men were brought in and started to work.

Forty-two house eviction cases were tried before County Judge Willie Bob Howard and the men involved in the house cases which included all the Local Union officers, mine committees and men active in the Local Union, were ordered by Judge Howard to vacate the company houses.

"On September 23, 1924, the Local Union met and disbanded. All members were given transfer cards. Employees at the Black Mountain Mine were required to go into Superintendent J. T. Smith's office to be given a clearance slip for re-employment and had to vacate the company houses and leave Harlan County to get employment.

"The Union had been broken at all other Harlan County mines for more than one year and they were operating non-union. When this strike was broken in 1924, none of the non-union mines in Harlan County, all of which were members of the Harlan County Coal Operators Association, would employ a man from Black Mountain.

"Many of the men who worked at Black Mountain transferred to Local Union No. 5355 after Local Union 4495 at Black Mountain folded up. No. 5355, at Evarts, was a recruiting local with members from Kildav Woods and Black Mountain. It had jurisdiction at no mine."

The men at Black Mountain had remained loyal to the UMWA much longer than other miners in Harlan County. Some of them went to work at Black Mountain on a non-union basis. Mr. Watson was typical of others who left Harlan County and worked elsewhere. He went to Twin Branch, West Virginia, in 1928 and worked for the Fordson Coal Company. In 1928, Harlan County was no place for a union man to live.

Harlan County in the 1920's was an area where coal miners starved to death while most of the rest of the citizens prospered. The prosperity of the rest of the County was based on the poverty of the miners. Harlan County coal operators were making money hand over fist and it was a golden era of full employment for gun thugs. This prosperity for the coal operators and their hirelings was strictly local as far as the national coal industry was concerned. For the coal industry as a whole, the post-war era of national prosperity was a grotesque illusion. During the lush period from 1923 to 1929 when virtually all other industries, except agriculture, were being swept forward by an apparently endless economic boom, production of bituminous coal fell off sharply. Mine sales realizations were cut 36 percent, more than 3,000 commercial mines went out of business, and nearly 202,000 soft coal miners lost their jobs. The enormous profits of the years immediately following World War I were transformed into a new loss for the industry as a whole in 1929 of more than $1 million.

Exactly the reverse took place in Harlan County. Production rose from 8,581,000 tons in 1923 to 14,093,000 tons in 1929, a gain of more than 80 percent. At the same time, the number of men employed ad­vanced from 9,280 to 10,831, an increase of 17 percent. It is true that prices paid to Harlan County coal operators dropped in about the same proportion as elsewhere but this loss was partly offset by an increase in productivity per-man-per-day. Explanation for the conspicuous prosperity of coal operators in Harlan County is the fact that they were the first operators group in the country to go non-union and, therefore, the first to cut wages. They began the wage-cutting, price-cutting competition that very nearly destroyed the coal industry in this country. Because they were first, they were able to keep one step ahead of operators, most of whom had not gone non-union until 1927. But in 1929 the price-cutting squeeze caught up with the Harlan operators. Although production remained high and wages went to almost unbelievably low levels, the Harlan County coal operators joined the rest of the industry in the industry-wide depression.

The operators' anti-union arsenal was full of weapons. One, as described by Mr. Watson, was violence and the fear that went with it. There are others, among them a device the operators called the "individual contract" and which the UMWA has always referred to as "yellow dog contracts." Under terms of these so-called agreements, the miner in writing signed an individual contract that stated that he would not belong to the UMWA or any other labor organization as long as he remained in the employ of the company with which he signed the contract. According to a contemporary report of the U.S. Government's Bituminous Coal Com­mission, the yellow dog contract suppressed civil liberty and "has been used as a basis for securing injunctions against the attempts to organize the field by any means whatsoever." These contracts were also used as a basis for claiming damages from the UMWA. Miners appealed to the Coal Commission against these contracts. Their appeals were apparently read and filed. Typical was one addressed to the Commission in May 1923, by a group of miners in Perry County, Kentucky. It said: "Honorable Gentlemen:

We, the undersigned, coal miners and mine workers of Auxier, Lothair, Heiner, Hardburly, Domino, Cornettsville, Christopher, Chavies and Hazard, Kentucky, humbly pray that the United States Coal Com­mission will restore to us American wage workers the right to belong to or join the United Mine Workers of America, which the coal operators of this section of Kentucky have taken away from us. The coal operators forced us by coercion through their personal agents to sign a contract that we will not join the United States Mine Workers of America. If we do not sign the coal company's contract then we are forced out of our jobs and forced out of the coal company's houses. We are free American wage workers, and we ask the right to belong to any American organization we see or think is to our interest as Americans. The coal operators have and belong to their own organizations.

"They are most tyrannical and unscrupulous to us coal miners. They employ gunmen and private spies to report us miners if we join any labor organization and discharge us. They make statements in the news­papers that the miners of northeastern and eastern Kentucky are well pleased with the conditions imposed upon us by coal operators and their gunmen and private spies. The statements made by coal operators and their private hireling emissaries are absolutely untrue. We are far from satisfied. In fact, we are as slaves under the conditions imposed upon us by the coal operators. Again we ask the United State Coal Commission to help us to be free American wageworkers. We humbly pray you to help us to restore democracy for all American producers in the mountain counties of northeastern and eastern Kentucky. This is our prayer. Please help us."

The Commission did nothing.

Some observers of union activities in Harlan County implied that the UMWA in the face of bitter anti-union attitude of the operators, made no real effort to organize the miners in the field between 1920 and 1930. This is considerably less than accurate. Throughout the twenties repeated efforts were made by the union to re-enter the field. A concerted drive, for example, began in the latter part of 1923 just after the work of the U. S. Coal Commission had been completed. Union organizers were quickly driven from Harlan by the operators' gun thugs.

For the next two years the union was virtually extinct in Harlan County. Communication with the outside world was nil. Most of the men had watched the union pushed out without a whimper. They were eager to work under any conditions and at first the wage cuts had been small and changes in working conditions had been slight. Little by little, however, a true era of poverty and degradation for the coal miners of Harlan County began and continued. The men wanted the union back but for the time being it was too late. Two letters to the editor of the Journal tell much of conditions in Harlan County in 1925-1926, and also express the desire for a return of the union, coupled with the realization that this could not take place. The first letter appeared in the February 15, 1925, issue of the Journal. It said:

"I am writing so that brothers in other parts of the country may know of conditions in District 19. The larger mines in the Bell and Harlan County fields are working pretty steady, but the conditions under which the men are forced to work are deplorable. I am told by several men in this district that they are working hard loading coal but cannot make half enough to support their families. Wages have been reduced to less than one-half what they were a year-and-a-half ago. There has never been such a slaughter in wages since the operators have been successful in putting the union out of business in this particular field. The miners let the operators take the union away from them and are now asking when will the union come to their rescue.

"The miners certainly have good leadership since the International Union has taken over the district. The fault has been that the majority of miners have lost sight of their own welfare and allowed the operators and gunmen to get the upper hand. Our president, William Turnblazer, has never sanctioned a reduction in wages. On the other hand, the men in this district have not backed him up in his stand against a reduction. Sanford Snyder, an international organizer, has been in this field for nearly three years and is one of the best field workers ever sent here. He is outspoken against a reduction.

"I know the spirit of the union is stronger in the field at this time than it was in 1917, but in my opinion there is no use now bothering with the matter. Of course, such action is hard on the good men of the district, but I think that when the union comes in here again it will come to stay, for it is coming by the stomach route this time - the men feel the need of it.

"For example, look at the condition of the miners in the coal camps of the Liberty Coal & Coke Company since the union has been driven put. I am told by traveling men that the condition of the men is awful m this camp with the exception of the salaried men and contractors. There have been more men maimed and crippled and killed in the few months that the union has been out of there than there were during the entire twelve or fifteen years under union conditions. I hope that the union may prosper and some day come back to our relief."

The second letter to appear in the Journal stated briefly:

I am located at Verda, Harlan County, Kentucky, District 19, and have been for four years. I think the men of Harlan field have seen their mistake now. The coal that we were receiving 50 cents a ton for loading when the United Mine Workers left this field, with 60 cents rib yardage and 7 cents for slate, now is 40 cents a ton in rooms and 42 cents in entry without any rib or yardage and no checkweighman at all. I have seen a whole trip go over the scales without being weighed. I believe the men working here see where they missed it when they let the union go. The men posted notices about a checkweighman election and some of them were fired. I have always been a union man and it makes the red blood boil when I see such things. I long to see the men get enough of it."

Conditions became progressively worse during the months that fol­lowed. According to one observer, wages of day men in 1926 ranged from $2.00 to $3.50 for a 12 to 16 hour day, while the wages of miners and loaders were reported to be as low as 20 cents a ton.

Another Verda miner wrote the Journal: "There are women and children in Harlan County that go to bed hungry because the husband and father cannot make enough to feed them. Day men are paid from $2.00 to $3.50 for twelve to sixteen hours a day. They run coal from 5:30 in the morning until 8 or 9 o'clock at night. Diggers are promised 40 cents a ton, but when it is weighed the weight they get only shows 20 cents a ton, because the same cars on which they formerly got paid for 4,000 pounds now weigh only 2,000 pounds."

Toward the end of 1926, due to a windfall of unexpected business for the American coal industry resulting from the British coal strike, there was a brief revival of union activity in Harlan County. But in spite of the favorable circumstances, not much headway was made. To defeat this new campaign there is evidence that many of the companies discharged workers and evicted them from the company-owned houses when it was discovered that they had joined the union.

The operators were literally getting away with murder and the fact that the 1926 organizing drive failed was almost entirely due to the fact that Sheriff Ward of Harlan County was a creature controlled and paid by the operators. His duties were actually to coerce, maim and murder any man with the audacity to speak up for the union. William Turnblazer reported to District 19's membership that he and other UMWA officers were attempting to have Sheriff Ward removed from office by Gov. W. J. Fields. He said: "We do not intend to allow Sheriff Ward or his paid gunmen to chase any organizer out of Harlan County."

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