When Miners Strike: West Virginia Coal Mining and Labor History
A primary source set and teaching guide created by educators.
by Adena Barnette
Bituminous coal mining spread throughout the newly formed state of West Virginia in the years following the Civil War. Coal was used to heat homes, generate cheap electricity, and produce steel; it was therefore important for a reunited country experiencing a second industrial revolution. Most West Virginia mines were owned by out-of-state interests who took little interest in the mines’ day-to-day work. Before unionization, each miner worked in a specified territory and was paid per ton of coal extracted. Miners got their wages in scrip, a company-created currency accepted in the company store and all but worthless outside the camp. Forced to pay for rent, clothes, food, medical and burial expenses, and even their mining equipment out of meager wages, miners were often trapped in a system that had them “owing their souls to the company store.” This cycle of debt, paired with dangerous working conditions, continuous threats of layoffs due to the market price of coal, and a lack of sanitary housing or adequate schools, left miners angry and ready for change.
Mary Harris Jones, called Mother Jones, was one of the labor leaders who advocated for such change. In a 1912 speech during the Paint Creek mining strike, Jones said: “This day marks the forward march of the workers in the state of West Virginia.” Jones described working conditions in the mines and living conditions in the camps as twentieth-century slavery. Many divisive and bloody actions took place in the southern West Virginia coalfields in response to the call for unionization, including the Paint Creek Massacre, the Matewan Massacre, and the Battle of Blair Mountain. These events were pivotal for the prospect of unionized labor in America, but were little more than side notes in American history until the 1987 movie Matewan and the 1987 book Storming Heaven. This set will help students understand the labor movement among coal miners and serve as a springboard for broader exploration of unionized employment in the United States.