June 20, 2006


Caption: A flower for West Virginia, which she helped to grow.

Today is the 143rd birthday of El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia. On this date in 1863, West Virginia achieved statehood with the help of President Lincoln, having seceded from the secessionists a little earlier.

Alas, no sooner had we gained our independence when we lost it again as the state's vast mineral wealth was gobbled up by outside corporate interests, making much of it a virtual mineral colony.

But we didn't take it lying down. In fact, the state has a strong tradition of struggling against the odds for social justice. Probably the biggest labor strike in the 1800s began in Martinsburg, WV in 1877 in response to a pay cut for railroad workers. The strike spread like wildfire across the country.

The Paint Creek and Cabin Creek strikes by the United Mine Workers in 1912 and 1913 inspired Wobbly poet Ralph Chaplin to write what has become the international anthem of the labor movement, "Solidarity Forever."

Mary Harris "Mother" Jones was all over that one. In her Autobiography, she said "There is never peace in West Virginia because there is never justice." She also promised that "When I get to the other side, I shall tell God Almighty about West Virginia."

Labor struggles in 1920 inspired film maker John Sayles to produce "Matewan," about a shootout in Mingo County. Shortly after that incident, the state hosted the largest worker's insurrection in American history as union miners and supporters marched on Blair Mountain in Logan County in an effort to help fellow workers gain the right to organize.

The marchers, called "rednecks" because of their red bandanas, fought a pitched battle with company supporters that only ended with the intervention of the US military.

Labor organizers from the UMWA helped build the mass production unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which in turn helped to create the American middle class. The state also contributed greatly to more recent movements for workplace and coal mine safety and democratic unions.

The tradition continued into the 1990s with the Pittston coal strike and the historic victory of Steelworkers during the Ravenswood lockout.

In recent years, the state has lost thousands of good paying jobs in mining and manufacturing in the wake of mechanization and NAFTA type "free" trade agreements. Residents of the coalfields are continuing to struggle against the depredations of colonial mining companies which are now literally removing entire sections of the Appalachian mountains in quest of coal.

The billions of dollars of wealth extracted from the state has largely benefited absentee landlords and mining companies. Some of the poorest counties in the state are the very ones from which the greatest wealth was extracted.

As the mining disasters of this year have shown, the battle for mine safety continues.

But the people here are as tough as the land and aren't about to give up. They've won quite a few rounds over the years.

It would be nice, though, if Mother Jones would get around to having that conversation with God.



Susan M. said...

One of the better commentaries I've read about my home state! I remember the 100th birthday celebration when I was 10 years old. Clendenin was quite the booming little town in those days. All the store merchants were dressed in pioneeer clothing. Keep 'em comin'...this coal miner's daughter loves 'em!

justbloggin said...

I am so glad this blog was advertised on MY blog! I am from WV too! AND June 20th is my Birthday!
I am so happy to know that someone in WV is educated enough to blog on these issues!!