Political Focus: The background of West Virginia’s teacher strike

John Bozick, Web Editor

For much of the beginning of March 2018 in West Virginia, the schools were empty, the classrooms dark and the students remained at home; but the teachers were working harder than they have their entire lives. From February 22 to March 6, teachers from every school took to the state capital to fight for for higher wages and better treatment. These teachers wore red bandannas around their necks: a small reminder of one of the nation’s most important labor movements in history.

The fact that this massive strike happened where it did has much historical value, as West Virginia has always been on the forefront in the battle for labor rights in America. Not even 100 years ago, West Virginia coal miners, who donned a similar red bandanna as today’s teachers, while fighting for better working conditions in what is now known as the Battle of Blair Mountain.

During this time, West Virginia led the nation in coal miner fatalities due to inhumane conditions in the mines. The miners were prevented from unionizing and were unable to participate in a 1919 strike organized by the United Mine Workers of America labor union. Miners were also paid horribly, often times with a currency called a “scrip,” essentially a form of currency distributed by the mining companies that could only be used at businesses owned by the company.

Miners were violently prevented from unionizing and continued to be subjected to inhumane working conditions where child labor was rampant. In 1920 the UMWA began organizing in Mingo County West Virginia, yet following a skirmish over labor union rights that became known as the Matewan Massacre, the situation moved to Logan County where things became more violent.

In the summer of 1920, a strike was organized by the UMWA which saw the coal companies respond by replacing the striking workers with non-union members, this only intensified hostilities as both sides engaged in a series of guerilla warfare-style battles. This period of time was known as the coal wars, a time when striking workers took up arms against their anti-union companies who often times responded to their strikes with force.

Following several skirmishes, the crisis erupted on Aug. 1, 1921. As pro-union sheriff Sid Hatfield was assassinated by agents hired by the coal companies, this outraged miners to the point that by Aug. 28 of the same year over 10,000 had gathered on the border of Logan County where they faced off against anti-union forces. The crisis eventually saw the intervention of the United States Army and the newly formed Air Force, which violently put an end to the labor uprising.

By the end of the conflict, many of the organizers were charged with treason and executed, while the unions in the state were decimated, never recovering. It was not until the Great Depression and the New Deal’s National Recovery Act that workers in West Virginia and all over the country were finally granted their rights to organize.

When we see the teachers of today fight for a livable wage and better treatment, it is important to remember the history of the labor movements in the U.S., as events like what took place in West Virginia all those years ago are but a small chapter in the bloody history of the labor movement in America.