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A Maddening Story

The Great Coalfield War

by George S. McGovern, by Leonard F. Guttridge
Houghton Mifflin, 383 pp., $8.95

An election for governor is underway in West Virginia this year and a young and rich man named John D. Rockefeller IV is running as a Democrat, and as a champion of coal miners and the poor. He wants to save the state from the ravages inflicted on land and people by mining companies and a corrupt and lawless United Mine Workers of America. Union leaders and mining executives loathe him, and a growing multitude of welfare recipients, war resisters, miners, students, environmentalists, and other reformers see him as the Mountain State’s last hope to escape the misery of poverty, exploitation, and hopelessness. It is a measure of how much things have changed that this heir to the fabulous Rockefeller fortune is the grandson of the principal owner of Colorado Fuel and Iron Corporation, that corporate dinosaur whose minions and allies killed miners and their wives and children in Colorado six decades ago with a cold-bloodedness once reserved for Indians and rebellious slaves.

Yet the forces arrayed against him and the fact that he should have to come down from New York to fight a battle for a dying state illustrates the extent to which the old injustices and cruelties have survived, how very little has in fact been swept away, and the extent to which the rich and the powerful are prisoners of the very world they own and rule.

The Great Coalfield War should be read for a number of important reasons. For one, Americans should know of the grim and brutal lives men have lived—and live—in the remote canyons and valleys of the American hinterland where coal is mined. They need to comprehend the degradation, suffering, and death that accompany the digging of those black carbon lumps that heat our homes in winter, cool them in summer, light them the year around, spawn our plastics and synthetic fibres, and ease our pains in aspirin and a hundred other medicines. They should know that their human price is immense today and has been even greater in earlier years—that coal is a national scandal, a scourge that presidents and congressmen have feared to cope with.

This book should also be read because one of the authors may someday be President of the United States, and the book reveals, to some considerable degree, the careful, orderly, incisive, and sympathetic way in which he thinks and so the kind of President he might be. The book is a rewritten and enlarged version of Senator Mc-Govern’s doctoral thesis and deals with complex men and issues in a remarkably fair and dispassionate way.

In those long ago days in the second decade of the century most of Colorado’s coal production came from the hills and canyons of the “Trinidad Field” in Huerfano and Las Animas counties. The communities bore hard, graceless names of the kind coal men have fastened on coal communities across Appalachia—Berwind, Tollers-burg, LaVeta, Hastings, Sopris, Aguilar, Starkville, and Ludlow. The land was rich in coal and natural coke but the 25,000-acre territory had been twisted and folded by the convulsions of late Mesozoic seismic throes, generating enormous pressures until the entire area burst above the surrounding plain. These upheavals give bold relief from the general regional desolation of south-central Colorado but made a grim setting for the drab little towns American capitalists staked out for their miners.

The land was rich in tradition and history long before the coal barons came with their shafts, headhouses, tipples, and heaps of slate. Towering above it all on the western horizon were the twin snow-capped massifs Indians had called Huajatolla, the “Breasts of the Earth.” They and the tortured earth above which they tower were discovered, the authors tell us, by Valverde, a Spanish priest, whose startled exclamation was stamped as a name on a nearby range. He came upon the mountains at dawn when they were steeped in a deep red glow, and gasped,”¡Sangre de Cristo!“—“Blood of Christ.” Valverde was seeking Indians to Christianize and enslave, and gold for their chained hands to dig, and superstitious Utes warned him that the region’s riches were guarded by a jealous god. The effect of this warning on the priest is unknown, but it was ignored two centuries later by another breed of treasure seekers whose serfs would tunnel for coal.

The Colorado Fuel and Iron Company was founded to supply the West with wire fences and steel rails. It resulted from a merger of older companies and its founders dreamed of building an industrial empire to rival the domain Andrew Carnegie had assembled in the East. They were a shrewd, greedy, and rapacious lot, and by the turn of the century their enterprise was the most powerful coal and iron operation in the West. John Osgood was its chief architect and brought a total paternalism to the neat rows of coal camp houses and the men, women, and children to whom they were home.

The company provided churches and preachers to bring proper messages to the congregations, schoolhouses with safe and sound teachers, stores with enticing arrays of merchandise at hefty prices, hospitals and their staffs of doctors and nurses, recreation halls with poolrooms and saloon, and libraries of carefully selected volumes. The company provided, also, coal mines and coke ovens, and undertakers for those numerous unfortunates who were killed, and company graveyards for their bones. The inhabitants had no voice or choice in any of these matters but lived to bring to the top the glittering fuel which had called it all into being. CFI’s model towns were aimed at preserving industrial peace and keeping union organizers and troublemakers away. “We do not seek credit as philanthropists,” Osgood declared. “We are aiming to carry out common-sense business ideas.”

In 1902 the Rockefeller interests bought control of the corporation and John D., Jr., entered what must have been the most distressing episode of his career. McGovern shows that Rockefeller left the incumbent managers at their desks, backed them up with amazing loyalty. He promptly found himself sinking like a corporate LBJ into a bottomless industrial Vietnam—a quagmire of interests and conflicts he did not understand, where there were opponents who would not listen to reason but insisted on struggling for goals no Christian businessman should sanction.

And Rockefeller was a Christian for sure, in the best White Anglo-Saxon Protestant meaning of the word. Like his sire he was a Baptist and taught a Sunday school class which under his tutelage grew from a mere 50 to 200. Presumably he taught his students the virtues of the obedience, toil, and gratitude he expected of his employees in the bleak Colorado hills.

The coal industry dominated the state’s politicians with the same thoroughness it continues to display in most of Appalachia. Mining tools and techniques were primitive, and sheriffs and judges were often in the pay of the operators. Local peace officers and judges were no more than puppets whose prime duty in life was to police the company towns, keep “outside agitators” away, and clear out impediments to profitable output in the mines. When the state’s inspectors found dangerous conditions the operators safely ignored their warnings, and when the predicted explosions roared through the tunnels and blasted a score or more men into oblivion they em-paneled coroner’s juries which blamed the miners and absolved the companies. When the bodies were “too horrible” families were not allowed to see them; but in bursts of generosity companies sometimes allowed fifty or seventy-five dollars on the cost of burial. There were no workmen’s compensation benefits for cripples, widows, and orphans, and a twelve-hour day could bring a sturdy miner $2.50.

By 1911 the United Mine Workers had become the major union in the coalfields. Its leaders were cautious souls who had learned from years of trial and strife the magnitude of the nation’s corporate power and the limits of what might be accomplished with a lot of effort and courage, a bit of luck, and, sometimes, a little murder. As McGovern makes clear, they rejected socialist talk of revolution and aimed at such essentials as union recognition, increased wages, an eight hour day, check-weighmen to assure honest weights for coal produced, and enforcement of long ignored mine safety laws. When discontent boiled up in the Colorado fields the UMW moved in to organize a polyglot force of miners drawn from Greece, Serbia, Italy, Russia, Austria, China, Albania, and West Virginia, to name but a few of their homelands.

The response to these modest demands in an age of corporate gluttony and power was one of the most violent and disgraceful episodes in America’s domestic history. Only the bloodletting in the West Virginia coalfield a decade later has rivaled it in duration, scale, and ferocity.

Because of its size, the prestige of the Rockefeller name, and the abundant financing it was able to bring to the contest, CFI led and dominated the operators’ association. Long before a strike was called for September 23, 1913, the operators had prepared to resist the unionization of their pits to the bitter end, whatever its cost in blood and profits.

Following practices long routine in the coalfields, the companies imported gangs of hired gunmen to protect their property and to run out any suspicious strangers. They were promptly deputized by cooperative sheriffs and with their badges, pistols, and machine guns set upon miners who had joined the union or were suspected of sympathizing with it. All strikers were ordered out of company houses and driven into tent communities provided in advance by the UMW. Judges issued injunctions against strikers and all others “in concert with them,” prohibiting their entry onto mining properties or interfering in any way with the bringing in of strikebreakers and the operation of mines by them. Detective agencies supplied scores of other armed agents and sent still others to pose as miners, join the union and report its activities, and identify its converts.

A pliant governor, Elias Ammons, personified the futility of state government generally in dealing with major power blocs. McGovern sees him as a man who wanted justice for both sides and sympathized with the miners, but his chief worry was about the cost of maintaining the national guard as peace keeper in the troubled region, and he never came to grips with any part of the problem. As tensions mounted between strikebreakers and their protecting covies of sheriffs, deputies, and gunmen on the one hand and the increasingly embittered miners on the other, he crumpled before the pressure and issued an order of incomprehensible vagueness. He failed to declare martial law or to outline the commander’s duties, simply directing preposterous General John Chase to “adopt all legal methods to restore and maintain law.” Whatever hopes the ineffectual governor may have nourished for fair play, he placed no curbs on the general, and Chase served no one but the operators.

The union leadership was composed of moderate men who sought to the end any kind of settlement that would vouchsafe the miners union recognition and collective bargaining. The super-rich Sunday school teacher and his directors and executives, backed up by allies in other mining companies and the railroads, and marshaling local and state governments, and battalions of militiamen, would yield nothing to men, women, and children made increasingly bitter and reckless by months of privation, cold, hunger, and idleness. When they revolted there were battles in which the miners were hopelessly out-classed and outgunned. There was a grotesque cavalry charge led by a commander who got excited and fell off his horse, and a murderous assault on the tent village at Ludlow. The militiamen swept it with volleys of rifle and machine-gun fire, and set the canvas shelters aflame, and after the conflagration had burned itself out the incinerated bodies of thirteen ragdraped wretches were pulled out of the pits they had dug beneath the floors of their tents.

The “Intervention” (if that word can be applied to the fumbling efforts of Woodrow Wilson and a few congressmen) was brushed aside by the operators with breath-taking hauteur. After more than a year of turmoil the strike failed, the destitute miners and their ragged families were scattered, the union was nearly bankrupted by the enormous outlays for food, blankets, tents, lawyer fees, bail bonds, and guns. The cost to the operators was vast, also, in lost earnings and public good will. Eventually US Army troops sent by Wilson restored order and, after victory was assured, Rockefeller fired some of the advisers who had led him into disaster, hired expensive public relations men to mend his fences, and made a grand good will tour of the operations. As wealthy men invariably are, he was hailed wherever he went and emerged as an enlightened industrialist who had erred but was henceforth committed to a better order. The survivors of the Ludlow massacre were never officially questioned about their experiences and the chastised union turned in even more conservative directions under John L. Lewis.

There is a maddening quality about this tragic tale. It is utterly American in essence and much of it is timeless. US coal mines are still models of deadliness and the industry fights safety legislation and resists implementation of existing laws. Coalfields are acrawl with silicotic miners whom better techniques could have spared untold misery. A slate heap collapses and destroys whole communities in West Virginia and the company blandly attributes it to an act of God.

In the Colorado struggle there was an unbelievable failure of communication. Rockefeller could never be gotten into a conference with his miners and their spokesmen, nor into their tents and the mines they worked. McGovern seems to conclude that he was insulated from these human contacts by layers of bureaucracy and orderly processes through which perfectly normal and comprehensible yearnings could not reach. Thus he could support an industrial war without really being aware of it or comprehending its brutality and injustice. One likes to think that in 1972 such failures can no longer occur, that modern management is attuned to the requirements of the communities whose labor supports the mines. But then there are the 120 dead of Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, this year—and “the act of God” that killed them, and a mortality rate in US mines four times higher than in England, and so one wonders again.

This book is a history and not a theoretical essay, but much of the authors’ feelings can be gleaned from between the lines. Wilson is seen as not much more effectual or decisive than Governor Ammons, and it is clear that Senator McGovern finds it appalling that the grim events he describes brought no new legislation to prevent similar debacles in the future.

But outrage against the system itself does not emerge. McGovern is a reformer who would hold rich men to account for the misuse of their money and power, but he is no revolutionary who would nationalize their mines and strip them of their vast prerogatives. In spite of the accusations that he is a radical and dangerous to the “establishment,” the prairie senator appears to think much like the early New Dealers who would punish “economic royalists” in order to save them from the results of their own excesses. In him we see re-emerging some of the same ideas that startled and then inspired the nation nearly forty years ago.

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