The New Battle of Blair Mountain

By scott parkin

Massey doesn’t give a shit.

Every day, their mountaintop removal mining operations destroy a little more of our natural heritage. It depopulates communities. It poisons the ground water. Their underground operations received international attention after Massey’s constant shirking of federal regulations led to the deaths of 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch mine in the Coal River Valley. Their mines still receive thousands of safety violations and they contest 95% of them. They really don’t care. It’s all merely a few bumps in the road. (Of course those bumps are the bodies of their workers that they write off as expendable.) All of this is done so that their executives can rule Appalachia like feudal lords and make lots of cold cash.

But destroying the future isn’t enough for them, now they’ve decided to wage their own special brand of warfare on the past as well. In fact, a very critical piece of West Virginia labor’s past. Massey, along with Arch coal, holds permits to rip apart Blair Mountain’s history and future. Blair Mountain holds a special place in West Virginia and U.S. history. It’s seen as one of the most important historic sites in U.S. labor history and seen as a watershed moment that eventually led to workers being able to unionize and collectively bargain with industry.

[youtube bMFTL6rOpSs]

In August 1921, 15,000 miners marched on Blair Mountain to free miners imprisoned by state authorities and the coal baron’s own version of Blackwater mercenaries. Sick of inhumane treatment by the coal companies, miners from West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania formed an army to unionize workers by force who lived in dire poverty in southwest West Virginia counties. On August, 25, these miners—armed with machine guns and other weapons, and wearing red bandannas around their necks—started up the mountain. The ensuing battle between these self styled “rednecks” and King Coal’s hordes, the second largest civil insurrection in U.S. history, lasted about five days and claimed dozens of lives. “No war, but the class war,” indeed. Serving the interests of the rich and powerful (not the people,) the federal government utilized air power, dropping gas and explosive bombs on the union miners. And while the miners eventually decided to lay down their arms when federal troops arrived, many viewed the battle as a failure, but it was a flashpoint that strengthened the labor movement.

No wonder Massey wants to strip mine it. It’s a dirty reminder of the masses triumphing over the classes. I typically am not a conspiracy theorist, but the current drive to strip mine Blair Mountain is too hard to ignore. The people at Massey are so nasty, it’s not inconceivable that they want to erase all remnants of a resistance to the coal barons’ iron grip (and make a huge profit while doing it.) They understand that they are in a war against the planet and the people living on it.

This time, the spirited resistance telling Massey and Arch to back the fuck off are not the typical treehuggers chaining themselves to super-dumpsters and sitting in trees, they are a dedicated band of citizens, Sierra Clubbers, historians and archaeologists. Led by Harvard Ayers, an Appalachian State anthropology professor, they are fighting it out with the West Virginia state preservation office who is pushing back hard on designating Blair Mountain a historical site. In fact, the craven political appointees have gotten Blair Mountain delisted from the National Register for Historic Places with some shifty tactics after Ayers and crew had successfully added them to the register.

Now the archaeologists are beginning a media, letter writing and advocacy campaign to save Blair Mountain. Climate Ground Zero folks are also beginning to get involved as well.