“You might be a redneck…” is the now-classic opening joke line for rural America. The true historic meaning of “redneck” was lost long ago to jokes about trailers and family reunion dating games.
Exactly 91 years ago this week, an estimated 15,000 coal miners in Logan County, West Virginia formed an armed militia to fight back against an army of police and strikebreakers backed by abusive coal operators. They wore red bandanas around their necks to identify themselves-thus the term, “redneck”. Habeas corpus was suspended. Over 100 people were killed, hundreds more wounded and 985 were arrested. Today, people still find old, abandoned weapons in the woods — a stark reminder of the Battle of Blair Mountain.
The year before, in 1920, detectives from Baldwin-Felts (think Blackwater) arrived via the morning train in Matewan, West Virginia to evict families living at the Stone Mountain Coal Camp. After forcing several families from their homes, the detectives ate dinner and then walked back to the train station. Matewan Police Chief Sid Hatfield, an ardent supporter of the miners’ struggle to organize, intervened on their behalf. Chief Hatfield attempted to arrest the evictors from Baldwin-Felts. Detective Albert Felts countered with an arrest warrant for Hatfield. Matewan Mayor Cabell Testerman cried foul. All the while, struggling armed miners quietly surrounded the detectives. The ensuing clash, which killed ten, including the Felts brothers and Mayor Testerman, became known as the Matewan Massacre and was a turning point for miners’ rights. Unfortunately today, the Matewan Massacre is but a footnote in history.
Six years earlier, on April 20, 1914, the Colorado National Guard attacked a tent city of 1,200 striking mine workers, riddling their canvas tents with machine guns. Dozens were killed including two women and 11 children who suffocated and burned to death in Colorado’s Ludlow Incident. Nearly 200 more would die in the strike. They rest in anonymity. The mining company evicted workers and their families and they were forced to live in tents that winter. Historian Howard Zinn described the Ludlow Massacre as “the culminating act of perhaps the most violent struggle between corporate power and laboring men in American history.”
All across the country, unions have been under a coordinated and unprecedented assault. People have forgotten US labor history along with the significance of the red bandanas as they have forgotten why unions are so important and necessary. Unions have pushed for safer working standards and living wages. Anti-union folks want to race to the bottom — as a Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann campaigned on lowering the minimum wage. State legislatures across the country introduced legislation to lower the minimum wage.
You needn’t look any further than the 2010 West Virginia mining disaster to understand why unions are needed more than ever. Massey Energy, under the 30-year leadership of notorious union buster Don Blankenship, cut corners and killed 29 miners. It’s a non-union shop. When an investigation was opened, Massey Energy fought subpoenas then pled the Fifth. Their chief of security was found guilty lying to the FBI and trying to destroying evidence. He got three years in prison and a $20,000 fine.
The conservative sycophantic chant calls for the dismantling of unions. Have they no sense of history? Why do they hate the part of our history that built the platform they stand on? The weekend; 40-hour work weeks (they were averaging 61 hours); overtime; ending child labor; employer-based health care; minimum wage; and the medical leave act. You can have 12-weeks off and not get fired after you’ve had a child or need to tend to a sick family member. Why? Because unions fought corporations and earned that for you.
I’ve been waiting all week for union busting governors across the country to declare Monday “Corporation Day” or “Private Sector Day” and we can let go of that pesky “Labor Day.” Is it really breaking news when someone points out the GOP’s disdain for unions? Talk about stating the obvious.
Workers from classrooms to hotels to waste water utilities are under attack. It’s an ideology based upon greed and a lack of historical appreciation. Income inequality is at its lowest when union membership is high. We currently rank 64th in the world. Yes. We barely beat Uganda.
I got an e-mail this week calling me “a union shill.” I’m fine with that. I will shill while I still have breath in my lungs for working men and women in this country against corporations and their puppets who prefer indentured servants to employees. I will fight alongside of them against discrimination and unfair labor practices. On Monday, I’ll wear a red bandana in honor of my ancestors who fought in the Battle for Blair Mountain. I’ll remember my grandfather, Sam Moore, a member of John L. Lewis’s United Mine Workers of America. I’ll be grateful for my parents’ teacher union benefits that were mine as well through childhood.
I am honored to support the unions in this country, and it sure beats the hell out of shilling to race to the bottom.
Which side are you on?
Shannyn Moore can be heard weekdays from 6 to 9 p.m. on KOAN 1020 AM and 95.5 FM radio. Her weekly TV show can be seen Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m. statewide on ABC affiliates KYUR Anchorage, KATN Fairbanks and KJUD Juneau.