We have all heard the term “redneck”. Today it is a derogatory label used to describe someone crass and unsophisticated, often depicting a southern white rural American. It is never considered a compliment however that wasn’t always the case. Would you be surprised then to find out there were a group of workers that fought back against oppression that were proud to call themselves “redneck”?
Before there was “big oil”, the energy king was coal. By 1910 it was the main source of energy driving US industry. However, few people stopped to think about the miners that dug that coal from beneath the earth. It was back breaking work to blast rock from underground and hauled it out of the pits to the surface. It was dangerous and poorly paid work. But more than that the owners who were called the “Coal Barons,” controlled every aspect of a worker’s life – from underground to company housing and stores; from the land they walked on to the politicians that made sure that there were laws and police to keep the workers down. Unions were not tolerated. If workers stepped out of line to stand up to the owners, the company police would kick their families out of company houses sending them in to the cold night.
The heart of the coal mining was in West Virginia. The miners were drawn from new and old Americans. Immigrants from Hungary and Italy joined native-born whites from the nearby hollows, along with African Americans who had come up from the deep south. All wanted a better way of life for their families. Despite their different languages and cultures, they were looking to the labour movement to help them fight back. They demanded fair pay, safer working conditions and an end to the mine corruption. Their demands were met with violence.
The first strike was in 1912, along Paint Creek and Cabin Creek and led by Mary “Mother Jones” Harris Jones. Striking and blacklisted union miners were forced to live in tent colonies. If starving and freezing were not enough, company guards used machine-gun fire from an armored train to randomly shoot into their tents at night. Mothers were forced to line their tents with iron skillets trying to protect their children. In the end, they forced the companies to start recognizing their union, the United Mine Workers (UMW). But the oppression, the evictions and the violence continued. In 1913, UMW was able to negotiate a settlement that respected a 9-hour workday, accountability for miner compensation and protection from backlash for union membership.
Despite this strike, tensions continued between the coal barons and the miners. Union meetings drew upwards of 3,000 workers as frustrations grew. After approximately 300 miners joined UMW, the mining company retaliated and fired all of them which resulted in them being evicted from the company housing. By May 17, 1920, the UMW set up a tent colony for evicted miners outside the town of Matewan but it was not so easy. Matewan law enforcement and the mayor tried to keep the peace and were probably some of the few who were not bought by the mining companies. A shootout between company agents and the town sheriff backed by miners resulted in 10 people killed including the mayor, 2 miners, and 7 agents.
Matewan Sheriff Sid Hatfield and his deputy Ed Chambers were often brought up on charges for not being on the side of the coal companies. One charge they faced was allegedly destroy the Mohawk Mining camp. On August 1, 1921, on their way to court with their spouses to face the charges, company agents lay in-wait at the courthouse executing them before they could get in the door. The miners had had enough. Over 10,000 took up arms and marched to battle. Because of their red bandanas, they were called “the Red Neck Army.”
The workers were equipped with hunting rifles while they faced off against machine guns and an airplane dropping bombs on them. They did not stand a chance. 30 company agents were killed and up to 100 miners. The federal government declared martial law on August 30th for the entire state of West Virginia. They sent in 2,500 federal troops who brought with them more machine guns and military aircraft armed with surplus explosive and gas bombs from the First World War.
In the aftermath of what became known as the “Battle of Blair Mountain”, approximately 550 miners and their supporters were convicted of murder, insurrection, and treason for their participation in the largest US armed insurrection since the Civil War.
In 2019 when teachers in West Virginia went on strike they too wore red bandanas remembering past labour struggles. Now when you call someone a “Redneck” in West Virginia, you may be giving them a compliment for they could be union supporters continuing the struggle for worker justice.