Joe and I visited the grave of Sid Hatfield in a hilltop cemetery near the Tug River in Buskirk, Kentucky. The headstone, which is engraved with an image of Hatfield’s face, reads in part: “Defender of the rights of working people, gunned down by Felts detectives on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse…. His murder triggered the miners’ rebellion at the Battle of Blair Mountain.” Hatfield’s brief life is a microcosm of what can happen when one does not sell out to the powerful. The police chief of Matewan, West Virginia, he turned down the coal companies’ offer of what was then the small fortune of $300 a month to turn against the miners. Law enforcement, with the exception of a few renegades such as Hatfield, was stripped, as is true now in corporate America, of any pretense of impartiality. Miners who wanted jobs had to sign “yaller dog” contracts promising they would not “affiliate with or assist or give aid to any labor organization,” under penalty of immediate loss of jobs and company housing. Baldwin-Felts spies, private security goons hired by the mine owners, informed on miners who talked of organizing. This led to dismissal, blacklisting, beating and sometimes death. The coal fields were dominated by company towns. Corporate power had seeped into every facet of existence. And resistance was costly.
“For more than 20 years, coal operators had controlled their very being; had arranged for their homes and towns, churches, schools and recreation centers; had provided doctors and teachers and preachers; had employed many of their law officers; had even selected silent motion picture shows that were beginning to appear in theaters; had told them, finally, where and how they were to live and discharged those who did not conform,” Lon Savage wrote of the coal miners in his book Thunder in the Mountains. “In this context, the union’s organizing campaign gave the miners a new vision: not only better pay and working conditions but independence, power, freedom, justice and prestige for people who felt they had lost them all.”
Denise Giardina, in her lyrical and moving novel of the mine wars, Storming Heaven, has union organizer Rondal Lloyd wonder what it is that finally makes a passive and cowed population rebel.
“Who can say why the miners were ready to listen to me?” he asks. “They broke their backs and died of roof falls and rib rolls and gas, their children went to bed hungry, and died of the typhoid, their wives took the consumption, they themselves coughed and spit up. True enough. They stayed in debt to the company store, they had no say at the mine or freedom of any kind, they could be let go at a moment’s notice and put out in the road, or beaten, or shot. All true. But it had always been that way, and they never fought back. Everything had always been the way it was, we were all pilgrims of sorrow, and only Jesus or the Virgin Mary could make it right. So why did they listen this time? Why did they decide that Jesus might not wait two thousand years for the kingdom to come, that Jesus might kick a little ass in the here and now?”
“Hell, it aint got nothing to do with Jesus,” the character Talcott tells him. “Half of ’em don’t believe in Jesus. They just stood all they can stand, and they dont care for it.”
Sound familiar? It is an old and cruel tactic in any company town. Reduce wages and benefits to subsistence level. Break unions. Gut social assistance programs. Buy and sell elected officials and judges. Fill the airwaves with mindless diversion and corporate propaganda. Pay off the press. Poison the soil, the air and the water to extract natural resources and leave behind a devastated wasteland. Plunge workers into debt. Leave them owing more on their houses than the structures are worth. Make sure the children will be burdened by tens of thousands of dollars lent to them for an education and will be unable to find decent jobs. Make sure that everything from hospital bills to car payments to credit card fees exact increasing pounds of flesh. And when workers stumble, when they cannot pay soaring interest rates, jack up rates further and deploy predators from debt collection agencies to harass the debtors and seize their assets. Then toss them away. Company towns all look the same. And we live in the biggest one on earth.