Category Archives: Labor

Lest We Forget: The Ludlow Massacre One Century Later

One hundred years ago, on the afternoon of April 20, 1914 William Snyder and his children made the mistake of climbing out of the pit they had dug under their tent in Ludlow Colorado. Outside, the Colorado National Guard and striking coal miners were engaged in a war that had raged since morning. For much of the day the pit had been their shelter from the indiscriminate gunfire that had ripped through the tent city that striking coal miners had erected near the town. The immediate reason for the battle has been lost to history, and both sides have claimed that the other started shooting first. Whatever the cause, the fighting seemed to be letting up and the Snyders took the opportunity to escape their pit and return to the relative comfort of the tent itself. Frank Snyder, a young boy of eleven, went to sit in a chair and his sister joined him on the floor between his knees. According to his father, Frank was in the act of leaning forward to kiss or caress his sister when the bullet that killed him ripped through the family tent and struck Frank in the head (Snyder 133). In his affidavit to the Commission on Industrial Relations William reported, “I was standing near the front door of my tent and heard the impact of the bullet striking the boy’s head, and the crack of the bullet as it exploded inside of his head” (133).

Elsewhere in the tent colony a strike leader named Louis Tikas was arrested and confronted by the militia leader, Karl Linderfelt, about who was at fault for the violence. According to Scott Martelle, as the argument escalated “Linderfelt grabbed his rifle by the barrel and swung it hard at Tikas, striking him in the head and breaking the gunstock” (175). Incapacitated by this attack Tikas and two other striking miners were murdered moments later by the mob of militiamen that surrounded them (176). Tikas was killed by three shots in the back. As Tikas was murdered, the tent colony was going up in flames. How the fires started remains a matter of contention. Guard members claimed that they started thanks to sparks caused by stray bullets and fueled by explosives hidden by the miners in the camp. The strikers contended that that attacking militia purposefully set the fires. Whatever the cause, the fire was deadly. In another pit under a tent like the one the Snyders had sheltered in, hid a group of women and children: twenty-seven year old Fedlina Costa her two children, Onafrio age six, and Lucy, age four, Rodgerio Pedregone, age nine, Cloriva Pedregone age four, Frank Petrucci, age six months, Lucy Petrucci, age three, Joe Petrucci, age four, thirty-seven year old Patria Valdez and her children Rudolph, age nine, Eulala, age eight, Mary age seven, and Elvira, age three months (223). In all, two women and eleven children remained hidden as the fires spread through the tents. They suffocated to death as the fires above them ate the oxygen in their supposed safe haven. They were not found until the morning after the gun battle (2).

Collectively these atrocities have come to be known as the Ludlow Massacre. Read more of this post

Archival Gems

One of the elements that I miss from my doctoral work was the archival and historical research on the progressive era that I did on a regular basis. While I was usually searching for specific information, I regularly stumbled across little gems of information or research tracks that I never had the time to follow up. Lately I’ve found myself looking into some of the larger resources available online like the Library of Congress. I have a couple projects that are driving my work, but I’ve been coming up with enough intriguing snippets that I wanted to start collecting them here.  I hope that this will be the start of a new series of posts here. Sometimes I’ll include commentary. Other times I’ll just post the document, photo, or whatever it is I’ve stumbled across and let it speak for itself. I’ll always cite my sources in case any one else is interested.

First up is a sonnet by Katharine Warren from 1900. Originally published in The Atlantic, There’s a clear religious tone here. After reading so much radical literature during my doctoral work, it was intriguing and fitting to see this note struck in this particular poetic form.

A SONNET OF WORK.

WHERETO our labor and our bitter sweat?
The seed we sow we trample in the dark.
The flame we strike, our own tears quench the spark.
The white that we would purify we set
Our grimy print upon. And we forget
Thy ways and thoughts are not as ours, and hark
Toward what we take to be some heavenly mark,
And find we serve the devil to abet.
Then do Thou blind us, that we may not see
The measure of our own futility,
Lest, seeing, we should cease to work, and die.
Or give us sight, that we may know thereby
How through our labor, whatso end it meet,
We reach toward Thee who knowest no defeat.

Here’s the source and here are some other works by Warren.

Resurgent Black Lung

NPR, the Charleston Gazette and The Center for Public Integrity have compiled a series of important stories about resurgence of Black Lung Disease among coal miners and miners operating in Appalachian regions of Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia in particular. There is a lot of overlap in the stories I’ve linked above, but the information compiled in these stories is damning. In short, the resurgence of Black Lung points towards inadequate regulation and enforcement of worker safety laws in the mines. The newfound prevalence of this issue rams home once again the dangers in mining and the numerous ways these dangers are exacerbated through negligence by mining companies and government programs. Black Lung is the long debilitating disease that eventually kills its victims by destroying their ability to breathe. You can get a feel for the nature of the disease in the quote from Mark McCowan in the NPR article:

“Now it feels like I’ve got a heavy wet sack on each lung,” McCowan says, between long, deep breaths. “Breathing has become a conscious effort. … It seems like I give up a little bit of my world each day, that it gets smaller and smaller.”

Black Lung is a symbolically fitting as a disease tied directly to mining. Like our societal dependence on coal itself, the continuing presence of Black Lung reminds us that coal is a killer in the long term no matter what our efforts to “clean up.” In the immediate future, the issue of Black Lung should be addressed on a legislative level, but as Ken Ward Jr. reports, easier said than done. (This may sound like I’m drawing a hard line on coal, and to an extent I am. Still I want to be a bit more nuanced. As I’ve said in the past, I don’t believe there’s a complete answer to our dependence on coal yet, but that any answer that we come up with needs to take into account the economic stability of regions that have historically suffered the boom and bust cycles of mining. Moreover, my immediate focus is on worker safety issues.)

In other coal related news, the New York Times recently ran an op-ed by Jason Howard about the civil war raging in coal country regarding mining and MTR in particular. It serves as a good introduction to the stakes in this issue. (Thanks to Marcus for the link.)

For readers in Oregon, I also point to some coal issues closer to home via the Register Guard.

3/28/12

3/28/12 by Errant Ventures
3/28/12, a photo by Errant Ventures on Flickr.

If you’re interested in progressive era labor history, Joe Hill, or the IWW, I highly recommend William Adler’s The Man Who Never Died. It’s easily the most comprehensive book on Hill since Gibbs Smith’s 1969 Joe Hill. Eventually I’ll find the time to do a proper book review.

Reading Cultures With Silent Workers

I thought I’d pass along a brief juxtaposition of articles today. First is Farhad Manjoo’s critique of your local book stores vs. the power and convenience of Amazon over at Slate. Manjoo apparently isn’t taking into account the used book market or local book shops of that variety. Having lived in college towns as an English major myself, I have to say that this is a pretty glaring oversight. That situation might not apply to everyone, but I still think there’s a lot to be said for the local book shop beyond Manjoo’s limited critique.

As a counter point, I wanted to post this story from The Atlantic by Vanessa Vaselka about labor practices at Amazon and her attempt a few years back to start a union movement. There are a few aspects of Vaselka’s article that I found wanting. In particular the focus is mostly on Vaselka herself rather than a wider labor movement. I realize Vaselka didn’t get far in her recruiting, but I’m curious about the union (ILWU) and wider efforts for unionization. In other words, it’s a good slice of life experience of unionization, but not particularly enlightening to the larger picture I happen to be intrigued by.

More to the point in this post, Vaselka’s article puts one of Manjoo’s claims into a sharper perspective. Amazon is incredibly efficient, but its important to remember that this efficiency comes at a price and ometimes a particularly high one at that.

Tar Sands Protest and Verizon Strike

Two stories I hope to go into in more depth in the relatively near future:

Tar Sands Action Protest in D.C. via Huffington Post

Verizon Workers Return to Work Without New Contract via NPR

More Responses to CNN’s Battle for Blair Mountain

I’m a bit late on this post, but I do have another chapter of the dissertation drafted. As excuses go, that one isn’t too shabby. I wanted to continue for a little longer on CNN’s “Battle for Blair Mountain” special. Specifically I found two compelling responses online that I wanted to share.

First, Matt Wasson at the Front Porch Blog from Appalachian Voices provides a succinct look at the facts that CNN missed in its special. Wasson’s figures hit on the the issue I was struggling with in my response about the argument CNN puts forward about environmentalism versus jobs in the special. Wasson also hits on a very important issue regarding Bill Raney’s correlation/causation claim:

While Raney is technically correct that these studies are based on “correlation and not causation,” it’s a meaningless distinction for nearly every public health study ever conducted. There is no way to ever prove causation in public health studies, which is why researchers have to use statistics to tease apart trends and find evidence for – but never prove – causation. The peer-review process in science is what protects against misuse and abuse of statistics.

What Wasson points to here was something that troubled me while watching the special, but which I don’t think I did as good a job as I could have articulating why. The quote here articulates what I was trying to get at a bit better.

Wasson’s entire post is well worth a read through for these interested in the special or more importantly the important numbers the special misses.

Second, Joe Atkins provides a compelling take on the special. What I’m particularly drawn to in Atkins’ discussion is his focus on the framing of the special. Atkins here articulates something that I was troubled by in the special’s focus on the Dials. I continue to stand by my original claim that the Dials are in the right for the wrong reasons, but Atkins teases out the problems associated with the reasoning the Dials put forward. Atkins’ call for more passionate reporting rather than “balance” is intriguing and, again, the whole post is well worth a read.

Briefly, some notes for my own work: Atkins also provides two facts that had been nagging me, but that I had not found the opportunity to double check. Arch Coal was the company focused on in “Battle for Blair Mountain” but Massey Energy was also interested in mtr at Blair. This was something that I had vaguely recalled being the case.

I was also pleased to see Atkins point to Diane Sawyer’s “A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains” as an example of another special that fails to focus on industrial influence in the region’s poverty. This plays into my own analysis of “A Hidden America” in my dissertation work.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that I came across both of these sources via Ken Ward Jr. at Coal Tatoo.

Thoughts on CNN’s “Battle for Blair Mountain”

First and foremost I walked away from this special disappointed. In the end it became yet another human-interest oriented special on Appalachia. To be fair, I think it’s one of the best human-interest specials I’ve seen on the area. Soledad O’brien deserves credit for refusing to patronize the people that she interviewed and more importantly for the way that the special portrayed those people. It also did an intriguing job choosing most of its subjects. Specifically (apologies if I get names wrong, I have no way of rewatching the show to double check my notes at the moment) I thought Linda and James were good subjects to highlight. I found them both intriguing: Linda for her adamant belief that she’s in the right (I’ll say I agree with significant caveats but more on that in a moment) and James for his work in reclamation on Mountain Top Removal (mtr from hereon). What disappointed me was the lack of significant focus on James’ work. Reclemation practices appeared to me to be woefully inadequate (something James inadvertently admitted to when he said it was put back the best men could), but I realize that’s a subjective reaction. Afterall, someone (I missed the name) claimed God wanted mtr. I’m certainly not going to argue that this person sees the same thing I see when I look at mtr reclamation.

I doubt anyone who knows me will be surprised, but I found the focus on the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921 was woefully inadequate. It failed entirely to capture the importance of that event, the driving forces behind it and the reason why people are marching to save Blair. In fact the portrayal of the marchers was, frankly, poorly done. There were stronger and perhaps more pertinent voices to interview in that march in the video I posted here earlier this today (admittedly it’s a biased source, but that doesn’t mean those people weren’t participants in the march). The people on the march that were interviewed (specifically the younger people/students?) simply did not provide the breadth of support for that march. Ultimately the lack of this breadth and the lack of significant focus on the battle in 1921 completely failed to convey the importance of this particular mountain. The closest the special got to this was Keeney’s comparison to Gettysburg (which was excellent). Yes, mtr and the struggle against it goes much further than Blair, but the title of the show was “Battle for Blair Mountain.” It calls for a bit more specificity.

I also saw a lot of rumblings on Twitter about the lack of “sick” individuals from the community arguing against mtr. People suffering from poor water quality and illness related to mtr are a major feature of this movement and shouldn’t be ignored. I’m willing to give CNN the benefit of doubt here though. Blair hasn’t been subject to mtr and therefore no one in that particular community have had to face that issue. There is a strong focus on the scientific findings on mtr were pretty prominent. This is to the special’s credit. Yet I think the focus on correlation and causality later in the episode is dangerous. Maybe we don’t have causality, but that correlation between mtr and health issues is horrifying and once you destroy a watershed there is simply no going back. The science is pointing us towards very disturbing findings and we ignore them at our own peril.

That said, I still think Linda is right, but for the wrong reasons. She and James deserve job security. I don’t want there to be any misconception about the need for wide ranging economic reform in the area. This is why I approach mtr through an environmental justice approach. The economic windfall from the stopping of mtr absolutely has to be addressed. My stance remains that coal produced electricity (much like oil) are environmentally destructive. If we’re going to have a fix it has to be environmentally and economically sound.

Further, there were significant (though normal) oversights by mtr supporters. James for instance decries his need to drive an hour for a job at the end of the episode. This is all well and good, but how far would he have to drive for a job after the mountain is gone and reclamation work is over? If anything mtr at Blair is a momentary fix. Mining is inherently a boom and bust economic model depending on the seam, the market, and regulation. The EPA’s decision about Spruce 1 creates problems for people today, but in a lot of cases these problems would simply show up in the years to come if mtr went forward. These communities are not secure or they are only secure momentarily if the coal companies have free reign in mtr.

And here we come to my biggest issue with “Battle for Blair Mountain”: The human interest nature of the show means that it practically ignores the incredibly powerful third party in this struggle: the coal company. (Note: I did not get an accurate spelling/did not hear the name accurately while watching for the company involved in the Blair Mtn mtr license. I haven’t found that information right away since sitting down to write this. In the interest of getting my thoughts down quickly I’ll track that information down in the near future.) The special presents a false dichotomy. We have “coal miners” on one side and “environmentalists” on the other. I use scare quotes specifically here because of the lack of accurate in that characterization. Coal miners don’t all support mtr. This is one of the reasons the focus on James is so intriguing. He (ostensibly) wouldn’t have a job in an underground mine. The show does a good job pointing out that mtr employs less people than underground mining. But that doesn’t get at the heart of the issue. The entity determining the jobs is the coal company (or overall the industry). The history of the coal industry in the community is long and complicated at best. To say that they have the community’s interests at heart though is ridiculous. They want mtr because it’s cheap and that cheapness is in part because they don’t have to employ as many people. The people who run these companies do not live near these mountains. The special fails to really look into these “community members” (if I can go so far as to use the claim that corporations are people). They are not benevolent dictators and they can and will move their money elsewhere. They play a huge role in lobbying the state and national government as well. Their power, motives, and the role they play in the governing of these issues demand more attention. Yes, they refused to comment to CNN. That’s well and good. Their omission does not mean that CNN does not have a journalistic responsibility to look into this aspect of the story.

To its credit “Battle for Blair Mountain” does not present simple good guys and bad guys. It does not presume to talk down or remove agency from the individuals who live in this community. For all of these (crucial) strengths, it fails to examine the elephant in the room. While I don’t expect CNN to provide the answer for this issue, I suspect they could go a long way to enlightening the issue if they had turned their focus towards the coal companies.

CNN’s Blair Mountain Special

CNN is airing a special tonight called “The Battle for Blair Mountain.” It’s on the recent protest march trying to save Blair Mtn from mountain top removal mining. I’ve written fairly extensively about Blair Mountain in my dissertation work as well here on the blog. Sadly I was travelling during the protest march in June so I wasn’t able to give it the sort of coverage it deserved. Quite simply, Blair Mountain is one of the most important and under-appreciated historic sites in the United States. The battle in 1921 was a pivotal and stunning episode in labor history in this nation. Worse yet the destruction facing it from MTR means not simply that the site will be damaged, but that it will literally cease to exist. To have a site where over 10,000 miners stood up against the destructive practices of coal mining destroyed by the coal industry’s most destructive practices today would be to disgrace to their memory and sacrifice.

The special will be aired at 8pm eastern and pacific (as near as I can tell). I’m not sure what to expect from the special, but I’m hoping it will serve as a good introduction to The Battle of Blair Mountain for viewers and bring some much needed attention to the struggle to save it from MTR. I’m planning on liveblogging the special or writing about it directly afterwards.

Here’s a video from ilovemountains.org about the march in June:

Says Joe

Every so often I talk back to the book I’m reading. It’s fairly similar to the movie goer who calls out to the next victim in a zombie movie. Obviously that door doesn’t lead to safety! It’s where your zombified neighbor happens to be waiting patiently (if a bit peckish). Usually my outbursts come due to glaring mistakes. The misattributed quote, the obvious attempts to convey familiarity with a geographic location the author’s never visited, the horribly misspelled name, and the incredibly wrong date (particularly when it’s an easy date to look up) have all triggered a muttered outburst of “Turn back you fool!” (More accurately a simple “Wait…what? That’s not right!”)

Everybody makes mistakes and I’m certainly no exception. This means that I hold myself to a high standard when it comes to my own work. In fact, when I do mess up I tend to feel like the zombie victim: not only am I embarrassed to be caught in the gnashing embrace of Fred T. Zombie, but I’m mortified to realize that the audience was probably rooting for the zombie since I was being dumb.

This is all a long way of getting to the real reason for my post. Today’s infraction was of the wrong date variety regarding the song “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.” I’m sure the zombie victim in question considered it a throwaway comment. The song was originally written by Alfred Hayes in 1925 and turned into a song by Earl Robinson in 1936. It was not performed, as the author erroneously asserts, at Hill’s funeral in 1915. It is more romantic to think that it was 1915 though. Admittedly, the book I found it in is not likely to be the first, second, or to be honest, eighteenth source anyone wanting to find out about the song would ever look up. I may have declared vigorously that the author was wrong and went straight to some books and the internet to prove it to myself, but it certainly doesn’t count as a serious infraction.

Whatever the case, I’m grateful for the mistake in the end. Besides fodder for a post here it also prompted me to listen to the song again and gain a new appreciation for the numerous versions there are of it online.

Joan Baez at Woodstock

 

Luke Kelly

 

Pete Seeger’s banjo and accompanying singers are particularly powerful given the focus of solidarity in the song. I’m also fond of the way Seeger’s version picks up tempo in the middle.

 

Paul Robeson’s performance of the song is in some ways my favorite. Robeson’s voice is simply incredible and I have to say that I prefer the subdued piano accompaniment here. It seems more fitting for the mournful visit from a ghost.