The Top Labor Battles in West Virginia History

West Virginia has been the site of mass labor militancy many times before. Here are some of the highlights.

Labor organizer Mother Jones rallying workers in Montgomery, WV in August 1912. West Virginia & Regional History Center

West Virginia has been rocked over the past nine days by a massive teachers’ strike that has closed all 680 public schools in the state’s fifty-five counties. And it’s been contagious: energized by the West Virginian example, Oklahoma teachers are now planning a statewide strike of their own.

The ongoing strike is neither the first time the state has been a site of mass labor militancy, nor the first time a labor battle has spilled from the state’s borders and spread across the country. West Virginia’s history is littered with pitched labor battles, from unionization efforts put down by violence to agitation for better work conditions. The following are just a few of the most significant examples.


The Great Railroad Strike of 1877

When the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad cut wages for the third time amid a nation-wide recession, it sparked a month-long strike, with railroad workers refusing to let the trains run until the cuts were undone. The strike soon spread across the country, as far afield as Baltimore and Chicago.

West Virginia’s governor called in a state militia to put down the strikers, but made up as they were of volunteers who were railroad workers or related to them, the militia ultimately withdrew. Eventually, the governor called in federal troops who had no such qualms, an example followed in other cities.


The Great Coal Strike of 1902

Although the Great Coal Strike of 1902 is usually associated with eastern Pennsylvania, coal miners in West Virginia struck at the same time, frustrated by the working conditions, long hours, low pay, and management’s continued refusal to recognize the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). The strike, which started in May, dragged on into the fall, with riots erupting in cities out of fear of the approaching winter.

The strike is often pointed to as a watershed in labor relations, with public opinion not just fully supporting the miners, but a worried Theodore Roosevelt stepping in to facilitate an agreement between the miners and coal companies, rather than simply coming down on the side of the coal operators. The resulting settlement secured pay hikes and shorter hours for mineworkers, but failed to recognize the UMWA.


The Paint Creek–Cabin Creek Strike of 1912

What started out as a strike in Paint Creek over a demand for a pay increase quickly spread to Cabin Creek and other nonunion mining areas and became about something much bigger. After years of often violent anti-union activity from coal companies, the strikers demanded that the UMWA be recognized. The coal companies brought in hundreds of Baldwin-Felts agents, and the miners quickly set up an armed camp.

The miners would be beaten, killed, deported, and even machine-gunned, often responding in kind. By the end of the year-and-a-half-long strike, martial law would be declared three times, two newspaper editors would be imprisoned, hundreds would be arrested, and hundreds more court-martialed.

The event, the deadliest strike in the state’s history, kicked off what would come to be known as the Mine Wars of 1912–1922.


The Battle of Blair Mountain (1921)

The Mine Wars culminated in the Battle of Blair Mountain — the largest armed insurrection in the US since the Civil War.

Thousands of armed and enraged coal miners, many of them World War I veterans, marched toward Logan and Minto counties to confront the coal companies and rescue imprisoned union men after company agents assassinated a local pro-union police chief. They posted guards, carried military-issue weapons, and organized medical and supply units.

The state government cobbled together an opposing force of police, volunteer militia, and coal company workers, who set up trenches and machine gun nests around Blair Mountain, in the miners’ path. President Warren Harding placed the state under martial law and sent in troops and even fully armed planes, though the latter weren’t ultimately used.

The battle ended after two weeks and hundreds of the miners were charged with murder and treason (though they received only minor sentences). One legacy of the battle: the red bandanas marching miners wore around their necks endured in common parlance as the term “redneck.”


The Black Lung Strike (1969)

While today black lung is virtually synonymous with coal mining, for many years, coal operators dismissed it as a myth or a product of miners’ poor lifestyle choices. Even when X-rays confirmed its existence, and the United Kingdom recognized it as a compensatory injury for miners, US medical opinion wasn’t sure, and UMWA leaders ignored the issue. It took until 1968 for grassroots action to force the union and government’s hand, as West Virginia miners set up the Black Lung Association to draft and lobby for a compensation bill and took part in wildcat strikes to publicize the issue.

The following year, 282 coal miners began a wildcat strike that would last twenty-three days, calling for black lung to be recognized as a compensable disease, and two thousand marched on the state capitol. When the legislature produced a weak bill, miners across the state revolted with a forty-thousand-strong strike, pushing lawmakers to enact stronger legislation. The West Virginia actions were so effective that Congress passed a federal law mandating stricter safety standards and compensation for black lung.


The 1977–78 Strike

A wave of wildcat strikes around the country in the 1960s and 1970s culminated in a 110-day national miners’ strike in 1977–78. West Virginia was an epicenter of wildcat strikes, often large ones involving thousands of miners; it had seen a ten-week-long work stoppage in the summer of 1977 that shut down most of the state’s mines in protest against things like medical benefit cutbacks.

The strike had its roots in growing tension between rank-and-file UMWA members and the union’s leadership, which in 1974 had compromised with management in a contract that curtailed wildcat strikes. West Virginia miners repeatedly defied union leaders’ calls to end the strike throughout the nearly four-month action, as well as Jimmy Carter’s back-to-work order under the Taft-Hartley Act. But while a tremendous show of resistance, the strike was ultimately not a victory, and heralded the decline of labor militancy in the 1980s.


The Pittston Coal Strike (1989–1990)

The decision of Pittston Co. to stop providing health care to retirees led 1,700 UMWA members in southwest Virginia, southern West Virginia, and eastern Kentucky to strike — an action that, in the face of Pittston’s obstinacy, quickly ballooned into a mass campaign of civil disobedience borrowing tactics from the antiwar and civil rights protesters of the 1960s. At one point, ten thousand coal miners in West Virginia staged a walkout in solidarity, after a Virginia judge jailed three union leaders and fined the UMWA $3 million for violating a ban on mass picketing.

When union leaders in the state urged miners to return to work, arguing their wildcat strikes had served their purpose by bringing attention to the Pittston strike, many refused. In the end, the union won a new contract that guaranteed health and retirement benefits, and two years later Congress passed legislation mandating such benefits for all mine workers.


The 1990 Teachers’ Strike

Almost exactly twenty-eight years before the current strike, thousands of West Virginia teachers and librarians began their first statewide strike, involving teachers from forty-seven of its fifty-five counties. Frustrated with the second-lowest teacher salaries in the country (only Mississippi was worse) — and rejecting the state’s offer of a 5 percent raise — teachers flouted the state law against collective bargaining for twelve days before reaching a settlement with the government.

Teachers got a pay increase, as well as training and support programs and the establishment of faculty senates. But by 2016, the average salary for a West Virginia teacher was still the forty-eighth lowest in the country.