Ten people were killed when coal company officials in Matewan, West Virginia, tried to remove striking union workers from coal company housing. They sent in agents from the Baldwin-Felts detective agency who evicted several families before trying to hop on a train out of town. Sheriff Hatfield, who supported the miners’ right to organize, tried to arrest the detectives who, in turn, tried to arrest Hatfield. Unbeknownst to the detectives, they had been surrounded by miners. No one knows who shot first, but when the smoke had cleared, there were 7 dead detectives (including Albert and Lee Felts) and 4 dead townspeople. The episode became known as the “Matewan Battle” or “Matewan Massacre,” and is depicted in John Sayles’ film Matewan. It should be pointed out that mining was one of the most dangerous and corrupt industries around. Miners were typically forced to live in a company town and purchase living necessities from company stores at inflated prices. They were paid in scrip, which was useless outside of the company towns. In the time leading up to the Battle of Matewan, numerous miners had been assassinated by vigilantes, goons or detectives. In the aftermath of the massacre, the miners went on strike and were treated to even more violence. Striking miners were beaten and left to die in the streets. The remaining Felts brother, Tom, instigated a vendetta against Sheriff Hatfield, eventually having him killed by his agency in 1921.
Tom Mooney‘s scheduled date of execution was stayed while the case was appealed. Mooney ultimately spent 22 years in prison for the San Francisco Preparedness Day Parade bombing in 1916, a crime he did not commit. Mooney, along with codefendant Warren Billings, were members of the IWW and were railroaded because of their union affiliation. – 1917
1906 – The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Samuel Gompers and other union leaders for supporting a boycott at the Buck Stove and Range Company in St. Louis, where workers were striking for a nine-hour day. A lower court had forbidden the boycott and sentenced the unionists to prison for refusing to obey the judge’s anti-boycott injunction.
Samuel Gompers was an English-born American labor union leader and a key figure in American labor history.
Today in Labor History – March 6th , 1886 – The Knights of Labor picket to protest the practices of the Southwestern Railroad system, and the company’s chief, high-flying Wall Street financier Jay Gould. Some 9,000 workers walked off the job, halting service on 5,000 miles of track. The workers held out for two months, many suffering from hunger, before they finally returned to work.
1913 – Joe Hill’s song “There Is Power In A Union” appears in “Little Red Song Book”.
1930 – 100,000 people demonstrated for jobs in New York City. Demonstrations by unemployed workers demanding unemployment insurance were occurring in virtually every major U.S. city. In New York, police attacked a crowd of 35,000. In Cleveland, 10,000 people battled police. In Detroit, a Communist Party organized unemployment demonstration brought out more than 50,000. Thousands took to the streets in Toledo, Flint and Pontiac. These demonstrations led to the creation of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), sponsored by Republican congressman Hamilton Fish, with the support of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), to investigate and quash radical activities. A National Trade-Union Unity League council in Madison, Wisconsin, marching around Capitol Square, was attacked by UW students. Council leader Lottie Blumenthal was thrown to the ground, while students attacked other marchers and destroyed their banners and pamphlets. One of the athletes who was arrested said: “We are getting so damned many radical Jews here that something must be done. Police killed four workers in Detroit who were demanding jobs.
1942 – Tom Mooney died on this date. Mooney was an Irish-American IWW organizer and 22-year political prisoner, locked up on trumped up charges for the San Francisco Preparedness Day bombing in 1916.
1957 – International Brotherhood of Paper Makers merges with United Paperworkers of America to become United Papermakers & Paperworkers.
1970 – The federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act is enacted.
1972 – Predominantly young workers at a Lordstown, Ohio GM assembly plant stage a wildcat strike, largely in objection to the grueling workpace: at 101.6 cars per hour, their assembly line was believed to be the fastest in the world.
1978 – President Jimmy Carter invoked the Taft-Hartley law to quash the 1977-78 national contract strike by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). The UMWA had been striking since December 1977, but rejected a tentative contract agreement in early March 1978. Carter invoked the national emergency provision of Taft-Hartley and strikers were ordered back to work, but they ignored the order and the government did little to enforce it. Eventually a settlement was reached and ratified in late March.
2009 – The U.S. Dept. Of Labor reports that the nation’s unemployment rate soared to 8.1 percent in February, the highest since late 1983, as cost-cutting employers slashed 651,000 jobs amid a deepening recession.
Today in Labor History – February 27, 1902 – Birth of John Steinbeck in Salinas, Calif. Steinbeck is best known for writing “The Grapes of Wrath,” which exposed the mistreatment of migrant farm workers during the Depression and led to some reforms.
1937 – 450 Woolworth’s workers and customers occupy store for eight days in support of Waiters and Waitresses Union, Detroit.
1939 – The Supreme Court rules that sit-down strikes, a major organizing tool for industrial unions, are illegal.
1943 – Disaster kills 75 at Smith Mine in Red Lodge, Montana.
Today in Labor History – February 26th, 1972 – A Pittston Coal Company’s coal slurry impoundment dam collapses in Logan County, West Virginia, and 138 million gallons of black waste water and sludge pours into the Buffalo Creek valley below, killing 125 and injuring over 1,100 people. In its legal filings, the company referred to the accident as “an Act of God.”
Today in Labor History – February 21st , 1887 – Oregon passes the first legislation in the country to officially recognize the “workingman’s holiday” – Labor Day. By 1894, 30 other states had adopted the holiday and on June of that year, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September each year a federal holiday.
Today in Labor History – February 20, 1834 – Responding to a 15 percent wage cut, women textile workers in Lowell, Mass., organize a “turn-out”—a strike—in protest. The action failed. Two years later they formed the Factory Girl’s Association in response to a rent hike in company boarding houses and the increase was rescinded. One worker’s diary recounts a “stirring speech” of resistance by a co-worker, 11-year-old Harriet Hanson Robinson.
1908 – Rally for unemployed becomes major confrontation in Philadelphia, 18 arrested for demanding jobs.
1917 – Thousands of women march to New York’s City Hall demanding relief from exorbitant wartime food prices. Inflation had wiped out any wage gains made by workers, leading to a high level of working class protest during World War I.
1990 – United Mine Workers settle 10-month Pittston strike in Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia.
Today in Labor History – February 19th,1910 – The Philadelphia Rapid Transit trolley company fires 173 workers – all members of the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees of America – and replaces them with non-union workers from New York City. Street battles, demonstrations, and a general strike ensued in the city that lasted for 57 days.