By John P. David
Vol. 10, No. 3, 1986, pp. 20-22
Matewan (Written and directed by John Sayles. Filmed by Haskell Wexler. Music by Mason Daring. With James Earl Jones, Chris Cooper, Mary McDonnell, Will Oldham.)
Many people know that working people in the United States were not Federally protected in their right to organize and bargain collectively in the private sector through representatives of their own choosing until passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act (Blue Eagle Act) of 1933.
When the Blue Eagle Act was declared unconstitutional in 1935, it was replaced in part by the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) of 1935, which the labor movement labeled as its “Magna Carta.”
The history of working people and the labor movement prior to 1933 is poorly documented. It comes to us in vignettes about courageous individuals such as Harriet Tubman, Mother Jones, Eugene Debs, Big Bill Haywood, William Silvis, Samuel Gompers, Sojourner Truth, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and major news events such as Haymarket Square, Ludlow, the Molly McGuires, Patterson Silk, and textile strikes in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
Perhaps no state witnessed a bigger collision between capital and labor than did West Virginia prior to 1933. West Virginia, born out of the struggle of the Civil War, went into the Union with ties to wage labor and northern industrial
labor unionism, while Virginia went into the Confederacy with ties to slave labor that later became the so-called “right-to-work” South. The Civil War division, however, did not resolve the question of which economic interests would “develop” the state’s coal resources, and two primary forces emerged.
One came from the industrial north and the other from Richmond and Roanoke, Va. This activity was accompanied by various efforts to unionize the coalfields, first by the Knights of Labor, and later by the United Mine Workers, West Virginia Miners Union, National Miners Union, and others. The need to organize in West Virginia was clear to the leadership of UMWA. The UMWA could not maintain contracts in Pennsylvania and Illinois and build an ongoing union structure while coal-rich West Virginia was basically non-union. The same problem also occurred locally within West Virginia; as various miner unions began to establish toeholds in the Fairmont, Kanahwa, and New River fields, it was apparent that contracts could not be maintained as long as southern West Virginia and the Pocahontas Fields developed by the Norfolk and Western were non-union.
Thus, southern West Virginia became the battleground for some of the fiercest and bloodiest labor-management fighting in the world. In the past few years, a number of efforts have documented worker struggles, including films (MOLLY McGUIREs; JOE HILL; HARLAN COUNTY USA), books (Storming Heaven by Denise Giardina and BLOODLETTING IN APPALACHIA by Howard Lee, and TV/video (“And Even Heaven Wept” by West Virginia Public Television and the Humanities Foundation of West Virginia). The latest effort is John Sayles’s film, MATEWAN, which is about a massacre in Mingo County.
Sayles does an incredible job in portraying one of the best-known struggles that occurred in the early 1920s during the Mine War period. What may be difficult for the viewer to comprehend is that the Matewan Massacre actually occurred. It was only one of many inhuman, unbelievable, bloody events that occurred during the Mine Wars as miners and their families struggled for dignity and economic survival. The context for the struggle needs to be understood. The post-World War I period was a difficult time for workers and fledgling labor organizations. President Coolidge canceled child labor laws, union contracts were laughed at and thrown on the scrap heap, groups of workers were pitted against one another in order to wring concessions and prevent unionization, and the “yellow dog” contract, a company document that workers had to sign that stated one would not join a union or talk to an organizer, was upheld as legal by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1919.
One coal company in the Matewan vicinity of Mingo County, the Red Jacket Coal Company, began utilizing the “yellow dog” contract extensively in 1920, in response to efforts by the UMWA to stop wage cuts in the non-union southern coalfields. Thus, the conditions of the Matewan Massacre were established.
Interestingly, MATEWAN was not made in Matewan but in Thurman, Fayette County. Thurman was actually along the competing CO Railroad and was the center of the New River coal fields, which, ironically, had a strong union presence since the 1880s. In fact, black miners, who were stereotyped as strikebreakers imported from the South in MATEWAN, were the leading force for early unions in the Thurman area, perhaps because the area had more of a connection with the Kanawha fields and the industrial north than the McDowell and Mingo County areas. Perceptive viewers may notice in the film various markings that pertain to the CO and Thurman, but for the most part Sayles did an excellent job in re-creating the town of Matewan within the constraints of an extremely low budget. He had the help of excellent cinematography by Haskell Wexler and the beautiful scenery of the New River Gorge, which is now under development by the National Park Service.
The viewer of MATEWAN is quickly drawn into the struggle against the coal company and its private army, the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency headquartered in Bluefield, W.Va. The hatred against the company and the “hired thugs” is accurately portrayed and is typical of the experiences of coal miners in many places in southern West Virginia such as Paint Creek (the Bull Moose Special), Cabin Creek (Tent Towns), and Logan County (March over Blair Mountain). Elsewhere, miners in eastern Kentucky struggled against the Pinkerton Detective Agency, and miners in Colorado struggled in Ludlow against the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Company and the Pinkertons.
MATEWAN is important because working people in this country have been denied a full account of their struggles. Their struggles are an untold story about people who overcame unbelievable obstacles as they built this country’s industrial base. While numerous books have been written about the Mellons, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Carnegies, and others, there is little question that working people resent the impression that these Robber Barons built America. Local audiences loved the film because they viewed it as “their side” of the story, as well as a chance to view a flashback of a period only talked about cautiously by their parents and grandparents. Local residents who were extras in the film jumped at the chance to play roles from their family scrapbooks. Furthermore, the film clearly shows the people involved as the honest and hardworking people that they really were as opposed to traditional Hollywood stereotyping.
The weakest character in the film is Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper), the union organizer. He was consistently portrayed as a pacifist and an outsider, which was actually unlikely. His suggested relationship with the Industrial Workers of the World was also curious, since the UMWA Constitution states that members of the IWW, along with the National Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, and the Ku Klux Klan, “shall be expelled from the UMWA.” Of course, all of this must be weighed against the knowledge that Mother Jones, who helped found the IWW in 1905 and was a major union organizer in West Virginia, is still revered by older UMWA members, and Ralph Chaplin, who wrote labor’s best known song, “Solidarity Forever,” was an IWW organizer at Cabin Creek, W.Va.
MATEWAN is a film with a message and one must be cautioned not to view it as a historical aberration. The fight for a union and economic dignity was not won in the final
scene and is still being fought today. One can view a modern-day version of the same struggle in the same Mingo County in the Appalachian documentary on the A. T. Massey/ UMWA conflict titled, MINE WAR ON BLACKBERRY CREEK.
John David is professor and chairman of the social sciences department at West Virginia Institute of Technology, Montgomery, West Virginia.
EDITOR’S NOTE: MATEWAN has for the most part concluded its theatrical run but is available on videotape at most rental outlets and is scheduled for cable distribution around the end of 1988.