Blair Mountain: When classes warred

The Battle of Blair Mountain: The Story of America's Largest Labor Uprising, by Robert Shogan. Westview Press. 304 pages. $26.

The Battle of Blair Mountain was almost cataclysmic. Now, it's almost famous.


Robert Shogan's book is a startling reminder that, in the not-so-distant past in this country, "class warfare" could be not rhetorical but literal, and labor-management relations might well be conducted at gunpoint.

Shogan describes a time when a coal miner worked "drilling and blasting, crawling through blackness, sweating on his knees as he shoveled coal into waiting carts," for a top scale of $4.52 a day. The miners were determined to organize a union and force the owners to bargain over pay and working conditions. The mine owners, expressing terror of "Bolshevism," were determined to block that effort.


The story begins in 1920 in Matewan, W.Va., with events fictionalized in the 1987 John Sayles movie Matewan. Detectives employed by mine owners tried to evict, at gunpoint, families of miners who supported the union. A police chief, sympathetic to the union, tried to arrest the detectives, touching off a shootout that left seven detectives, two miners and the town's mayor dead.

A series of provocations, retaliations and escalations led to the battle itself the next year. Some 10,000 armed miners faced off against several thousand assorted vigilantes, mine guards and deputies. Several days of shooting left 20 to 50 (no counts here can be very precise) dead. The arrival of federal troops, backed by early-generation bombers packing tear gas, dispersed the combatants.

With detail, clarity and vividness, Shogan, who covered politics for Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times for decades and has written 10 other books of politics and history, tracks two years of tumult in the West Virginia coal fields. He breaks from the narrow focus to present quick sketches of such colorful characters as John L. Lewis, who led the United Mine Workers of America for 40 years, and "Mother" Jones, the fiery but erratic labor agitator.

He suggests, in his introduction, why this battle, and others like it, are not widely known in a country that's grown comfortably middle-class. And he hints, in his conclusion, at how the class struggle evolved into a bargain: The owners would deal with the unions, and the workers would accept the capitalist system. As long as that bargain holds, neither side is greatly motivated to evoke the era of literal class warfare.

But Shogan doesn't tell us how, if at all, the Battle of Blair Mountain helped lead to that bargain, sealed a decade later (and after much Depression-driven labor agitation) in the National Labor Relations Act. And he doesn't tell us how the events in West Virginia fit in with other contemporaneous confrontations, such as the 1919 Great Steel Strike, with hundreds of thousands of workers idled for months, and events of the Red Scare, notably the Sacco-Vanzetti case.

While Shogan says that the Battle of Blair Mountain represented "a turning point in the nation's life story," he doesn't, in the end, quite tell us why or how.

M. William Salganik, a reporter and editor at The Sun for 25 years, is president of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, a 2,000-member local of the Communications Workers of America.