On January 23, 1890, the United Mine Workers of America was formed in Columbus, Ohio. Three months later, UMWA District 17, encompassing most of West Virginia, held its first meeting in Wheeling.
District President M. F. Moran immediately launched what would become an extraordinary struggle to unionize the state’s coal mines over the next four decades.
Coal operators bitterly fought unionization, insisting that the costs of mining coal were greater in West Virginia. As such, they couldn’t afford to pay the higher union wages being negotiated in other parts of the country. To combat the UMWA, coal operators hired heavily armed mine guards, many of whom were also deputy sheriffs.
Beginning in the 1890s, West Virginia became a battlefield of the labor movement. Increasingly violent strikes culminated in two of the deadliest labor confrontations of the 20th century: the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Strike of 1912-13 and the armed miners’ march on Logan County, ending with the Battle of Blair Mountain, in 1921.
The tide didn’t really turn in the UMWA’s favor until New Deal legislation of the 1930s guaranteed workers the right to bargain collectively.