January 30, 1920: UMWA Mobilizes to Unionize W.Va.

Jan 30, 2017

On January 30, 1920, the United Mine Workers of America launched a concerted effort to unionize southern West Virginia. Relations between the UMWA and coal operators had regularly turned violent over the previous 30 years.

This push to organize southern West Virginia lead to the Matewan Massacre and a virtual state of war in Mingo County.
Credit E-WV / WV Humanities Council

However, the two sides had reached a tenuous truce during World War I. During the 19 months the United States was involved in the war, coal production soared and miners’ wages rose.

When the fighting in Europe ended, though, there was too much coal for the available demand. Prices plummeted, and coal operators began cutting wages. Conflicts between UMWA organizers and coal operators again turned violent in 1919.

The UMWA’s 1920 campaign to unionize southern West Virginia focused on Logan and Mingo counties—which had one of the largest nonunion mining workforces in the country. This push to organize southern West Virginia escalated tensions with coal operators, leading to the Matewan Massacre and a virtual state of war in Mingo County, which raged for more than a year.

Ultimately, the UMWA’s campaign ended after the miners’ failed march on Logan County and their defeat at the Battle of Blair Mountain.