March 19, 1931: West Virginia United Mine Workers Union Founded

Mar 19, 2019

Miners line up for strike relief in Matewan, about 1921.
Credit e-wv, The West Virginia Encyclopedia / via West Virginia State Archives (WVSA), Coal Life Collection

The West Virginia Mine Workers Union was founded on March 19, 1931. It was a radical alternative to the United Mine Workers of America, known as the UMWA. The new union was the brainchild of Frank Keeney, who had been a key UMWA leader during the West Virginia Mine Wars.

After the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, UMWA national president John L. Lewis began exerting greater control over local union matters. The year after the battle, Keeney had agreed to a temporary wage cut for miners. Lewis used the wage cuts as an excuse to fire Keeney.

But Keeney retained a strong following among miners. By March 1931, UMWA membership in West Virginia had dwindled to fewer than 600 members. Keeney launched his new union and, within weeks, had enrolled more than 20,000. He called a major strike that summer, but the costs virtually bankrupted the upstart union. Within two years, his union was broke, and the UMWA again became the dominant miners union in West Virginia.

A few years later, Keeney dropped out of the labor movement entirely. He died in 1970 at age 88.