It's been nearly a century since thousands of pro-union miners marched into Logan County, West Virginia, to protest abuses by coal operators in what used to be largely anti-union territory.
Marchers were met at Blair Mountain in Logan County by an army of men, fighting on behalf of anti-union mine guards and local law enforcement. The battle was so heated that then-president Warren Harding called in Army troops to restore order.
This Labor Day, present-day members of the United Mine Workers of America marched from Marmet in Kanawha County to Racine in Boone County, to commemorate what they say was one of the greatest events in the nation’s labor history.
“This is the greatest insurrection in the history of these United States of America, other than the Civil War,” UMWA International President Cecil Roberts said. “We should be teaching this in every classroom in America.”
Unlike the reception union miners received nearly a hundred years ago at Blair Mountain, Monday’s march ended with a celebratory picnic at John Slack Park. Folk music played and veterans and union members alike removed their caps for the national anthem.
But Monday’s picnic wasn’t all about history. Roberts had much to say about the state of the country’s coal industry today, and his group’s concerns with mining jobs leaving the country.
“We don’t make anything here. We import things from China and every third-world country in the world,” Roberts said. “I say, make what we need in America. Protect coal mining jobs.”
Much of Roberts’ speech related to the upcoming 2020 election. He said elected officials should be held accountable for promises they’ve made regarding development of “clean coal” technology, which would reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal.
“We have to develop the technology that we need to burn coal cleanly in America," Roberts said.
But despite substantial federal investment, technology has not been adopted by the electric utility industry, which has instead opted for cheaper, cleaner natural gas and other alternative fuels.
Roberts also spoke against the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, a law restricting some labor activity.
“It needs to be abolished,” Roberts said. “When I hear one of these candidates say they are for that, then I will know that they really support organized labor.”
Roberts will speak Wednesday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Topics include legislation on climate change, and the “Green New Deal” proposal adopted by several Democratic presidential candidates, which envisions a large-scale transition from fossil fuels.
Emily Allen is a Report for America Corps member.