Why workers will be interested in 'Matewan'
BY DOUG JENNESS
A new movie recently opened in New York that I urge Militant readers to see. Most movies don't merit recommendation, but Matewan, which will soon appear in other cities, is different.
I'm not going to pretend to write a review - which the film deserves - but take up a couple of points of special interest to working people today that struck me.
Many viewers and commentators say that Matewan is an interesting and well-done presentation of a chapter from U.S. labor history. And it is that. But I think when coal miners, farm workers, striking paperworkers and meat-packers, and others fighting today to defend themselves against the employers see the film, they will find some points in common with their own experiences.
Matewan is based on the 1920 fight of coal miners in southern West Virginia to become unionized. The miners in the region suffered low wages, long hours, and abominable working conditions. They were completely at the mercy of the coal operators, who owned company stores and much of the workers' housing.
When the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA)
sent organizers into the area in May 1920 to help the workers' effort to establish a union, the operators fired miners suspected of union sympathies and evicted them from company-owned houses.
Thousands of miners and their families were homeless, and the UMWA provided tents to shelter them and organized donations of food.
The struggle throughout the area led to a shooting war between the miners and the operators' hired strikebreakers. It reached a climax in August when a "citizens' army" of 6,000 armed miners fought a battle with 2,000 detectives and imported thugs in Madison, West Virginia. The miners were defeated when federal troops were sent in. Hopes for the union in that region were dashed until the labor upsurge of the 1930s.
The movie doesn't attempt to deal with the whole history and scope of this coalfield war. Rather, it centers on the struggle in Matewan, a small town near the Kentucky border in the center of the battlefield and the headquarters of the Stone Mountain Coal Co.
The film shows one thing very clearly - the miners knew who their enemy was. They had a deep hatred of their employer and its hired agents and a determination to fight them to improve their lives.
There was a naked confrontation between the workers and the company that was not buffered by a business-union officialdom seeking to strike a deal in the "mutual" interests of both sides.
What the workers had to work through, however - which is one of the themes of the film - is determining who their friends were.
To try to break the miners' strike, the company brings in Black workers and Italian immigrants to work the mines. The initial response of the strikers is to get into violent clashes with the workers the company has brought in to replace them. But in the course of the fight against the coal operator, the Black and Italian workers are won to the struggle and refuse to work, too. A tenuous, but effective, alliance is established as the strikers grudgingly accept the new workers.
One of the most dramatic scenes of the film is a confrontation between the Black and Italian workers, who are being herded into a mine by heavily armed company guards for a sudden late-night shift, and the striking miners.
A violent clash would have been a deadly blow to the organizing drive and a victory to the company. (An agent provocateur planted by the company in the miners' ranks is attempting to promote hostility between the Black and white miners.)
When the Black and Italian miners put down their tools, demonstratively take up positions alongside the strikers, and announce that not one piece of coal will be mined unless it is union coal, the employer suffers a big blow and the stakes in the struggle escalate.
The UMWA organizer, who had been sent in to help the miners at their request, says, "Now we have a union."
These workers had no staff, office, officials, or dues checkoff- that is, the sort of things most people would associate with unions today.
They started with only themselves and their solidarity, which was a commitment to defend each other and to unite in struggle against the Stone Mountain Coal company. But that is the heart of what a union is or at least should be.
This simple truth is often hard to see today, because unions are so often identified with their organizational forms, their institutions, staffs, and so on- and with the policies of a layer of officials who have interests alien to those of the workers.
But as workers increasingly are forced to take action to defend themselves against the indignities and abuse heaped on them by the employers, they learn that it's themselves - the members - that must take the union and make it theirs.
SEPTEMBER 25, 1987