Back in the late ‘70’s I was in Virden, Illinois where the Industrial Workers of the World were running a strike in the August heat and humidity. By most labor standards it wasn’t a huge deal. A small shop with about a dozen workers had signed up in our Metal and Machinery Workers Industrial Union. The company bought and rebuilt heavy construction equipment—big D-8 Caterpillar bulldozers, road graders, and the like which they then sold at auctions across the Mid-West. But it was a very big deal for the IWW at the time.
When the local fellow workers called a strike for union recognition, I came down from Chicago to help out, which included manning the picket lines and coordinating “foot loose Wobblies” who came down to help. Veteran IWW organizer and legendary soap boxer Frank Cedervall came down from Ohio as well.
It was a tough little strike. The bosses brought in scabs. The union sent flying picket squads to all of the auctions where the heavy equipment was up for sale. One Sunday afternoon one of the strikers had all of the fellow workers over to his house in the country near town for a cook out and a few beers. And some shooting. Everyone brought their guns, both rifles and pistols, and spent the afternoon plinking away in a make shift target range out back on his property. I hadn’t handled a gun since leaving Wyoming in high school, but got into it.
As the afternoon wore on talk turned to the threatening phone calls being made to strikers’ homes. The Fellow Workers vowed to, “be ready.” A week or so later someone drove by the home of one of them in the wee small hours of the morning and let loose three or four rounds. A little later a scab truck driver pulled a pistol on picketers at the gate.
After that, I began to carry a gun for the first and only time in my adult life, a Brazilian made .38 revolver given to me by a Chicago Fellow Worker. Luckily I never had to use it and things cooled down. Eventually the strike was lost and various NLRB cases dragged on until an order for a recognition election was handed down. But by that time there were only two or three of the original members left in the shop and the scabs who had been kept on defeated the union.
A sad little story that I relate only because of the place where it all played out—Virden in the heart of Illinois coal country south of Springfield. Labor battles had always been intense in that area and the use of firearms was not uncommon. All of the local Fellow Workers knew the stories. Some of them came from three generations of United Mine Workers of America. Most of the mines were closed by them, or so heavily mechanized that they employed only a handful compared to the hundred who had once labored in the pits. They talked about it as if it was yesterday and were prepared to “stand up” like their grandparents if they had to.
You see Virden was the site of a famous pitched battle between union miners and company gun thugs trying to import scabs. Sometimes miscast as a Massacre, the Battle of Virden was one of the few times that union members in this country fought it out with arms and actually won. But at a heavy, heavy price.
The relatively new UMWA had won its first big victory in the Illinois coal fields after a bitter, hard fought strike in 1897. It was the strike in which Mary Harris, the Irish born widow from Chicago became famous as the hell raising militant Mother Jones. After a six month struggle most of the big operators in the state agreed to the union terms including a new higher wage scale of 40 cents per ton of coal mined.
The new contract was set to go into effect on January 1, 1899 but a minority of operators held out. Among them was the Chicago-Virden Coal Company. As much as the UMWA was determined to bring them into line, the company was determined to resist by any means necessary.
They enclosed the mine behind a stockade built of six inch thick oak strong enough, as one mine boss said to “bounce a cannon ball.” Police officers from Chicago with famous experience in battling the often violent strikes in that city, including the recent Pullman Strike, were lured by promises of high wages. More reinforcements came from the Thiel Detective Service, a St. Louis based agency which trolled the river front for toughs and thugs. This force was issued new Winchester repeating rifles and plenty of ammunition.
Mean while the company advertised for “Good Colored Miners” in Alabama promising good wages and regular pay. No mention was made to the recruits that they were to be scabs
After a long summer and early fall in a picket stand-off, union miners got wind of the plan to import black scabs in September. They beefed up their pickets and called for reinforcements from throughout the region. On September 24 a train containing black miners pulled into the Virden station but was informed that it had entered a “strike situation.” The recruits declined to get off the train and it proceeded to Springfield. Most of the Black miners then refused to be sent back.
By early October another contingent had been recruited. By this time the Virden miners were regularly putting 40 members on the picket line and scheduled shifts and sleeping in nearby shacks. A large contingent from the UMWA stronghold at near-by Mount Olive came by as well as miners from other areas. So did a contingent of Black miners from Springfield.
The Virden men were mostly native born Americans or English colliers. Many of the supporting pickets were “Bohunks”, mostly Bohemian, Croatian, and Italian miners. So it was a very mixed contingent who waited for a train on the cold, rainy morning of October 12, 1898. The picketers were armed with hunting rifles, shot guns, and a few rusty pistols. The occupied a large open field along the tracks. The fortified mine and a bank of gravel were across the tracks.
When the train pulled in gunfire erupted. No one knows which side fired the first shot. The battle lasted for more than 10 minutes and one veteran called the fire “Hotter than San Juan Hill.”
The striker’s fire raked the train. But the men were standing in the open. They drew intense fire from the train, from parapets of the stockade and from detectives lying behind the gravel embankment firing through the undercarriage of the train. In addition, sharpshooters were stationed in the mine tipple, virtual snipers able to pick off individual miners from an elevated spot.
The battle ended when the wounded locomotive engineer backed his train out of the siding and took it back to St. Louis. There the Black miners were abandoned without ever receiving a penny of pay.
Devastation on the union side was horrific. Seven miners lay dead. More than 40 were wounded. On the other side, four guards were killed and one Black miner. A dozen were injured. Despite the lopsided casualties, the union men won the battle. Not only did they hold their ground at the end, but the company never tried to run more scabs to Virden—although others tried in other towns to tragic ends as we shall see. By November the recalcitrant company had to agree to Union terms and the mine was reopened with UMWA workers.
One of the reason that the strikers could prevail was that Republican Governor John Riley Tanner, a liberal reform minded politician, refused to mobilize the National Guard to quell the strikes. He took a position of professed neutrality. Part of the reason was political. If he ran for re-election in 1900 he would likely face former governor John Peter Altgeld, the man he had defeated to win office in 1896. Altgeld was the hero of labor having not only pardoned the surviving Haymarket prisoners, but having resisted Grover Cleveland’s dispatch of Federal Troops to Chicago to crush the Pullman Strike. Altgeld had publicly stated that he would not use militia as strike breakers, making him hugely popular down state.
Tanner, however, to placate his critics cast his refusal to mobilize troops to his opposition the “alien” strike breakers, which in a series of speeches across the coal districts he made clear were Black. Shameless race-baiting, along with attempts to divide native born miners from the Bohunks, helped turn the continuing strikes against other recalcitrant operators into near race riots in some cases, despite the best efforts of UMWA officials and organizers to maintain solidarity across racial and ethnic lines.
Later, on April 10, 1899 there was a battles at Pana where seven were killed and 15 wounded; at Lauder on April 30 where a train with Black miners leaving Pana was attacked wounding several and killing one woman; and a virtual race riot in Carterville on September 17 that killed five black miners and wounded more.
Speeches like those by Governor Tanner and the skillful use of race baiting by mine operators themselves, helped convince many American born and immigrant miners that blacks were synonymous with scabs. Mines were segregated by agreement with the union, a decision that would haunt the UMWA in later decades.
Despite the ugly side of the conflict, Illinois coal fields had become the “citadel of union labor in the Coal Fields.” Strength in Illinois helped the union sustain itself in many battles to come in other battle grounds from West Virginia and Kentucky to Colorado.
In Virden, a monument commemorates that battle and celebrates the victory, In nearby Mount Olive, the home of four of the union dead, an impressive monument to the dead rises over the Union Miners’ Cemetery. When Mother Jones died in 1931 by request she was laid their by the side of “her boys.”