John Davies was 12 years old when he first went down the pit in Rhondda Valley, Wales. This is his photograph. The year Davies was born, in 1897, on the other side of the ocean, miners staged an uprising. In the US, immigrants from all corners of the world were fed up of sweating and dying in the bowels of the earth in exchange for nothing.
In September 1897, striking workers in Pennsylvania marched to the Lattimer mine to demand their union rights. The sheriff and his men blocked the way, grabbed the American flag they carried, and ordered, “Disperse!”. They tried, but his men opened fire on them; 25 Polish, Slovakian and Lithuanian workers fell. The workers back then probably didn't know what the free market was about, since they united irregardless whether they were English, Scottish or Welsh, and they died together. Croatian, Bohemian and Italian workers refused to go to work after their friends were killed.
The sheriff couldn't handle the survivors and called in the National Guard. They came with their artillery. It didn't matter. Workers continued to spread the union's message and the strike from mine to mine.
Don't let their rifles fool you, they were using them to hunt and feed themselves. Still, the union message spreading... armed miners everywhere… the markets were terribly unsettled.
In the first years of the 20th century, Virden was a tiny mining town in the area. And here it is 20 years later. The bosses of the Chicago Virden Coal Company build a wooden palisade around the mine to keep strikers out, and had armed guards manning the wall. The union hadn't organized the mine, but work stopped anyway. The bosses rounded up about 200 black workers from Alabama, put them on a train with their families, and set out. Miners in Virden caught drift of this and set up a roadblock. As the train approached Illinois, the uninformed black workers saw armed white men board the train. The curtains of the carriages carrying the black workers were drawn, and their doors were locked. As the train entered Virden, rifle fire from the train and the mine descended on the workers at the roadblock. Eight workers were killed, forty wounded.
The shooters were experts. The company brought in ex-cops and PIs armed with Winchesters. The workers were ready and responded in turn. Four of the bosses' men died, five wounded. The train took the black workers back. Only one of them was injured. Eight of their own died, but the miners had defeated the company. A month later the bosses accepted both a pay raise and the eight-hour work day, and they cursed the mayor for not calling in the National Guard.
Naturally, the free market had been injured. The proper way to do things was: Make money off somebody else's sweat, if they complain, have the mayor call in the guard.
More than a hundred years later, the people of Virden commemorated the events of 1898 with a monument.
These are images of this monument, unveiled in 2006. There are so many places in Turkey where we could erect such monuments… It would boost the bronze sector and contribute to the market.
The union bought a lot nearby in Mount Olive and built a mausoleum for its dead. The legendary American labor hero Mother Jones asked to be and was buried with “her brave boys” at Mount Olive as well.
A search for the New York Times report on the Virden massacre, brings you to the current front page and today’s news. And if you had done that, as I did, on April 6, 2010, you would have come across the report on the mining accident in West Virginia, where 29 miners died.
Since humanity is in constant progress, news about miners in the 21st century are not about massacres, but accidents.
Let us lend an ear to Johnny Cash: Sixteen Tons
The Rhondda Valley is in South Wales. It is no longer an important coal-mining site. Fred Stapleton’s painting shows us a different face of the valley, but there was a time when the valley was famous both for mining accidents and militant workers’ resistance. 112 miners died in accidents in 1856, 178 miners in 1867, 101 miners in 1880 and 120 miners in 1905. The workers of this region played a significant role in the founding of socialist and communist associations and parties in Britain. During the Spanish Civil War, many Rhondda men joined the International Brigades to fight against the fascists.
Talking of Virden, it is J.P. Fraley’s song titled “One Morning in May” playing in the background. J.P. Fraley, a Kentuckian fiddle-player and songwriter, sold mining tools and equipment for most of his life. He gained fame with his unique tone and style. His most famous tune is “Wild Rose of the Mountain”, recorded in the 1970s. During the part about the massacre monument we listen to “Coal Miner’s Song” by the Californian band Nico Vega. A hard-hitting trio with drums and guitar, but no bass. Their singer Aja Volkman’s style has been compared to Janis Joplin’s.
I became aware of the Virden Monument through Craig Newsom’s amazing photographs. I was naturally intrigued by the fact that 100 years after the massacre, and on the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the town of Virden, the townsfolk had commissioned their resident bronze-master sculptor David Seagraves to create this monument. This is how I corresponded with and came to know Craig, and he sent me the photographs. Then I asked him for photographs of the Mother Jones gravesite memorial at Mount Olive, and he sent me those, too. We experienced a great example of internet solidarity. Craig is an artist and a lecturer at Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois. Click here to see his photographs, sculptures and drawings.
What is interesting about this New York Times news report from 13 October 1898 is that it includes the fact that the fire opened by workers received response from the black workers on the train, and that many blacks were injured, despite the fact that the report also frequently mentions the existence of armed guards on the train. Some of these guards fled in fear of retaliation from the workers, and this is also included in the report. This news item is a typical example of mainstream journalism that leans towards the employers but retains a concern for reporting the truth. In other words, it is quite slippery. Or should we say, “at least a concern for reporting the truth remains”? The difference between journalism in the West and in Turkey is not in the interests they protect, but the concern to preserve the legitimacy of the profession.