Born of a slight hope and great desperation, the West Virginia Mine Workers Union was formed March 19, 1931, as a radical alternative to the United Mine Workers of America. Southern West Virginia miners’ families were starving in the hard times of the Great Depression, and many miners felt they had nothing to lose by joining the fledgling organization. The new union was socialist in its orientation and not to be confused with the communist-led National Miners Union, then active in eastern Kentucky. Frank Keeney, who had been a strong UMW leader during the 1910s and 1920s, became president of the West Virginia Mine Workers Union. The UMWA condemned the rival union.
In May 1931, the Mine Workers Union began to organize the Kanawha coalfield, and by July 6 a major strike had begun. The Conference for Progressive Labor Action, Brookwood Labor College, the League for Industrial Democracy, and many other organizations solicited and contributed substantial funds, but the cost of feeding and housing thousands of striking miners proved to be too much. The strike was called off in the middle of August.
During this time Keeney was as much revered by southern West Virginia’s rank and file coal miners as was John L. Lewis in later years. The Mine Workers Union survived until 1933, but the defeat of the 1931 strike was the effective end of its power. It was not until the organizing drives by Lewis’s UMWA during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal era that labor was to regain strength in the southern West Virginia coalfields.
This Article was written by Gordon L. Swartz III
Last Revised on November 19, 2010
Corbin, David A. Life, Work, and Rebellion in the Coal Fields: The Southern West Virginia Miners 1880-1922. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981.
Corbin, David A. The West Virginia Mine Workers Union. Huntington: Appalachian Movement Press, 1972, Articles reprinted from Labor Age, Apr. to Dec., 1931.
Wilson, Edmund. The American Jitters. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1932.