Unionist Frank Keeney (March 15, 1882-May 22, 1970) was born on Cabin Creek, Kanawha County. He first entered the mines as a boy. He emerged as a rank-and-file leader during the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Strike of 1912–13, when he led the opposition to efforts by United Mine Workers officials and Governor Henry D. Hatfield to end the dispute with a compromise settlement.
Keeney became president of UMW District 17 in 1917. Within three months, 2,000 new members were enrolled, 12 new locals organized, and District 17 had the largest membership in its history. In 1919, he announced his intention to organize the remainder of southern West Virginia, including the bastions of anti unionism, Logan and Mingo counties. The coal operators were equally determined to keep the union out. Consequently, Keeney’s tenure as district president was marked by the years of bitter, bloody, industrial warfare known as the West Virginia Mine Wars. Keeney and 550 of his fellow miners were indicted for murder and treason resulting from the 1921 Miners’ March on Logan. Keeney was acquitted.
In 1922, realizing that the coal companies were unable to continue paying the war-inflated union wage rates, Keeney agreed to temporary wage cuts. The UMW’s national leadership disagreed. Asserting the union’s position of ‘‘no backward step,’’ UMWA President John L. Lewis dismissed Keeney and withdrew the autonomy of District 17.
By March 1931, the UMWA membership in southern West Virginia had dwindled to less than 600 members. Keeney formed an independent union, the West Virginia Mine Workers Union, and within a few weeks had organized an estimated 20,000 miners. The independent union lasted for two years until it collapsed due to lack of finances. Keeney continued his labor activities with the Progressive Miners of America. After the collapse of the Progressive Miners of America, Keeney left the labor movement. He owned and operated a nightclub in Charleston, and later worked as a parking lot attendant. He died at age 88.
This Article was written by David A. Corbin
Last Revised on October 07, 2010