on 10 September 2016
I joined a union for the first time in the spring of this year. My employer, a national university in Japan where I teach English literature, among other subjects, decided out of the blue to lay off 16 foreign teachers in the English Department without compensation starting in the 2017 academic year. The university said it had no choice because of budget constraints, shrinking enrolments, mounting costs, etc. Our replacements would be young recruits from local English language schools who may or may not be university educated and who would work at pay rates half of what ours are. Downsizing indeed.
The union stepped in. We had two tense meetings with the administration: raised voices, fists banged on tables, sparks metaphorically flying. Flyers around campus were distributed to notify teachers in other departments. The local media were contacted. Classroom sit-ins and shutdowns were threatened.
We won. The university caved in, backed down, chickened out. I write of this now in support of unions and to defend them against those who criticise or condemn them, feeling they’re useless, unproductive and pointless. They are not and there’s a long, bitter and bloody history behind their existence in the world. The rights of workers were only ever recognised and dealt with when the workers themselves organised and formed unions to fight for better working conditions and wages, and to have their rights written into law and thereby protected. Bosses were never going to give an inch unless made to do so. Unions are what forced their hand. But of course the war between workers and bosses goes on, as my case illustrates. We’ve won a battle, but I suspect the struggle is not over. I don’t trust the ethics of the administration and there will be no moral epiphany with them. Actually, they wouldn’t know what a moral epiphany is even if they looked it up.
But our plight was child’s play compared to what early union organisers went through in the 1920s in the U.S. No blood was spilled on our campus in Japan. Not so in America where workers came together to defend themselves against exploitive, ruthless and sometimes violent employers. The violent dirty work was done by hired goons and thugs. They were brought in to physically intimidate and assault workers. This important film by John Sayles starkly illustrates what some workers went through, in this case miners in West Virginia who basically worked as indentured coolies, risking their health and lives in dangerous working conditions in the shafts and tunnels of coal mines. At low pay, of course. The film, made in 1987, has since become an American classic and deserves to be treasured.
Matewan is a small town in Mingo County in the southwestern hill country of West Virginia. It became a flashpoint of labour unrest in 1920 when miners and union organisers were assaulted by enforcers hired by the Stone Mountain Coal Company, the employer of the miners. The film presents the background to this unrest: the unhealthy working and living conditions of the miners, their poverty, their struggling families, the greed and callousness of the company, and the divide between rich and poor in a country whose Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” America prides itself on being an idealistic country. But it’s also a hypocritical one.
Word about the poor working conditions and unrest in Matewan has spread. A union man from Ohio named Joe Kenehan is sent by the United Mine Workers Union to intercede and organise the workers, few of whom have been in a union before. The initial unrest had been caused by wage cuts made by the coal company. Any worker refusing the cut was to be fired and replaced. But more strife is now ensuing as the company has called in temporary ‘scab’ workers to replace those who would not accept the wage cuts. So, pressure now mounts on the workers from two sides (from the company and replacement workers) and soon there will be a third source of pressure (outside enforcers brought in by the mining company). Two agents from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency duly arrive in Matewan. Their names are Hickey and Griggs. Both are arrogant, belligerent and carry guns. Their job is to intimidate and evict people — whole families, not just workers — from their homes. It’s nasty work like fumigating houses for roaches, but they don’t mind, as all these backward hillbillies they toss out, along with all their possessions, aren’t much better than roaches anyway.
Hickey and Griggs have been told there’s a red in town, a communist agitator stirring up trouble. That would be Joe Kenehan, Enemy No. 1. Silencing and eliminating him would fulfil part of their work order.
Joe’s own work, meanwhile, is not easy. He’s got to deal with fear, suspicion, ignorance. Some workers don’t even know what a union is or does.
An important scene occurs early on in the film. One of the replacement workers brought in by the mining company has been a union man, though the company does not know this. He’s a black man named Few Clothes Johnson. We can imagine how a poor man like him got his nickname. Johnson has heard there’s to be a clandestine union meeting in the town tonight. He tries to find it. A miner with a shotgun finds him and brings him to the meeting at gunpoint, as Johnson has explained to him why he wants to attend.
There are some Italian miners at the meeting too. They were brought in by the Stone Mountain Coal Company because as unskilled immigrant workers they could be hired to work for even lower pay than the native miners. No one is happy, all feel exploited, including Few Clothes Johnson.
The door swings open and all eyes focus on Johnson. Some in the room are disgusted to see a black man in their presence. Not only black, also a scab. Johnson feels the hatred directed at him. But he’s an old hand by now, maybe past 50, and he’s had a lifetime full of being hated. He can handle it. He hasn’t any respect for the opinions of most white folk anyway, as he has seen more than enough of them and what they’re made of. But he will not abide being called a scab and now challenges anyone in the room to try to shift more coal than he can. Johnson is a big man — tall, broad-shouldered, burly. He also has a fierce temper, now duly noted by all. No challengers in the room stand up.
But Joe Kenehan does, though not to challenge Johnson — to challenge everyone else in the room. He does this with a forceful speech that resonates round the room:
“You want to be treated like men? You want to be treated fair? Well, you aren’t men to that coal company. You’re equipment like a shovel, a pick axe, a hunk of wood brace. They’ll use you till you wear out or break down or you’re buried under a slate fall, then they’ll get a new one. And they don’t care what colour it is or where it comes from. It don’t matter how long your family has lived on this land. You’re just so much garbage to these people.
You think this man [pointing at Johnson] is your enemy? This is a worker. Any man that keeps this man out ain’t in a union. Now they [the company] got you fighting white against coloured, native against foreign, hollow against hollow, when you know there ain’t but two sides to this world — them that work and them that don’t. You work, they don’t. That’s all you got to know about the enemy.”
Hickey and Griggs go to work the day after they arrive. They drive out to a spot on the edge of town where some company shacks are built. They stop outside one house. Swing on the front wooden porch, wash hung out to dry on the line, baby crying. This ain’t gonna be pretty, dragging a family from its home. Neighbours collect round the car, staring with contempt at Hickey and Griggs. Police Chief Sid Hatfield arrives, deputises all the men round him, informs Hickey and Griggs that if they don’t clear off right now they’ll be under arrest and taken down to the town jail. They look at each other, chuckle a bit, then Hickey says to Sid:
“O.K., have it your way for now, but you’re gonna lose. This is company property and these people gotta go. Nobody here works for the company now.”
So now Police Chief Sid Hatfield is involved, some men have been deputised, and Mayor Cabell Testerman will soon get involved as well. Gradually, the battle lines are being drawn.
Hickey was right about the evictions, though. They were carried out eventually and hundreds of families were tossed from their homes. They lived in tents for weeks during the spring of 1920, their living conditions even poorer than they had been in the company shacks.
An agent provocateur, a traitor, is in the midst of the new union. He’s bought and paid for by the Stone Mountain Coal Company but to the other miners he’s one of them, temporarily unemployed while on strike. His name is C.E. Lively, and he went down in infamy in this piece of labour history in America.
Lively works to spread dissension and suspicion among the strikers by playing on their fears. He fabricates lies and spreads rumours, one of which is so serious it almost gets Joe Kenehan killed. Luckily, he is not. Lively’s cover is eventually blown and his house burned down by the angry miners, incensed by his betrayal of them and their cause. A hunted man, he swims for his life across the Tug Fork River and runs to safety in the woods. People talk of karma all the time but it’s an illusion. There is no karma. Lively will live on, as his name suggests. In 1921, a year after the Matewan Massacre, he’ll be part of a conspiracy to murder Sid Hatfield, the chief of police in Matewan. Violence, as ever, begets violence, the insidious circle endless.
The strike lasts weeks, the company calls in more Baldwin-Felts men, things come to a head. Like the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, blood is demanded. On one clear bright morning a dozen men, including Hickey and Griggs, walk slowly along the railroad tracks that lead to the Matewan train station. With them they carry rifles, shotguns and hand guns. Inside the buildings that line one side of the tracks the deputised miners wait. Others are on the roofs of the buildings or in the woods across from the tracks. All the miners are armed, their rifles and shotguns cocked.
Sid Hatfield and Mayor Testerman walk toward the Baldwin-Felts men. Police chief Hatfield is armed, the mayor is not. Both sides stop a few feet from one another. Mayor Testerman speaks and says the town wants no violence. Sid Hatfield says nothing. The Baldwin-Felts men are silent too. It seems the mayor is the only one left who wants to talk. But, as it happens, a different form of wordless exchange shall shortly ensue.
These things are never pretty and the so-called Matewan Massacre wasn’t. But it became a turning point and rallying cry for unions and miners organising elsewhere in the States.
The history of unionising is largely a fight for fairness. Also, a fight for human decency: decent wages, working conditions, housing and living conditions for workers and their families. The fight is noble and remains so.
The film feels authentic throughout. The accents are local, a mountain dialect delivered in cadences that are slow and lazy, long vowels and long pauses. The drawl feels weary, put upon, reflecting the hard times of people who are poor, remote, neglected. The music is real too: bluegrass and white gospel. The songs are laments meant for heaven, rising from great hardship and need. Relief and redemption are sought, as earthly conditions have let them down. But if the people can’t count on heaven to deliver, they must organise.
Unions therefore are a force for good. They make up for the heartlessness of some men. By fighting for their human rights the miners of Matewan advanced the cause of civilisation by a few inches. Those who dispute this are as bad as the bosses of the Stone Mountain Coal Company or the thugs they hired to prevent justice from being done. They side with brutality and barbarity. I ought to tell this to the president of the university where I work but I won’t because he’s clueless.