OPINION: Mining wars to right to work laws: the tradition of collectivization in Appalachia


Jackson Futch

The National Labor Relations Board decided there was enough tampering in the vote to unionize Amazon warehouses in Alabama to recommend a revote. In the statement given on Aug. 2 the NLRB cited several incidents of intimidation and attempts to discourage voting that significantly affected the outcome. These union-busting actions have come out through a series of interviews and court cases since the vote in April and have had more evidence unearthed to back them up. It would be bad enough if this was a one time event, but this is the culmination of decades of anti-union action that has hammered the Appalachian region the hardest. 

 Appalachia used to be a safe haven for collectivist action in America. Even the term redneck can be traced back to communist roots in the area. But as the elites went to work slowly dismantling the power that the labor force held, these groups plummeted in numbers and effectiveness. To see this erosion in real time, you only have to look to the minor unions that took hold of the mountains in the 1930s. Up until World War II, these newly formed collectivist parties were able to strike and lobby for better pay, benefits, and livelihoods for all of its members. The bloody fights can be exemplified by the Battle of Blair Mountain, which celebrated its 100th anniversary this year. On Aug. 25, 1921 10,000 West Virginian unionized coal miners came together to march for better working conditions and pay only to be shut down in violent fashion by deputized businessmen and townsfolk. Over a dozen miners were killed and many more got evicted, fired and brutalized, but the battle raised awareness for the horrid conditions the miners were forced into and created more labor activists nationwide. Outside of the mining wars, the most tangible victory these laborers saw was the veto of the Taft-Hartley Act, an act that drastically limited union freedom and handed power to the boss. But this kind of hard fought success could only last for so long.

The union-busting techniques have come into their fullest selves with the modern deregulation of labor. These laws passed by state legislatures have come to be known as “right to work laws.” The RWLs have limited the action that unions and union organizers can take while completely opening up the playing field for the boss. Bosses can organize anti-union meetings, use propaganda, direct intervention and even threats of unemployment to bust up collectivization attempts. RWLs have also been directly linked with a 14.2% increase in workplace mortality rates. Many of the states that once had a prolific union culture have fallen to these laws are directed to weaken the power the laborer holds and hand the reins over to the employer. 

The benefits that wide-scale collectivization can bring are at an unparalleled need in Appalachia. The rural Appalachian poverty rate is at 22%, six points higher than the rest of rural America at 16% and 11 points higher than the national rate of 11%. These rapidly accelerating rates of poverty can be curbed through union action. The average union worker will see a 20% rise in wages and a 28% rise in benefits including wages. Unlike more traditional government-mandated forms of wealth redistribution, collectivist action disproportionately raises the wages of poor and middle class laborers instead of company higher ups. 

From the men and women who laid their lives down in the early 1900s to the modern day activists fighting against pro-employer legislation, the laborer in Appalachia has had an uphill battle, but it’s been a battle worth fighting. They have had to battle for the lives and happiness of the poor overlooked worker covered in coal dust with busted hands from back breaking work. There’s only one true way to hand power back to these much maligned people. Unionization would let them have a better life and more of a voice in the companies that control so much of the land they subsist upon. We must repeal the harmful legislation that is killing the American laborer and help them collectivize and consolidate power in those that need it the most.