Coal miners’ militancy and consciousness

David Hoskins

From a talk given by David Hoskins, a FIST organizer, at the May 13-14 conference on “Preparing for the Rebirth of the Global Struggle for Socialism” in New York City.

The technological revolution transformed what was once a pivotal foundation of modern industrial capitalism by automating coal mines and revolutionizing production methods. In the early days the occupational hazards of mining were a defining characteristic of the work. Young boys and girls were sent into the dark and damp mines at an early age, where they either fell prey to mortal accidents or devel oped debilitating diseases such as rickets.

The harsh conditions they worked under gave rise to a spirit of militancy against the capitalists who owned the mines and the states that protected those capitalists. The hallmark of that militancy can be found in the West Virginia Coal Mine Wars of 1912 to 1921. Ten thousand miners, well disciplined and well armed, tied red handkerchiefs around their necks and battled a force of 1,500 police officers and private detectives hired by the coal companies. The battle ended a week later when 10,000 regular U.S. Army troops, aerial troops and chemical warfare troops brutally overpowered the miners.

As time went on a section of the United Mine Workers leadership would eventually become complacent and seek compromise with the capitalists. As they did, a section of the workers would have their consciousness muddied. Rather than blame capitalists and their implementation of technology as the source of their job losses, some of them scapegoat immigrants.

There is one thing the ruling class fears more than anything: when workers begin to make connections between their struggles. That is, when miners, immigrant workers, the oppressed who suffered through hurricane Katrina all begin to see the ruling classnot each other—as the problem.

For a period many coal miners began to be perceived as a so-called labor aristocracy. But if a worker ever forgets who he or she is, the ruling class will be the first to remind them.

And so on Jan. 2 of this year an underground explosion in a mine in Sago West Virginia trapped 13 coal miners. The blast killed one instantly. Twelve others died slowly from carbon monoxide poisoning. One other barely made it out with his life.

At a meeting in a small church in Sago, W.Va., exhausted miners, righteously angry at the capitalists responsible for their fellow workers’ deaths, issued calls to arm themselves and exact justice against the company officials.

For an instant they were conscious of their common interests as workers. It is our job as revolutionaries to find that spark of realization, that revolutionary impulse in every worker and oppressed individual and to develop it into its historic potential for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Listen to the full talk


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