With faces blackened by dust and throats full of it, coal miners have long held near-mythical status as symbols of working-class toughness and determination. An eclectic array of writers and artists — from Émile Zola ("Germinal") to George Orwell ("The Road to Wigan Pier") and Vincent Van Gogh ("Miners in the Snow") — have found inspiration in these soot-faced proletarians hacking away in cramped darkness.
In "The Devil Is Here in These Hills," a vital and anecdotally rich history of the violent struggle to organize coal miners in West Virginia, James Green sticks firmly to this tradition, describing the life and work of coal miners with evangelical ardor. At the same time, Green presents readers with a refreshingly nuanced and fuller depiction of this class of workers than previously conceived.
In Green's history, the gaunt men who crawled beneath the West Virginia hills at the dawn of the last century did not fit the stereotype that many Americans had of them as primitive, backcountry brutes. These men were self-respecting "craftsmen" engaged in life-or-death work that required a high degree of skill and ingenuity. Dependent on one another for survival, the miners created bonds of fellowship and rituals of solidarity that made them uniquely suited for collective militancy.
"The qualities the men forged in underground combat with the elements — bravery, fraternal fealty, and group solidarity — hardened them for above ground combat with their employers," Green writes.
"The Devil Is Here in These Hills" is ambitious in scope, a fast-moving account of four decades of bloody conflict between miners and West Virginia's virulently anti-union mine operators. An artful narrator, Green uses biographical detail to bring the guerrilla battles between West Virginia's "hill people" and the private armies of the coal operators to life. So much blood was spilled in the struggle for union recognition in Appalachia that Green's book sometimes reads more like a Civil War novel than labor history.
Green is at his best in describing, in Orwellian detail, the often harrowing process of extracting coal and how it contributed to a spirit of solidarity. Reading Green, one can almost see the fog of coal dust on the miners' lanterns and feel the pain in their knees and backs as they inched along in cramped darkness. The entire delicate process, from knowing how deep to cut and how much gunpowder to use, required a surgeon's skill and a soldier's bravery.
In the early 1900s, West Virginia miners experienced little of the industrial discipline that prevailed in the factories in the North. Pick-and-shovel miners were paid by the tons of coal loaded, which meant they could often set their own hours. Mine owners thought the "tonnage system" would foster a cutthroat environment; instead, miners developed what Green terms "rituals of mutuality," such as ensuring that each miner received the same number of cars each workday.
The bitter strikes and armed conflicts of the early 1900s set the stage for a more militant kind of trade unionism of the 1930s — one that opposed ossified union officialdom and "class collaboration" with company owners. By 1941, virtually all the nation's coal miners were organized into unions with an eight-hour workday and the right to speak openly in public.
Chris Serres is a Star Tribune reporter. Twitter: @chrisserres