Lou Martin, Shaun Slifer and Lorraine Starsky all laud “Matewan,” a 1987 John Sayles film that depicted the brutal fight to form a union in that southern West Virginia coal mining town.
Martin and Slifer — the founder and current board president and the creative director of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum in Matewan, respectively — describe the film as an excellent account of the West Virginia mining union movement in the 1920s. Starsky, a retired public health nurse and an ardent union and working-class activist from Swisshelm Park, saw it when it first came out. She found it moving and incredibly emotional. “It’s history that really people in this country need to know,” Starsky said.
The Pittsburgh branch of the Party for Socialism and Liberation is showing it Saturday at a benefit for striking Pittsburgh Post-Gazette workers. The event starts at 6 p.m. at the Wilkins School Community Center, 7604 Charleston St., Swissvale. The suggested donation is $10, and it’s a potluck event. Food contributions are welcome.
Sayles’ film about the West Virginia town shows how the coal miners, struggling to form a union, are up against company operators and their hired gun thugs from the notorious Baldwin-Felts detective agency in 1920. Black and Italian miners, brought in by the company to break the strike, are caught between the two forces. United Mine Workers of America organizer and member of the Industrial Workers of the World (aka Wobblies) Joe Kenehan (portrayed by Chris Cooper) is determined to bring the local, Black and Italian groups together.
While Kenehan and his story are fictional, according to information about the film on IMDB, the setting, the battle and its dramatic climax are historical: Sid Hatfield (David Strathairn), Cabell C. Testerman, C.E. Lively and the Felts brothers were real-life participants; “Few Clothes” (James Earl Jones) is based on a character active in the Matewan area several years prior.
The scabs eventually stop working, too, and overcome their own ethnic and national prejudices to join Kenehan’s efforts to unionize the workers. Escalating tensions end with a massacre from which no one emerges unscathed, according to the IMDB synopsis.
The composite characters do not detract from the film’s accuracy, in Martin’s opinion. “In terms of most of the major events that the movie is based on, it is extremely accurate,” he said. “It really captures the working conditions well, [and] the challenges of trying to unionize in a place that is patrolled by armed gunmen whose primary job is to keep the union out.”
What the film depicts well, in addition, are some moments that show the inspiration for the union movement in that era. “The solidarity of workers who came from different backgrounds and were often hostile to each other, their solidarity is very inspiring and true,” said Martin, who is a Chatham University associate professor of history.
The hard reality and actual history, though, he said, is that ultimately the coal companies won these battles. “It wasn’t until a major sea change in the 1930s with federal legislation that miners in West Virginia were able to unionize.”
Martin explains the situation in West Virginia differed from what Western Pennsylvania miners experienced, although some things — such as the company towns where the coal companies ruled miners’ lives — were the same. “But one thing that was a little different, the United Mineworkers union had early success in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and it was the defeats in southern West Virginia that would have reverberations in Pennsylvania,” he said. “There was a 1922 strike in Pennsylvania that lasted a long time, and ultimately, the miners were able to hang on to the union.”
Other fierce battles took place in the 1930s, he said, as well.
The Matewan battle was the run-up to the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, one that the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum and historians call the largest armed uprising in U.S. since the Civil War. Ten thousand West Virginia miners marched in protest of perilous work conditions, squalid housing and low wages, among other grievances, according to a 2021 Smithsonian magazine article. They set out from Marmet with the goal of reaching Mingo County, a few days’ travels away, to meet the coal companies on their own turf and demand redress. The armed miners never made it past that mountain; official reports list 16 killed in the battle, a number that many believed to be closer to 100 before the fighting ceased.
Blair Mountain has been the site for more battles over mountaintop mining in recent times, and that is how Martin became involved in the museum. He joined a 2011 march there to protest the very destructive type of mining, he said.
“After the march, there was a museum started in the town of Blair, but for a variety of reasons, including pressure from the coal industry, the museum closed in two years,” he said. “After that, a group of us got together — eight of us — and decided to start a new museum in the town of Matewan because it had embraced its history with the mine wars, particularly the battle of Matewan that took place in 1920.”
They called it the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum to encompass all the battles that took place in the first part of the 20th century, Martin said, and it opened in 2015.
The organizers hired Slifer, a multidisciplinary artist, nonfiction author and museum professional who lives in Bloomfield, to design the exhibits.
By chance, Slifer and his then-girlfriend had picked up a DVD copy of “Matewan” at a movie rental at the back of a Crazy Mocha in Bloomfield some years back. He loved the film, and it led him to read a book on the Blair Mountain battle. Like Martin, he traveled to West Virginia in 2008 to protest mountaintop mining. He and others — a coalition of unions, coal miners and environmentalists — traced the 1921 miners’ route and marched for five days to the mountain with a desire to save its history and combat the coal company’s quest to physically erase its history.
That quest succeeded but not without some plot twists: Although a coalition of historical and environmental groups in 2005 had successfully sought a designation of Blair Mountain on the National Register of Historic Places, according to a 2021 WHYY story, the coal companies appealed that decision and won. But in 2016 a federal judge ruled that Blair Mountain had been removed improperly from the National Register, and eventually it was put back on the list. The designation protects the site from surface mining but not necessarily from other disturbances like timbering.
Slifer said for him the film, which he called quite dark, questions the violence in movement work. And it proposes some questions that he says the museum still struggles with — violence versus nonviolence — and how it interprets those two things.
“It just poses the question of the role of violence and the struggles that people in that time, in that region specifically, had to deal with,” Slifer said. “Coal towns were privatized. They were up against a lot in those regions. It was very much about being able to unionize. The union struggle was very different in the West Virginia coal fields. The United Mineworkers couldn’t get into those areas because of the level of the violence against coal miners.”
The Matewan story was new to him when he discovered the film, one he knows he didn’t learn about during his public school education. And it’s one he believes is worth seeing. “Labor history by and large is left out of textbooks across the country,” Slifer said.
Martin makes the effort to ensure his Chatham students learn about it.
“I always include a week in my intro class on industrialization and the working class. Part of that is about the labor movement,” he said. “I teach a lot of what I call people’s history in my classes. I am not restricted in any way. I am able to really to teach students the way that it was — not just for rich people but for poor people and for people of different races as well.”
After her retirement, Starsky took it upon herself to learn more about labor history. She and her husband, Peter Oanes, drove the five-plus hours from Pittsburgh to southern West Virginia for the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain and then visited the museum. It was an education for someone who knew there had been “vicious all-out warfare in West Virginia and other places, Kentucky and so forth.”
The journey was worth it. “It is one of the most fabulous museums I have ever been in,” she said. “I loved it. For anyone who values labor history, it’s a must see.”