Thursday, 27 September 2012

Smilin' Sid has something to say

Morning everybody (well, it's morning here and how I wish it wasn't). You may have noticed that my blogging has declined from last year's high of about four posts a day to one or two. Is he losing his touch, commentators are asking? Perhaps I am. Or perhaps this course of compulsory psychiatric therapy has soothed my inner demons, resulting in less rage to go round. It might, of course, be that I have so much work to do and so little time. Or a combination of all three. But hopefully I'll find an equilibrium of fewer, higher quality posts (note the importance of that comma).

On today's agenda: actually do some research; see some new students; write some lectures; go to another high level meeting as part of my union casework to be told that The Hegemon's senior staff can behave as viciously as they like. Bullying isn't minuted. Anything un-minuted hasn't happened. Therefore bullying doesn't happen. At least, that's the result of the last investigation I instigated. Then my member gets frustrated at the union's impotence and another bit of hope dies. This kind of misery is what gets the Tories up in the morning, but it's no fun for me seeing grown men and women weep.

Anyway, what else is going on? Well, I read a rather wonderful book yesterday, Shogan's The Battle of Blair Mountain. It's the story of the West Virginia miners and their union in the 1919-1921 period. Many of them fought in the First World War and came back demanding union recognition and fair wages. What they got was state corruption, Federal hostility and martial law. Highlights include gun massacres by private detectives, assassinations, 10,000 shots exchanged between miners and mine guard in a single day, the US Army Air Corps bombing miners from the skies, armoured trains raking tent cities with machine gun fire, imprisonment without trial for reading particular newspapers, bribery of judges, the suspension of habeas corpus, treason trials, and in the end, a state civil war.

The miners lost, as did working-class politics and the left in general, making the United States a safe place for vicious exploitation, as it is now. West Virginia is still a mining state, and a poisonous one. The favoured technique is 'mountain top removal', which employs massive amounts of explosives to do exactly that. The environment is fouled by the mining and the coal-burning, but the companies still own the state and its politicians, while the miners have been persuaded that any mitigation is an attack on their jobs: from revolutionaries then are descended reactionaries now.

We tend to forget that the American Dream's individualism isn't eternal: there have been mass movements and class movements throughout that great country's history, from the Farm Labor parties to Chicago's socialists and anarchists - massacred on May Day, the General Motors rebellion, the Jewish socialists of New York, the Socialists and Communists of Minnesota, the Molly Maguires of Pennsylvania and Mother Jones (from Cork!) across the country, Chavez's United Farm Workers, to say nothing of the abolitionist and African-American movements and parties.

Smilin' Sid Hatfield

Here's a key scene from John Sayles's film of the Blair Mountain story, Matewan. The Sheriff is Smilin' Sid Hatfield, who defended the miners from the company goons - he was eventually assassinated on the steps of the courthouse by private detectives who then planted a gun on him and escaped conviction. The United Mine Workers also made a silent movie called Smilin' Sid, which was pretty advanced PR< but the only copy was apparently stolen from the National Archives.

I wouldn't claim that my union work is quite as heroic as these men and women - but it reminds me of what our political enemies would like to see: workers' solidarity smashed, workers' protection abolished, individualism reigning.

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