MARMET, W.Va. — United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts and several others in the union’s leadership will spend the first part of their Labor Day holiday hoofing it over the mountain.
Roberts, accompanied by UMWA Secretary-Treasurer Levi Allen, Marion County Delegate Mike Caputo and others will make the 11 mile hike from Marmet in Kanawha County to Racine in Boone County.
“I get up and work out every morning. I don’t do eleven miles every day obviously, but I’m in pretty good shape so I should be all right,” laughed Roberts when asked about the extended march.
The long walk to the annual UMWA Labor Day Picnic at Racine is actually done as a tribute and a commemoration.
“Next year will be the 100th anniversary of the Matewan Massacre. The following year will be the 100th anniversary of the Blair Mountain March. What we’re attempting to do here is draw attention to our heritage in West Virginia and in the nation,” said Roberts.
The famed Matewan Massacre was a shootout between miners and company hired Baldwin-Felts Detectives in the early days of the fight for union organization in the West Virginia coalfields. The March to Blair Mountain was the famous trek by mines led by Roberts’ great uncle Bill Blizzard.
More than 12,000 union miners marched from Marmet through Racine and toward the largely nonunion strongholds of Logan and Mingo Counties, ready to seek retribution for the murders of UMWA supporters Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers in Welch. They were met at Blair Mountain, which is the dividing line between Boone and Logan Counties, by men under the command of Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin, who had organized a private army funded by non-union coal operators.
After a five-day battle with many casualties, U.S. Army troops arrived in the area to break up the fighting. With many of the miners being World War I veterans and not wanting to fire upon their own nation’s troops, the miners laid down their arms and dispersed.
“Blair Mountain was the largest armed insurrection in the history of the United States, other than the Civil War,” Roberts said. “Yet few know that it happened, even right here in West Virginia. We have an obligation to our ancestors who participated in that epic struggle for mine workers’ freedom to never let their sacrifices be forgotten.”
According to Roberts, those sacrifices of early labor organizers are what is celebrated on Labor Day.
“Workers started getting paid more, they started getting vacation time off and started getting a better voice in the workplace. Although that was a difficult time leading up to the 1930’s, if those things had not happened, I’m not so sure today we’d have a middle class,” he said.
The small group walking along the highway over the mountain will meet up with a larger contingent at the intersection with Route 3 at Racine and the crowd will walk the last half mile to John Slack Park where the annual picnic and celebration is held. Roberts, Allen, and many others are expected to be on hand to speak at the event.