Letter from the Field

by Jonah Kone


Hi Chris, Jonah from MPD West Virginia here. I just wanted to give you a description of the lovely retreat a few of our crew had the weekend of August 6-8th.


We were fortunate enough to have a local union leader, Joe Murphy, offer to let us camp and use his kitchen/facilities at his home along the Elk River just up the road from Clay, WV. Joe used to be the president of the Clay county carpenters union, and has served on the Harrison/Lewis county labor council. He has since quit both those jobs due to most of the establishment bullshit and now works as a regional representative for the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition trying to incentivize local food economies and reinvigorate traditional Appalachian cuisine in the area.


Our first night was just a meet and greet with the comrades who came. In attendance were Micah and Alex from Fairmont, April and Sean from Morgantown, Mario and Luke from Wheeling, Tristan from Martinsburg, Jasper and Heather from Huntington, and I had come from Union, just outside Lewisburg. We watched the hour long documentary on the history of Widen, which talked about the tactics of local coal baron JG Bradley, and how the confederate sympathies of locals affected the view of the United Mineworkers. Joe had also invited two of his Trump-supporting neighbors who brought moonshine, and we had a few heated political debates 😁


The second day we decided to walk along the rail trail in the morning. The Elk River rail trail currently goes from Clay to the west end of the county line, however in less than a year the entire route should be complete to Charleston. The route follows the old B & O railroad that local coal baron JG Bradley used to get his coal to market. He is the same coal baron who owned the Widen coal camp. Along the route we encountered Hobo Cave, which was a rock overhang that transient railroad workers would sleep under overnight in anticipation of temporary railroading jobs. 


For lunch we went into town where there were a few pop-up tents from the Food and Farm coalition. There was a stand selling locally baked pies, and another selling brisket nachos made from locally raised, grass-fed beef. 
In the afternoon Joe drove all of us up to his mother’s house in Widen where we chatted on her front porch about the Widen coal wars. Nancy is 85 years old, and one of only about 5 survivors still alive who lived through it. She talked about how the majority of workers supported the coal operator JG Bradley because he funded a lot of the churches and sports leagues in the area in an attempt to garner support and stave off the trade unionists. Many residents of Clay county have also historically supported the Confederacy (there is a town on the county line named Dixie), and given how much of the initial drive to unionize the segregated coal camp of Widen came from the African American residents, the majority of the camp saw the unionists as radical abolitionists and were opposed. However, Nancy said her entire family was supportive of the union, and her husband was put on bridge-dynamite duty during the height of the conflict in 1953. Nancy was also very surprised to have young people interested in this conflict. She mentioned that even natives of Clay county don’t know about what happened and that it was heartwarming to have young folks interested in fights such as Blair Mountain, Droop Mountain, and Widen. As a parting gift she gave us a bunch of cucumbers and tomatoes she had grown in her garden. I have linked some of the photos from the artifacts she set aside as well to gain a better picture of the coal wars from 1953: https://photos.app.goo.gl/YbPEQhYvyH5zJwnj6


In the afternoon we held a series of workshops talking about the importance of storytelling, especially as it pertains to proletarian history, and how that relates to the types of intergenerational dialogue we want to foster with MPD. Members talked about their class backgrounds and the tension in their own families surrounding financial hardship, immigration, natural disaster, and war. We decided to schedule future regional gatherings that hopefully have a similar structure, especially as there have been many proletarian fights around WV. Just around Fairmont alone there have been UMWA strikes in the 70s and 80s, and a fellow Wobbly in Boone county still has the rifle his grandpa used to fight in Blair Mountain.


In the evening we made a campfire and discussed the question: “Who are the coal bosses of the 21st century?” While many folks pointed out that the general trends of exploitative workplaces have only gotten worse during the post-Reagan era decline of unions (especially service work: Kroger, Dollar General, Walmart, etc.) it seemed Big Pharma and the political/economic interests it represents was one of the most exploitative forces we identified. Most of our members who are native to WV have had family or friends die in the opioid epidemic, especially those who grew up in rural, resource-dependent parts of the state. This was especially relevant given just a few weeks ago the nation’s largest factory producing Narcan, a lifesaving overdose reversal drug, just closed down. Mylan pharmaceuticals had operated a factory in Morgantown producing generic drugs until senator Joe Manchin appointed his daughter Heather to the board. A couple years later the plant closed, with a multi-million dollar golden parachute being awarded to Heather and others. The plant was unionized by the United Steelworkers, a longtime ally of senator Manchin, and workers held a town hall just two weeks ago talking about how betrayed they feel by establishment democrats.

On Sunday morning we discussed how all these themes have relevance to MPD moving forward, and how we can provide a more revolutionary mass movement in WV without alienating the average workers here, who despite much misgivings about establishment politicians, continue to remain very socially conservative, patriotic, pro-gun, and pro-military. Many members mentioned how even in the past 15-20 years, the opioid epidemic has fueled community mistrust and led to a lack of solidarity amongst neighbors. The traditional political advocacy most liberal groups promote, such as rallies, phonebanking, and canvassing are ineffective at best, and downright insulting to many who have lost faith in the political system. Members in Fairmont and Morgantown are now running a weekly hot-food distribution to the homeless folks in both towns with MPD literature, about 40 people total, and we would like to see such programs expanded to other parts of the state. There is also a dire need for more education towards young people on the importance of labor unions and effective tactics to start union drives. Many establishment unions are losing rank-and-file support as they become more and more reformist and merely serve as voting arms for the democrats. It will be important to revisit the tactics of radical trade unions and movements such as the Socialist Workers Party. IWW, and Miners for Democracy, as they all have precedent in West Virginia and beyond. 


After a brief lunch, we exchanged contact information and resolved to revise our mission statement and debrief at our next statewide meeting over zoom. This has yet to be scheduled, but it was an incredibly successful event! I am hoping to see a few of our members at the Blair Mountain centennial in Matewan this coming labor day, September 6th. The state IWW branch will also be holding a musical concert in Charleston the Friday leading up to it.
Anyhow I hope you find this description helpful. Feel free to use however little or much of this in our newsletter as you see fit. I got verbal permission from Nancy to use that photo of our group as well.


In Solidarity, Jonah Kone

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