Considering History: Striking Coal Miners, Union Busters, and the Promise of 1946

The anniversary of the historic Promise of 1946 labor agreement offers an opportunity to reflect on when – and why – the labor movement and workers themselves have been attacked as unpatriotic and even un-American.

Miners surrendering their weapons to a federal soldier after the Battle of Blair Mountain, December 31, 1921 ( Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
Miners surrendering their weapons to a federal soldier after the Battle of Blair Mountain, December 31, 1921 ( Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

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This series by American studies professor Ben Railton explores the connections between America’s past and present. 

On April 1, 1946, 75 years ago today, the United Mine Workers of America (represented by union president John L. Lewis) and the United States government (represented by Secretary of the Interior Julius Krug) signed the historic Promise of 1946, also known as the Krug-Lewis Agreement. Mine workers had been on strike since just after the conclusion of World War II, advocating for better medical, welfare, and retirement protections. The Promise of 1946 created separate retirement and medical funds that would later be combined into the UMWA Health and Retirement Funds. These funds were collective safety nets for all the challenges faced by these workers and were guaranteed by the federal government.

Union leader John L. Lewis
John L. Lewis (Library of Congress, Harris & Ewing Collection)

In recent years that guarantee has been threatened. Looking back at events like the miners’ strike and Promise of 1946 serves two purposes: first, it provides context for these contemporary debates, and, second, the anniversary of this historic labor agreement offers an opportunity to better remember ways in which the labor movement and workers themselves have been attacked as unpatriotic and even un-American, the destructive effects of those attacks, and how the Promise itself reflects a far more unified vision of labor’s patriotic and American communities.

In the aftermath of World War I, under the aegis of the newly passed 1917 Espionage Act and 1918 Sedition Act, the United States moved into the anti-communist paranoia, which included the federal government’s Palmer Raids and the cultural fears that came to be known as the Red Scare. The labor movement was particularly targeted. During the January 1919 Seattle general strike, for example, the city’s mayor Ole Hanson argued that “the time has come for the people in Seattle to show their Americanism…The anarchists in this community shall not rule its affairs.” Hanson would go on to publish the pamphlet Americanism versus Bolshevism (1920). Later that year, President Woodrow Wilson called the 1919 Boston police strike “a crime against civilization,” and an Ohio State Journal editorial argued that “When a policeman strikes, he should be debarred not only from resuming his office, but from citizenship as well.”

The front page of the Seattle Union Record with the headline "STRIKE CALLED. ALL UNIONS TO GO OUT"
The Seattle Union Record reporting on the strike of 1919 (Wikimedia Commons)

A few months later, a prominent Methodist leader went further still in associating labor activism with anti-Americanism. Speaking at Baltimore’s Mount Vernon Place Methodist Episcopal Church on February 10, 1920, Bishop William A. Quayle argued that “the very existence of our republican form of government is seriously threatened” by “organized labor.” He claimed that “Labor’s threat is a challenge against all we have and are in government, and as such it is our duty as American citizens to accept the challenge and in our strength rise up and crush the foe to our most cherished ideals. Our government is for all the people, not for any one class or faction.” Labor’s proposed policies, Quayle concluded, “will, if continued and advanced in their logical conclusion, ban­ish political liberty from the land.”

Inspired by larger cultural fears and the threats labor activism posed to their own bottom line, in the 1920s a number of American manufacturers and corporations developed an elaborate strategy for destroying organized labor. Known tellingly as the “American Plan,” that strategy was initially formulated by a group of Midwestern corporations at a 1921 meeting in Chicago, then adopted more generally by the National As­sociation of Manufacturers (NAM). This plan went far further than existing anti-labor tactics such as employers refus­ing to negotiate with unions or do business with unionized vendors (although it still included them). Instead, the plan called for overt violence against union organizers and striking workers, much of it perpetrated by armed “patrols” that the NAM would pay to import into unionized cities and target union gatherings and labor actions.

Between such coordinated cam­paigns and a series of labor injunctions from sympathetic courts, these anti-union forces succeeded in reducing the number of American work­ers involved in labor actions from more than 4 million in 1919 to less than 300,000 in 1929.

But these associations of labor activism with un-American forces had even more destructive effects, as illustrated by the West Virginia Coal Wars of 1920-1922. Those wars included a May 1920 shoot-out between Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency operatives and labor leaders in the town of Matewan and the August 1, 1921, murder of two of those labor activists, Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers, when they traveled to a county courthouse to await trial. But the truly national scale of this anti-labor violence was illustrated by the August 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, in which U.S. troops called up by President Warren Harding (and equipped with World War I weapons and aircraft) defeated striking miners.

Miners surrendering their weapons to a federal soldier after the Battle of Blair Mountain, December 31, 1921 ( Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
Miners surrendering their weapons to a federal soldier after the Battle of Blair Mountain, December 31, 1921 ( Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The defeats and losses suffered by the labor movement throughout the 1920s did not end with the October 1929 stock market crash. But the challenges of the Great Depression did produce a renewed sense of the importance of solidarity and activism and of the role that organized labor could play in combatting the era’s economic and social crises. With the support of the Roosevelt administration’s pro-labor stance, the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act provided federal support for collective bargaining, and the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act) went further still, requiring businesses to negotiate in good faith with any union supported by a majority of employees.

The Midwestern novelist, children’s book author, feminist journalist, and political activist Meridel Le Sueur expressed the period’s renewed collective commitment to labor solidarity and activism perfectly in her 1934 essay “I Was Marching,” a stirring account of her first participation in a strike in Minneapolis. Le Sueur wrote, “I knew instantly that these people were NOT competing at all, that they were acting in a strange, powerful trance of movement together” (Le Sueur’s emphases). And she locates that moment as part of a larger national conflict: “Our life seems to be marked with a curious and muffled violence over America” which is now in “the open, and colossal happenings stand bare before our eyes.”

Those colossal happenings, that longstanding conflict between attacks on the labor movement and the critical patriotic resistance of activists and workers alike, were not settled by the Promise of 1946. The Promise’s alliance between organized labor and the federal government did continue into the post-war decades, helping build the period’s strong middle class. But since the 1980s, unions and workers have continued to be weakened, a trend that continues here in the 21st century. As our own debates over the labor movement’s role in America unfold, we would do well to remember both the divisive decades before the Promise of 1946 and the more collective national spirit embodied by such moments of solidarity.

Featured image: Miners surrendering their weapons to a federal soldier after the Battle of Blair Mountain, December 31, 1921 ( Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

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  1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment as ever, Bob. There’s no doubt that these battles over labor activism and workers’ rights continue in 2021, with Amazon one prime example among others (in academia, Columbia U grad students are another important one). All the more reason to better remember the long history of these attacks on the labor movement!


  2. Thanks for this feature, Professor Railton. It’s always terrible that any fair and justifiable treatment and benefits have to come about through violence and tragedy. Equally so is that it can be taken away through erosion or gradual dismantlement as we’ve seen since the ’80s, in conjunction with the accelerated attempts to exterminate the average American. Just look at the untold, unprecedented damage Mitch McConnell alone has done over the past year! I’ll just be a good boy and stop there on that.

    Amazon is being exposed for all KINDS of really bad treatment of their employees. Their bald-headed multi-multi billionaire boss won’t allow the a/c to be turned on, regardless of how it is to cite but one example. People have died as a result, but it’s coming out now. The basic ‘bathroom inhumanity’ sounds like something out of the 19th century, but it’s not. This applies to the field workers in their vans and is disgusting, inexcusable and unforgivable.

    And so these problems go on, don’t they? Even when fixed, there’s always the looming threat of it being taken away by some very powerful monstrous politician that can hardly talk beyond the words “I object.” It’s ridiculous, but as we know, the more ridiculous and outlandish something is now, the more likely it is to be true.


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