Bill Sr., THE WITNESS: 5/14/31
Decent people, buying a necessary commodity like coal at high prices, like to believe that the miner who goes into the earth to dig it is at least assured of a warm meal when he comes out at the end of the day. Times are hard with the depression and all. Nobody can hope for very much. But even at that I presume decent folks want the miners, who dig the coal which keeps them warm, to be supplied with enough food to keep them warm, to be supplied with enough food to keep them well. Very decent people might possibly go a bit further and argue that they should be supplied with the minimum necessities of life, not only for themselves but for their families.
The are not getting it in West Virginia. I have been in the Kanawha Valley Field, near Charleston, for a few days. i came with the idea that Vice President B.A. Scott of the newly organized West Virginia Mine Workers, in telling the story of the misery in this valley before the Senate Committee recently, was putting it on rather thick. He wasn’t. I have visited mining camps which for downright destitution surpass anything I have ever seen. Some of us said a couple of years ago that conditions in Marion, North Carolina, could not possibly be worse. Today I say that conditions in the mining camps that I have visited are worse. Miserable hassocks for homes, rows of them all alike, gray with coal dust. No yards unless the enterprising miner has plowed up a five by ten of land for a garden. Privies behind each little three room house, with a ;pump nearby furnishing the drinking water for every six or seven homes. Children half naked and barefooted, playing in the muddy streets which are in such shape that one has to pass over them in second gear.
These miners are supposed to work eight hours a day. Few of them are getting that. Some are working longer, though they are paid for only eight hours and are fired if they so much as suggest that they should get overtime. Wages? I set it down here fom the pay envelopes before me. Here is Carl Basham, a fine young married miner –he earned $19.80 for two weeks work. Charged against him was $11.00 for scrip. Scrip is company money, pennies, dimes, quarters, which are to be used by the workers to buy commodities at the company store. Just how much scrip is worth in United States money I do not know; the miners tell me about sixty or seventy cents on the dollar. That is not far off if the owner of a movie theater I saw in one of the towns is right in his figuring, for on the box office he has the sign posted which reads: ‘Admission, 20c in money; 30c in scrip.’ Miners are paid for the most part in scrip. I have talked with scores of miners who haven’t had real money for two years. Scrip is the reward for their labors, forcing them to buy in the company store at whatever prices the company cares to charge. Eleven of Carl’s $19.80 was scrip –$3 for rent, a total of $6 a month for the miserable shack he and his family lives in –and he doesn’t even live in thast if he does anything to offend the boss, like attending a meeting of the union, or saying that he should be paid for overtime. He is fired and handed an eviction notice, based upon the yellow dog contract which reminds him that he agreed to ‘yield up and delive quiet and peaceable possession of the said premises to the said company within five days after receiving notice.’ Out he goes, wife, children and all. He is charged off for a doctor, $1 every two weeks, whether he needs a doctor or not; 65c for the hospital; a little more for mine supplies; a little more for the care of his tools and 50c every two weeks for the burial fund, so that he is no expense to the company when he dies. Well, the company in this case of Carl Basham managed to get back $19.55 of the $19.80 that he earned for two weeks work. But he still had 25c coming to him and he went to the office this morning to get it. A quarter isn’t to be set aside too lightly in this part of the country. But he was told that a mistake had been made; that they had forgotten to charge him for an item of 25c –so that he came out just even. So it goes through all the envelopes before me. Here is one who drew 70c for two weeks work; the next was in debt to the company for $4 at the end of his two weeks; the next drew $1.95; the next $4.90 –and so on.
One could enliven the story with thrilling stories of heroism and of misery. This morning I talked with George Odell –forty years old, the father of eight children, with a paralyzed mother to support as well. He was worried about his mother. He was to be evicted on Saturday and he feared it might kill her. Then there was his little girl, just six, who was recovering from infantile paralysis, but who was still very ill, since he could get no rice or wheat to make her strong, and the miners’ diet of beans she seemed unable to assimilate. He was one of those who had been fired and evicted for saying to the boss that he should be paid for more than eight hours when he had been working twelve and fourteen. ‘If you don’t like it, get out,’ was the answer. A good, honest, Sunday school goring miner, who still hopes that he can get his flock of children through high school is George Odell.
These thousands of miners, capably led by as fine a group of leaders as I have known, are fighting for their union. Everything is against them; no money, starvation, and industry that is in an awful mess. A hopeless proposition I was firmly convinced when I left New York but I leave tomorrow morning believing they will win; that they will create a clean, strong militant workers union. Why? Because they are determined to have it; regardless of the cost to themselves. They have a spirit and enthusiasm to which one can only bow very humbly, and then pitch in and help with everything one has.
If you can help, with no matter how little, send it to the Church League for Industrial Democracy, 154 Nassau St., New York City; and it will be forwarded at once to responsible leaders who will use it carefully to buy food for starving miners and their families. Or if you can get together any clothing…anything…send it direct to the West Virginia Mine Workers, Old Kanawha Bank Bldg., Charleston, W.V. Your “little” now will, literally, save lives.