Solidarity Wherever: Remembering West Virginia- in South Africa

Last month 34 striking mine workers were killed when police fired automatic weapons at a crowd of protesters demanding higher wages in Marikana, South Africa. Tensions have been building for months as miners demand an increase in their pay from 4,400 rand a month to 12,500, or in U.S. dollars a raise from about $450 a month to $1350 a month. Thousands of miners went on a wildcat strike in mid-August to demand better compensation for their dangerous work in the Lomnin platinum mines and were met with bullets instead of negotiations, resulting in the largest display of force by South African police since the days of apartheid.

I heard about the Marikana massacre on Democracy Now the next day, but didn’t really begin to investigate the conflict until a few days ago. As I was reading articles about the strike I was listening to a new album called “Blair Pathways: A Musical Exploration of America’s Largest Labor Uprising.”  The album beautifully documents the dramatic history of labor struggle in the mountains of West Virginia and continues the work of protecting those mountains by fighting against mountain top removal mining today.

The Battle of Blair Mountain, one of the largest uprisings in US history, was the most dramatic event of the South West Virginia mine wars. Though the Battle took place in August of 1921, it bears striking resemblance to August of 2012 in South Africa. In 1921 West Virginia coal miners were fighting for their right to form a union and were met with bullets and even bombs. Like in South Africa, they tried to negotiate until it became apparent that the owners of the mines had no interest in sharing their plentiful profits. The Battle of Blair Mountain ended after the Sheriff’s Department had fired over a million rounds of ammunition and nearly 100 miners and 30 from the Sheriff’s Department were left dead. In South Africa, West Virginia, and so many similarly tragic struggles, the police aligned themselves with the owners of the mines over their own class interests.

The Blair Pathways album does an incredible job of transporting the listener to West Virginia in the early twentieth century. As I close my eyes and listen to the traditional songs of the time, of the ballads about the mine wars and Mother Jones, and to the spirited rendition of Solidarity Forever, I can feel some of the anger, pain, and joy of those struggling in those mountains. So, what songs will we sing to mourn the dead of the Marikana mines? What songs will we sing to unite our own struggle with theirs? What songs are they singing to mourn their dead, to continue their struggle? Can we hear them singing?

*For more on the struggle in South Africa, go here : www.democracynow.org/2012/8/21/massacre_in_south_africa_police_defend

*If you would like to buy an album and support the Blair Pathways project go to www.blairpathways.com/