Famine Relief Among Striking Miners in West Virginia and Pennsylvania
In the early 1920s, striking mine workers in West Virginia and Pennsylvania had been forced out of their homes and were living in tent cities. Welfare agencies, including the Red Cross, had been pressurised by the mine operators into refusing to give aid, leaving many families, and in particular children, at risk of malnutrition. Quakers became the only agency to provide support for the strikers and their families.
When the Depression began in 1920, West Virginia coal mines were largely non-unionised. Mine operators were reducing wages, undercutting those in unionised areas.
The United Mine Workers made a great effort made to unionise the West Virginia workers and 53 thousand out of 88 thousand joined the Union. In response, the mine operators paid ‘deputies’ to intimidate unionised workers and keep out union organisers. Those who refused to cave in were evicted from their homes and welfare agencies were pressurised not to provide relief. By the spring of 1922, large numbers of miners’ families were living in tent colonies with inadequate clothing and sanitation and no medical care.
The American Friends Service Committee sent Walter Abel and Drew Pearson to inspect the camps and interview those involved. The men found 28 thousand families dependent on charity.
The unemployed, unionised workers and their families were in great need. Many had been out of work for between 6 and 16 months. The various strike funds were exhausted, and the local Red Cross officials had taken a partisan stand on the side of the mine operators – deeming that the miners were not deserving of charity because they had refused work (albeit at reduced pay).
‘The same principle which guided us in carrying relief to German and Russian children impels us to enter this new field,’ the AFSC wrote to the miners. ‘Christians cannot sit by and see children stunted in mind and body on account of the differences of opinion that exist between nations or between social groups.’
‘Economic strife does not justify the starving of innocent peoples,’ wrote the Executive Secretary of the AFSC in another letter, this time to the Red Cross. ‘... We are not partisan or taking sides with he strikers, although such a conclusion will be drawn by many people.’
Quaker relief work began in July. One of those involved was Freda Burkle who had helped plan the menus for the Quäkerspeisung – the mass feeding programme for children in Germany following WWI.
Children in the camps were examined by local doctors. By then there had been some improvement in conditions as miners had been able to plant gardens, but there were still many in need. Friends established feeding stations for children who were 7% or more underweight. They provided supplementary food for up to 750 children at any one time.
The mines reopened in September 1922 and families were then able to buy food from company stores. However, Friends continued to provide clothing and welfare support for the miners’ families until Feb 1923
Friends judged that the two key successes of the programme had been to improve sympathy between miners and local public and to bring to the attention of the country as a whole that innocent children should not become the victims in an industrial dispute.