October 28, 2006

VIRDEN, Ill. (Oct. 28)—More than a century after they died in a bloody gun battle with company security guards, eight protesting coal miners received a permanent memorial when a long-awaited $140,000 monument to their sacrifice was unveiled and dedicated in the town square here.

“I’ve seen some other mining monuments but none quite like this,” United Mine Workers International President Cecil Roberts told the crowd. “This is fabulous. It’s breathtaking.”

“For me this is a day of both personal and professional pride,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “It’s personal because my great-great-grandfather and great-grandfather, who emigrated to Virden from England, worked in that mine at the time of that lockout. So did two of my great-uncles. And it’s professional because the Battle of Virden had so much to do with the later success of the union movement in the first half of the 20th century. My roots as a union officer are in Virden.”

The “Battle of Virden,” as it was called in newspaper headlines across the U.S. and Europe, is widely credited by historians as a major turning point in the growth and acceptance of labor unions, and the establishment of the United Mine Workers in the U.S.

Virden, located 20 miles south of Springfield on the former Chicago & Alton Railroad line that now belongs to Union Pacific, never was a big place, even when the mine was booming and four different railroads brought in fresh loads of miners and hauled their output away to all points of the compass. Its population today is about 4,000.

But in 1898 it became the center of world attention when the Chicago-Virden Coal Company decided its Virden mine would be the place where the fast-growing United Mine Workers Union finally would be stopped. The UMW already had organized most of the miners in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the Midwest and had just negotiated a first contract for the miners at Virden.

But in the spring of 1898, the Chicago-Virden management suddenly reneged, refused to pay the negotiated standard wage, and locked the union miners out of the property while secretly advertising in Alabama for replacement workers—who were never told they were being hired to displace unionized miners.

To prepare for the arrival of the strikebreakers, most of whom were black, the company built a stockade of oak timbers around the mine entrance. It hired ex-police officers as armed guards to keep the unionized miners off the property and to escort the strikebreakers in when their chartered train arrived from the South.

But the plan backfired. When the train pulled in on the morning of October 12, 1898, shots rang out, one of which injured the train’s engineer. As the two sides engaged in a 10-minute gun battle, the engineer widened his throttle and highballed for Springfield, taking the entire trainload of intended strikebreakers with him.

When the strikebreakers learned they had been lured to Virden only as pawns in a union-busting campaign, they refused to work in Virden and asked to be returned to Alabama (the company rebuffed them and they were returned to their homes only after sympathetic citizens took up a collection and paid their fares).

When the battle was over eight of the miners lay dead and some 40 were wounded. Four of the hired guards also died, and five were wounded.

A month later, the coal company capitulated, and the union miners went back to work at contract wages. The Virden victory seemed to give the entire union movement a new lease on life. In the coming months and years, not only miners but employees of other industries as well, including railroaders, made major new gains in wages, hours of service and workplace safety.

Despite those fruits of victory, however, the Battle of Virden managed to slip off the historical radar screen for many decades until the UMWA, the UTU, the Illinois AFL-CIO, local activists and a small cadre of labor historians began soliciting public and private donations for a monument. By January of this year they had collected enough money to commission a bas-relief design from sculptor David Seagraves of Downstate Elizabeth and to pay for a bronze casting of the model by foundryman Jeff Adams of Mount Morris.

Some 700 people, including State Sen. Deanna Demuzio (D-Carlinville), State Rep. Gary Hannig (D-Gillespie), Virden Ald. John Alexander and representatives of many unions stood in the chilly and windy town square as the 6-by-12 bronze panel mounted on a granite wall was unveiled.

Images on the panel include a large central depiction of the battle itself, surrounded by smaller panels showing coal being mined and a likeness of legendary union organizer Mother Jones, who at her own request was buried in the nearby union cemetery at Mt. Olive among the miners she called “my boys.”

An account of the monument in the State Journal-Register enumerates the remaining images as “a scroll bearing the names of the eight miners killed, a young girl carrying a bouquet of flowers and a grieving woman. Near them is a young boy handing a lunch pail to a man on his way to work in the mines.”

“Even though my great-great grandfather, Luke Cummings, and my great-grandfather, Henry Soady, were miners in Virden at that time, I never knew what was on their minds during this crisis,” Szabo said. “Both were long dead before I was born, and nobody else in the family talked about the event much.

“Until I began researching it myself I didn’t realize that the Battle of Virden was not strike,” Szabo said. “Actually, it was a lockout. The mine company simply decided to get rid of their union employees and bring in new ones they thought would work cheaper. It differs very little from what companies are trying to do today by hiring illegal immigrants, sending work offshore or using contract labor.

“All my ancestors had been doing was trying to protect their family’s well-being and their livelihood,” Szabo said. “It was the same for each miner in Virden.”

Szabo said the failure of management’s lockout represented a human triumph on more than just the economic front.

“One of the company’s major strategies was to keep its employees off-balance and distracted by exploiting their cultural differences,” he said. “They tried to create suspicion between the English-speaking employees and the non-English-speaking immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe.

“But the whole program blew up in management’s face when the trainload of black miners rolled in—and the blacks joined with the whites in boycotting management’s scheme,” Szabo said. “It was a remarkable moment of solidarity of a kind that hadn’t been seen up to that time—all nationalities and races joining together to defend their common interests and repudiate the arrogance and insolence of power.”

Szabo said Sen. Demuzio recognized that achievement when she told the crowd: “This is about brave men and women standing up to abuse of power. It’s a story that needs to be told and remembered.”

UTU members can help tell that story by contributing additional money to complete the monument site, which still lacks lighting, landscaping, benches, plaques and signs. Memorial 4”-by-8” bricks engraved with three lines are $50 each. An 8”-by-8” brick with five lines can be donated for $100. Contributors should contact battleofvirdenmonument@yahoo.com or call (217) 965-5443.