January 5, 2006

VIRDEN, Ill—This little Downstate town doesn’t get much notice these days. Interstate 55 bypasses it by a good six miles, and the six daily Amtrak trains that barrel through barely give their passengers enough time to read the name on the town water tank.

But 107 years ago, Virden was a major coal mining center with four major railroads – the Chicago & Alton; Chicago & North Western; Chicago, Burlington & Quincy; and Illinois Terminal — all bringing immigrants from across Europe to work in its coal mines.

But Virden didn’t attract just immigrants; it also attracted international attention. On October 12, 1898, the little mining community 20 miles south of Springfield was being monitored by newspaper readers around the world, as telegraphers tapped out news of a bloody confrontation between locked-out members of the United Mine Workers of America and armed goons hired by the town’s biggest employer, the Chicago-Virden Coal Company.

Now, at long last, Virden is about to go back on the map. The not-for-profit Virden Sesquicentennial Group has secured state and federal funding which, along with private contributions the Group is currently raising, will erect a permanent monument to make sure Virden’s story will get told and stay told.

Less known than the great 1893-94 Pullman Strike, the story of Virden is credited by labor leaders and historians as nothing less than one of the founding moments in the history of organized labor in America:

Desperate to stop the ongoing unionization of American miners that had already swept westward from the West Virginia and Pennsylvania coal fields to most of the mines in Southern Illinois, the Chicago-Virden Coal Company decided in late 1898 to make a stand at its mine in Virden, 20 miles south of Springfield.

Company management started by building a stockade of four-inch-thick oak timbers around the mine entrance, then locked its union workers out and chartered a special train to bring strikebreakers from Alabama up to Virden to work the pits (without first telling them they were going to be used to break a strike).

The management also hired ex-police officers to act as security guards and equipped them with brand-new Winchester rifles to protect the strikebreakers on their arrival. The striking miners banned together, arming themselves with whatever they could find, and waited outside the stockade for the scheduled arrival of the train October 12.

But management’s strategy backfired. As the special train slowed for the Virden depot, shots rang out, and the two sides engaged in a 10-minute battle. One shot wounded the train’s engineer, who opened the throttle and highballed for Springfield, taking the entire trainload of would-be strikebreakers with him. The strikebreakers, at last aware that they had been lured to Virden only as pawns in a union-busting campaign, refused to work in Virden and asked to be returned to Alabama. They were left stranded by the coal company.

A month later the company capitulated, accepted unionization and granted the wage increases the UMWA had been seeking.

But victory came at a price: Eight miners died and some 40 were wounded, while the security guards suffered four fatalities and five wounded.

“This is certainly the greatest triumph that organized labor has ever achieved,” quoted the Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine in November 1898.

“The long bitter fight at Virden is over and the miners have won,” wrote the Macoupin County Enquirer on November 16, 1898.

“The UMWA’s victory at Virden strengthened the union movement and gave it genuine respectability among middle-class Americans who up to then had been suspicious of organized labor,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo.

“Virden marked one of the first time that cultural lines were crossed as the so-called ‘educated’ English-speaking miners banded together with the so-called ‘lower-class’ Eastern European miners to protect their mutual benefits. And they were supported by the African-Americans, who refused to work after unknowingly being lured from Alabama to be strikebreakers. It is truly a story about worker solidarity,” said Szabo.

Virden immediately was embraced by Mother Jones, the historic labor organizer who was once renowned as “the most feared woman in America.”

On October 12, 1923, the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Virden, she said, “When the last call comes for me to take my final rest, will the miners see that I get a resting place in the same clay that shelters the miners who gave up their lives on the hills of Virden, Ill., on the morning of October 12, 1898, for their heroic sacrifice of their fellow men? They are responsible for Illinois being the best-organized labor state in America. I hope it will be my consolation when I pass away to feel I sleep under the same clay with those brave boys.”

Mother Jones got her wish. She is buried in the union cemetery at nearby Mt. Olive, Illinois, which sent a substantial contingent of its own miners to fight alongside the strikers at Virden.

But the battle itself and its huge contribution to the progress of organized labor soon faded from sight. The Pullman strike of 1893-94 had made such an impression on the national consciousness that it virtually eclipsed the achievements and sacrifices of the Virden strikers. Now that oversight is about to be erased.

“Building a monument to the Virden miners who gave their lives to the cause of worker’s rights is essential,” said Illinois AFL-CIO President Margaret Blackshere. “This is a struggle our children should learn about at home and in school. The least we owe them is a permanent marker in time.”

The story of all the participants will be told in a 6-foot-by-12-foot bronze bas-relief crafted by well known Illinois artist David Seagraves and scheduled to be dedicated in the Virden town square next year.

UTU members, along with union members statewide, can support the Battle of Virden Monument by purchasing a paving stone that will make their names a permanent part of the exhibit site. A $50 contribution will purchase 4”x 8” paver; a $100 contribution will purchase an 8”x 8” paver—each engraved with the name of the donor or the name of another person the donor wishes to honor.

“I certainly urge our members to become a part of this worthy project,” Szabo said. “I admit, for me it is personal. My great-great grandfather and great-grandfather, along with two great-uncles, all emigrated from England in 1890 and were miners in Virden at that time.

“But even those working people who have no family connection with Virden should ‘take it personally,’” Szabo said. “For too long the story of the Battle of Virden has been neglected and overlooked. As union members, and as Illinoisians, we need to recognize what those heroic miners accomplished that morning and make sure the story of our labor struggles is preserved for the ages.”

For more information e-mail battleofvirdenmonument@yahoo.com or call 217-965-5443.