Matewan, Redux . . .

“Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything. A country’s ability to improve its standard of living over time depends almost entirely on its ability to raise its output per worker.” – Paul Krugman.

Blu-ray Review: John Sayles's Matewan on the Criterion Collection ...

Productivity is measured by total economic output, divided by the total amount of hours worked in the economy. The chart below shows productivity growth in the American economy from 1948-2020. Productivity growth is charted against increases in wages for production/nonsupervisory workers, representing 80% of all employment, over the same period. The chart uses long term, highly aggregated, consistently measured, inflation-adjusted data, and so provides for a very durable conclusion.

The conclusion is straightforward. Productivity growth in the American economy has been very steady, year after year, for the past seven decades, since World War Two, providing the basis for steady increases in the country’s societal wealth. Before 1979, the base of the American labor force, representing the broad working and middle class, benefited from compensation increases that were consistent with growth in the economy’s productivity, thus sharing proportionately in the country’s steadily increasing societal wealth. After 1979, while productivity continued to maintain its historic pace of growth, the broad base of the labor force lost almost all of the benefit of its participation in increasing productivity, and thus in increasing societal wealth, a trend that has continued through the four decades since. Just study this chart for a few minutes – it is striking.

The Productivity–Pay Gap | Economic Policy Institute

“Matewan” is a powerful film that dramatizes actual historical events around union organizing efforts in 1920 West Virginia coal country. Directed by John Sayles, with a first class cast including Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones, Will Oldham, David Straithern and Kevin Tighe. Chris Cooper plays a disciplined, tactically minded organizer for the United Mine Workers. David Straithern plays the local police chief, sympathetic to the miners, steely resolve belied by his reserved demeanor. Kevin Tighe is the hard-bitten, callous lead detective for the coal company, determined to break the union. James Earl Jones, always powerful on film, plays the leader of the African American strikebreakers. A young Will Oldham projects strongly, with his character finding his full voice as a young baptist preacher.

Arriving in Matewan to organize miners at the Stone Mountain Coal Company, Cooper witnesses a mob of white miners, angry at wage cuts, attacking strikebreakers – Italians and African-Americans. Cooper rents a room from the widow of a miner killed in a recent mine collapse, where she lives with her 15-year-old son, a miner himself who is a budding Baptist preacher. The coal company plants a spy in the union ranks, who goads the miners to violence against the strikebreakers, and informs on the organizers.

The coal company’s “detectives”, enforcers, begin evicting suspect union organizers and their families from company-owned houses, but the mayor and police chief intervene, demanding required court orders for the evictions. The detectives instead produce a court warrant for arrest of the police chief for interference in the evictions, but it is exposed as a fraudulent document. When the detectives threaten further violence against the tenants, the police chief responds by deputizing the miners, experienced hunters all, telling them to go home and come back with their guns.

The company detectives next turn to the tent camp on the edge of town, where evicted and striking miners have moved, and fire shots randomly into the camp to terrorize them, injuring some strikers. The next day, the detectives enter the camp to demand immediate return of all food and clothing purchased at the company store with company-issued scrip, but are thwarted by area hillbillies, and leave empty handed.

The miners become disillusioned with the union, and organize a night-time shootout with the detectives. The company spy is revealed, and attempts to blame the UMW organizer, leading the miners to plot to kill Cooper. The widow’s son overhears the scheme and, while preaching the next morning, reveals the deception in the form of a biblical parable, stifling the plot. Next, the young preacher and his friend, stealing coal from the mine for the stoves in the tent camp, are caught by the coal company detectives, and while the young preacher hides, his friend is tortured for information about the union organizers, revealing only names of miners killed in the recent mine accident.

The coal company detectives call in reinforcements to carry out the evictions, and as the mayor and police chief again intervene, the confrontation breaks into a climactic gunfight between the coal companies’ mercenaries and the armed townspeople. Several mercenaries are killed in the battle, along with Cooper, the UMW organizer; the lead coal company detective escapes to the boarding house, where he is shot and killed by the coal miner’s widow.

The epilogue is narrated by the widow’s son, now an older preacher, many years later, who reports the assassination of the police chief, gunned down in broad daylight on the steps of the county courthouse by the spy the coal company planted in the union.

“Matewan” provides a superb dramatization, based on one actual historical event, of the nature and intensity of America’s labor wars from the 1870’s to the 1930’s, which grew with the increasing scale of American industrial enterprises, and resulted in the rise of the large scale industrial unions. Following this long period of labor unrest, effectively a low grade civil war, our country established legal structures to negotiate and resolve these issues, resulting in a fairer division of the economic benefits of increasing societal wealth. But this changed dramatically beginning in 1979, because those structures were steadily undermined by changes in public policy, and transition of the economy and work force from the manufacturing to the knowledge/service sectors, with the broad work force losing their participation in increasing societal wealth, a trend that has persisted for four decades. Income inequality over this period has contributed steadily to rising concentration of wealth at the top tier of the population, and resulted in frustration of America’s broad working and middle class with their lack of economic progress and increasing financial insecurity.

The tactics of the Stone Mountain Coal Company, especially their efforts to divide their labor force along ethnic and racial lines, are informing relative to today’s political and economic environment. Who knows, maybe we can return to the days of “Matewan” – I mean, thats one way to resolve demands for improved compensation of production and nonsupervisory employees.

3 thoughts on “Matewan, Redux . . .

  1. I just wonder what action the 80% can take to reclaim their share of the economy’s productivity. Labor organizing does not seem like the right answer in the modern economy. Does it have to be political action? Does the government have to force a more equitable distribution of wealth and income? How is it going to do that? Seems like redistributing wealth through the tax system would never work — tax games are unending and they’ll just spend the money on things that suit their politics anyway. The EITC is a great tool, but it’s just barely scratching at the surface. How does the government force the money to go directly into people’s pockets? Who decides who gets what and how do they decide that?


  2. Yes, the propaganda being used against unions has become quite fierce in our lifetime. Nice job tying in Matewan. I would often recommend this film to my students.


    1. Fabulous movie; hard to believe our own government has put our blue collar work force back in this position, where they have no employment security protections, and their health care and pensions along with it. In IKE’s words, reactionaries running the government.


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