9/23/2014

PULLMAN, Wash.— The filming location for the popular TV series Northern Exposure, Roslyn might not be as eccentric as its fictional counterpart. But the sleepy little town does have a dramatic past and lingering bitter sentiments that some residents didn’t want exposed. As Coal Wars: Unions, Strikes, and Violence in Depression-Era Central Washington author David Bullock researched events decades later, he encountered resistance. “Individuals in the community warned me to avoid the topic because of the controversial nature of the material and strong feelings that persisted. One source refused to provide a 1970s college paper because he said there were still people who could be hurt by what the paper contained.”

Roslyn had always been a coal town, ever since a railway company opened the first mine in 1886. On normal shift, the miners spent ten or more hours at the workplace.  The author’s grandfather, an immigrant, was one of many who dressed, prepared lights and equipment, and traveled in and out of the mine shaft on his own time. Some trips took nearly an hour each way. In the early 1930s, concerned about safety, locals demonstrated at the state capital. Their success prompted additional dreams of better working conditions, fair wages, and a six-hour workday. They expected their national union, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), to remain strong during contract negotiations. Instead, UMWA leaders aligned with the coal company, setting the stage for the rise of a new local organization, the Western Miners Union of America.

With the United States in the midst of a national economic depression, the fledgling group faced opposition from a mighty labor union, a powerful railroad empire, and even their own government. The conflict between the two unions intensified, leading to murder on a Roslyn street corner. When the killer was acquitted, community outrage rose, and Communist activists and other radical labor groups offered to back the Western Miners. They called for a strike on April 3, 1934, but this time the unions themselves were rivals—dividing families, pitting neighbor against neighbor, and turning residents of Roslyn, Cle Elem, and Ronald against each other. At the picket lines, ordinary wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters pelted cars with rocks, rotten eggs, pine cones, and cow pies. They cursed and shrieked insults as they fought on behalf of their men. As the morning wore on, the taunts and assaults escalated. State police were called in.

David Bullock made a concerted effort to keep his account balanced. He conducted interviews with local residents and reviewed newspapers, court documents, and corporate archives. Capturing the details surrounding a dual union movement in the 1930s American West, his narrative also describes the region’s melting pot of working families and the socio-political impacts of New Deal policies on their lives.