West Virginia: Industrial Expansion and the Labor Movement

Industrial Expansion and the Labor Movement

Of great significance to West Virginia was the state's industrial expansion in the late 19th cent. Based on rich resources and supported by the immigration of Southern blacks and northern laborers, industrialization marked a change from the largely self-sufficient economy of local communities to one of dependence on industry's profits and labor's wages. West Virginia's great chemical industry was founded during World War I when German chemicals could no longer be imported, and it was greatly expanded during World War II.

Both wars also brought unprecedented boom periods to the mines and the steel mills. The state's rapid industrialization, however, was long accompanied by serious labor problems. This was especially true in the coal mines, where wages were low and working conditions dangerous. Unionization was bitterly resisted by mine owners, and strikes throughout the latter part of the 19th cent. and the first third of the 20th cent. were often marked by serious and extended violence, particularly in 1912–13 and in 1920–21.

The Great Depression in 1930 intensified difficulties, but reform measures under the New Deal finally assured the miners their right to organize; membership in the United Mine Workers of America soared, and by 1937 labor leaders enjoyed tremendous political power in the state. During the 1950s economic weakness in the coal industry, combined with the mechanization and automation that enabled mines to operate at top efficiency with far fewer employees, were the chief factors in bringing about the highest unemployment rate in the country and a major exodus of the state's population—down 7.2% from 1950 to 1960 and another 6.2% from 1960 to 1970.

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