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Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2004 10:14 am

Which side are you on?

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Divided Kingdom: Work, Community, and the Mining Wars in the Central Illinois Coal Fields During the Great Depression By Carl D. Oblinger, Illinois State Historical Society, 2nd edition, 2004, 268 pages, $15.95

During the height of the Depression, central Illinois was convulsed by a vicious coal-mining war that pitted worker against worker, changed an industry, and altered the course of organized labor. It's a dramatic story, yet largely unknown.

Springfield historian Carl D. Oblinger started digging into the subject nearly 20 years ago, the result of a chance meeting with Dan Reese, then the mayor of Taylorville. Oblinger told Reese he was a historian with an interest in labor; Reese told Oblinger an interesting story about a strike that ripped Christian County apart in the 1930s. Then Reese dropped a bombshell: Oblinger's own father had played a key role in defeating an upstart union that dared to defy Peabody Coal and the United Mine Workers of America. An FBI agent in the 1930s and later a prominent Springfield lawyer, Walter Oblinger never offered his son many details. "That was a bad time" is about all he'd volunteer, Carl Oblinger says.

When Oblinger began his research into the Progressive Miners of America, there were still men and women with vivid memories of the four-year pitched battle that divided towns such as Taylorville, Langleyville, and Tovey. Their accounts -- most gathered by Kevin Corley, a high-school teacher in Taylorville working with Oblinger -- were compiled in Oblinger's 1991 book, Divided Kingdom. The book offered a compelling, sometimes perplexing account of the strike. A just-released second edition, published by the Illinois State Historical Society, offers new details and information.

Here's the basic story: Peabody Coal wanted to mechanize its central Illinois mines -- a move that would cause layoffs and "de-skill" some traditional mine jobs. Members overwhelmingly rejected the contract and went on strike in early 1932; a contract recommended by an arbitration commission was rejected twice, but on the second vote, UMWA president John L. Lewis declared an emergency, seized the ballots, and unilaterally signed the pact with Peabody Coal. Lewis had seen the UMWA's nationwide strength drop from a half-million in 1920 to 150,000 in the early 1930s, and he wasn't prepared to engage the company in a costly battle of attrition. Peabody Coal needed Lewis to reduce its workforce; Lewis needed Peabody Coal to consolidate his power in the troublesome Illinois coal fields. Rank-and-file members defied both the company and their union boss -- and within three weeks, they'd formed the breakaway Progressive Miners.

Peabody Coal tried to continue operating with UMWA loyalists and strike-breakers, but the Progressives hung tough. Scabs and strikers risked a beating; bombings and shootings were common; the National Guard was deployed. The Breeze Courier, a newspaper deemed unsympathetic to the Progressives, was bombed. When railroad bridges became targets, J. Edgar Hoover sent G-men -- including Oblinger's dad -- to move against the Progressive Miners. Ultimately 41 men were indicted and 38 convicted and sentenced in 1938. By then, the strike had been broken.

For veterans of the fight, Oblinger's book rekindled difficult memories -- and resulted in something of a publicity splash, with newspaper coverage that included a cover story in Illinois Times [William Furry, "Coal miners' slaughter," Nov. 27, 1991]. There were a few conferences and public discussions, but one by one, the 40 men and women whose oral histories became Divided Kingdom passed away. (The last surviving miner who was interviewed, Fred Boch, died in October 2003.)

But Oblinger wasn't finished. In fact, after the first edition, he learned new details that caused him to reinterpret the sequence of some events. And many of the federal government's records of its involvement in the strike had yet to see sunshine. In recent years, that changed, and Oblinger has been able -- for the first time -- to read key strike-related records that had been under seal for six decades.

What he's learned has confirmed his suspicions: He contends that the Progressives were broken because they were framed -- charged with bombings that were actually carried out by UMWA agents and convicted with perjured testimony. "The depositions and the trial testimony of the miners show that these people were railroaded into prison by fabrication of evidence, by threats, and by intimidation," Oblinger says. Based on the evidence, Oblinger says a pardon for these men may be an appropriate, though symbolic, gesture.

Today, only about 12 percent of the U.S. workforce belongs to a labor union -- the lowest percentage in six decades. If you're looking for a reason for labor's decline, Oblinger says, you need look no further than the defeat of the Progressive Miners in the 1930s. Their story offers a textbook example of how labor bossism prevailed over a democratic union movement.

Copies of Divided Kingdom are available at Prairie Archives and Chapter One bookstores, and at Barnes & Noble in December.

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