Ohio History Journal

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The Ohio National Guard

in the Coal Strike of 1932





"You don't have to be drunk," they said

"To get throwed in the can;

The only thing you needed be

Was just a union man."1

--Harlan County Blues



This verse from the Harlan County Blues illustrates a recurrent theme in the his-

tory of the American labor movement in the nineteenth and early twentieth cen-

turies. The resistance which unionization met in the mining industry was perhaps

even more severe than in other industries, and the violence which often resulted

was undoubtedly the most sanguinary. The role of state militias in labor dis-

orders is a parallel theme in the history of the American workers' struggle for the

right to organize. Very often National Guard intervention in labor disorders was

unconscionably partisan. Yet, while there is a firm basis for the "strikebreaking"

image of the National Guard in many labor disputes, that image is not valid in

every instance.2 The role of the Ohio National Guard (ONG) in the coal strike of

1932 is a case in point. The most interesting characteristic of the National Guard's

participation in the 1932 strike was the balance which existed in the attitudes of

guard officers and the mediating influence they exercised upon the opposing

forces in the dispute.


The coal industry collapsed during the Great Depression. Nationwide produc-

tion fell to the lowest level since 1904. Production capacity far outstripped de-

mand, and prices fell sharply. In an effort to cut costs, operators slashed wages,

thus contributing to the spiral of economic deterioration in the mining districts.

In the worst areas of the Southern and Appalachian coal fields, poverty and out-

right destitution were the lot of the miner and his family. Malnutrition and dis-

ease were common. Economically discriminatory practices (such as scrip wage

payments and forced patronage of company stores) together with violation of

miners' civil rights in some areas further contributed to the desperate conditions



1. George Korson, Coal Dust on the Fiddle (Philadelphia, 1943), 316.

2. William H. Riker, in his historical analysis of the National Guard, Soldiers of the States: The

Role of the National Guard in American Democracy (Washington, 1957), argues that state militias

were revived in the late 1870's primarily as an industrial police. However, Riker also points out that

after the passage of the Dick Act in 1903 the National Guard's value as a national military reserve be-

gan to replace its function of industrial police and also mitigated the harshness of its anti-labor bias.


Mr. O'Brien is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The Ohio State University.