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“The Greatest Thing”: A Kentucky Coal Miner on the 1933 Revival of the United Mine Workers of America

The sudden revival of the United Mine Workers of America in 1933 was a remarkable story. In late 1932 the UMWA was a shambles, yet by the fall of 1933 the miners’ union had won a contract that guaranteed it recognition and stability in the hitherto nonunion southern Appalachian coal fields and was perhaps in the strongest position of its history. There was much debate over who had been the architect of this revival: some miners credited Franklin D. Roosevelt while others felt that the President of the UMWA, John L. Lewis, was the truly instrumental leader. For Buster Ratliff, interviewed by Nyoka Hawkins in 1987, the coming of unionization was the end of “slavery”and the emancipators were both John L. Lewis and Franklin D. Roosevelt, as well as another UMWA leader, Tom Raney.

Listen to Audio:

Nyoka Hawkins: So, tell me what you remember about the union, when you first heard about the union, when they started trying to organize.

Buster Ratliff: When I heard about it I thought that was the greatest thing I ever heard in my life, I’ll be honest with you. 'Cause I know how guys had to slave, and I just don’t believe in it. Yeah, I thought it was the greatest thing I ever heard tell of. When they started organizing, you know, we heard about Roosevelt give John L. Lewis the right to organize labor , you know, that’s a whole lot of the way it was out.

Hawkins: So it was really Roosevelt’s endorsement.

Ratliff: Right, right. He’s the one that stopped the slavery.

Hawkins: Do you remember any of the field organizers from the union that come in?

Ratliff: Yeah, Tom Raney. He was a good one.

Hawkins: He just died recently.

Ratliff: Yeah, I liked him. I heard him get up on truck beds around there, you know, and make big talks, trying to tell the people what was good for them, you know. But I don’t know, people have changed a lot, during this. Younger people ain’t like they used to be. They’re hard to tell something.

Hawkins: You mean they don’t support the union?

Ratliff: Well not like they used to.

Hawkins: I think people have forgotten what it was like before the union.

Ratliff: That’s right.

Source: Oral history courtesy of University of Kentucky, Library Oral History Project.

See Also:"I Was More of a Citizen": A Puerto Rican Garment Worker Describes Discrimination in the 1920s