Growing Up on Cabin Creek
An Interview with Arnold Miller
BY MICHAEL KLINE. · PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICK LEE
While coal miners fought to build their union, John L.
Lewis built his own dictatorial machine to control it. Iron rule
served the United Mine Workers of America reasonably well during
the presidency of Lewis himself, a brilliant leader venerated by
his membership. But the faulty legacy of the Lewis years became
quickly apparent when he left the union to corrupt henchmen
nurtured under his regime. Thus the final culmination of the
fight for labor democracy came decades after the Mine Wars, as
southern West Virginians joined their union brothers in a struggle
to reform the UMWA. Ironically, the national leader that emerged to
carry them to victory in 1972 was Arnold Miller, a son of Cabin Creek
in the heart of the old Mine Wars country.
This 1981 interview discusses Miller's formative years in a
community saturated with Mine Wars lore, bringing him to the eve
of the union reform era.
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When l first knew Arnold Miller some ten years ago he was involved in
an awesome campaign for the presidency of the United Mine Workers
of America, against the entrenched establishment of Tony Boyle.
In those days, if you could get a word with Arnold, it usually had to do
with some strategic detail of the hectic race. But I caught enough sketchy
anecdotes about his past to realize that his life had been forged in
struggle, that this controversial would be president was in many ways
the embodiment of coalfield experience, and I resolved to find time
someday to hear the whole story.
When I visited with Mr. Miller at his apartment on Ruffnet Avenue
in Charleston last September I found him relaxed and reflective. We
spent a whole afternoon talking about his early life, and I asked
him to concentrate on those details of the story which preceded his
presidency. Excerpts from that taped interview have been pulled
together in this article.
Arnold Miller was born in Leewood, on Cabin Creek in Kanawha County on
April 25, 1923, just two years after The Battle of Blair Mountain,
which broke the union effort in southern West Virginia until 1933. But
union spirit and determination ran deep in his family psyche on both
sides. He began by telling about his father.
My daddy was born in Bell County, in Pineville in East Kentucky,
and was forced to migrate out of Kentucky to West Virginia at the
age of 14, ostensibly for his organizing activity. He was a veteran
miner at the age of 14, had five years in the mines. It's not common
for people to understand today that years ago they worked children
in the mines. I had a group picture I could show you somewhere here
in Charleston. Showed about 30 miners, only two of which were adults.
It's odious from looking at the picture that children did work in the
mines in the early days. They worked them like slaves. They didn't
pay them but damn little, and they dogged them around. Mining is
far different today than it was then.
Did your daddy come from a big family?
AM: Yes. I believe there was 12 in the family. I don't know
exactly the breakdown of boys and girls. I have one uncle and three
aunts still living, and the rest of the family on my dad's side is
about all gone.
MK: What was your dad's dad's name?
AM: John Miller. He had been a coal miner some in his younger days.
He was primarily a farmer and didn't work that much around the mines.
Permission given by author, Michael Kline. Article published in
The Goldenseal Book of the West Virginia Mine Wars