The citizens of Matewan, a coal -mining town in West Virginia lived amidst a feudalistic class process. One may think of medieval times in connection with feudalism, but the film “Matewan” directed by John Sayles was based on historical events that took place in 1920. The feudal lord was not a European king, and the serfs were not farming his land. Nevertheless, feudalism existed in this southern town, as the workers did not have the ability to choose their employer. Unlike Capitalism, the members of Matewan could not go out into the free labor market and choose the businesses for which they wished to work. The Stone Mountain Coal Company made choice nonexistent and in doing so gained feudal power over the employees.
The coal company, which acted as the feudal lord in Matewan, is not only the sole employer in the town, they also owned all the additional properties including stores, hotels, restaurants and the other components that assemble this southern community. In addition, the company owns the boarding house run by Elma Radnor, played by Mary McDonnell. Her husband was killed in a mining accident, and now her fourteen-year-old son, Danny, works for Stone Mountain. The Company hired Bill Hickey and Tom Griggs, two intimidators from Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. They came to Matewan to investigate rumors about a union being formed. When the two men came to stay at the boarding house as “guests of the coal company,” they discovered that Ms. Radnor had rented a room to Joe Kenehan; the ex-Wobbly sent to organize the union. They proceeded to threaten her, saying that the company owned the house and they were to be guests there. “Don’t think that the company won’t hear about this,” they affirmed. Kenehan left to stay in the hotel, so there was room for the two men. The detectives continue to make life miserable for the Radnors throughout the film.
Due to the monopolistic control by the coal company, perfect competition didn’t exist in Matewan. Businesses were not competing to gain workers, as there was only one source of employment for the inhabitants. One member of the town said, “If you ain’t with the company, there ain’t no work.” Because of the lack of competition, the employer does not have the need to market their establishment to a potential workforce or maintain desirable working conditions.
Poor working conditions are sometimes a characteristic of a feudalistic class process, but certainly not the main trait. The absence of choice is the focal point of feudalism. For example, The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair contains graphic descriptions of miserable working conditions in the meat packing industry. While the immigrants worked for a meager wage under hideous conditions and were often abused, the main character in the story had other options for employment within the town. Albeit, the other options may not have been desirable ones, but they existed. His ability to choose is...