Twisting roads snake through the valleys, around the mountains and into the coalfields of southwest Virginia’s Appalachian outback. But for most of this year, visitors have found it difficult to drive through the area. The reason: roads are often blocked by hundreds of striking mine workers and the forces of law, order and big business that are arrayed against them. Since the strike broke out last April, the National Labor Relations Board has issued more than 400 charges of unfair labor practices against the mine owners, the Pittston Co., and against the miners’ union, the United Mine Workers of America. In an effort to break a bitter fivemonth deadlock in negotiations between the two sides, Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole last week appointed a mediator with a mandate to bring the two sides together in talks aimed at resolving one of the hardest-fought American strikes of the decade.
On the surface, the dispute, involving about 1,700 miners at Pittston’s mines in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky, centres on a new contract for the miners, who are demanding
increased pay and fighting to preserve valuable health-care and pension benefits. Some of the strike’s underlying issues go even deeper, raising fundamental questions about the future of the American labor movement and the future shape and form of the coal industry itself.
In the coalfields, trade unionists have fired some shots at coal trucks driven by nonunion workers, and there have been reports of company guard dogs being poisoned. But, so far, there have been no serious injuries. Mine Workers president Richard Trumka is trying to put the union’s sometimes-violent past behind it. In April, he successfully appealed to his members by declaring that “we will overcome Pittston only by recognizing that might does not make right and that resistance does not have to be violent to be effective.”
Still, strikers have complained of vindictive treatment at the hands of the state police. In a daily drama, the strikers and their families, nearly all dressed in military-style camouflage clothing, sit in groups to block the entrances to coal-preparation plants near Virginia communities with names such as War, Dante, Seth,
Dorothy and Lebanon. Each day, in turn, state troopers assigned to keep the company gates open physically carry the strikers aboard buses and drive them to jail. Miners and their families claim that the police go out of their way to make the arrests unpleasant. Sharon Smith, a miner’s wife from Lebanon, recalled her own arrest: “They kept us on that bus for seven hours. They stopped a couple of times but they wouldn’t let us off to use the bathroom or even have a drink of water.”
Negotiations between the two sides reached a stalemate in June, when Pittston chairman Paul Douglas, angered by the union’s demands, refused to have any further meetings with Trumka. In an effort to break the deadlock, Dole named William Usery, a labor-relations consultant, as a so-called supermediator in the dispute. Both the union and the company responded by appointing high-level bargaining teams that met for an initial onehour meeting with Usery.
The root cause of the strike revolves around health and pension benefits. In 1950, legendary mine workers leader John Lewis led the United Mine Workers to a milestone agreement with major U.S. coal companies, including Pittston. The industry agreed to make royalty payments on each ton of coal produced to provide pensions and medical benefits for miners with 20 years of service. In return, the union agreed to let the companies bring in modern machinery that eventually led to the elimination of 300,000 mining jobs in Appalachia. Now, Pittston argues that competition in world coal markets has become so intense that it can no longer afford to make contributions to a health-care fund covering about 18,000 pre1974 pensioners and their spouses and widows.
As a result, Pittston cut off coverage after the old contract with the United Mine Workers expired early last year. At the same time, Pittston now wants miners earning an average of $32,200 to pay 20 per cent of their own health-care costs.
Meanwhile, both sides in the dispute have resorted to bitter accusations and countercharges. Trumka has declared that Pittston’s real objective is to break the union, and he predicted that if the company succeeded, the entire coal-mining industry would soon be using nonunion labor. For his part, Pittston president Michael Odom in August referred to violent actions by union members and declared that “this is the same thing the Ku Klux Klan does, the same thing the Communists do, the same thing the Nazis do.”
In southwest Virginia, Jerry Johnson, a miner who says that he first went to work in the mines at age 13, charged that the coal companies “have got their own little Third World right here. I didn’t ever know that you could work for 30-some years for a company and then lose your medical benefits.” Against that background of mutual recrimination, the government-appointed mediator was likely to face a difficult struggle in his effort to bring peace to the coalfields.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.