The Pittston Strike

The Pittston Strike

By Charlie D. Thompson

Vol. 11, No. 6, 1989, pp. 1, 3-6

AFTER CROSSING THE Clinch River and heading into the extreme southwestern corner of Virginia, the terrain begins to close in around you. The rolling farmland to the east gives way to steep mountains with valleys barely wide enough to fit both a road and a house side-by-side. It is the Clinch River which also informally marks the boundary to that separate region known as “the coalfields.” It is here that the black veins of coal, intertwined with the backbones of these ridges, are thick enough to extract. Since 1892, coal companies and the mountain people they hire have bitterly collaborated in this task.

The bloody history of Appalachian mining is central to understanding this region. Isolated behind the physical barrier of the mountains from the rest of the world and even from the states which claim jurisdiction here, the people of the coalfields have continually struggled for economic survival with little recognition from the rest of the country. Outside ownership of the region’s resources drains away much of the region’s wealth, causing unemployment, disability, and poverty which perpetually exceed national averages.

YET IN THE coalfields, as in many oppressed areas of the world, the human spirit blossoms. Appalachian people throughout coal-mining history have contributed much to the labor movement’s struggle for justice. Coal miners and their union, the United Mine Workers of America, have perhaps the most coura-

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geous and hard-fought story of organizing in our history, as the films Harlan County, USA and Matewan have depicted. Now another chapter of this story is unfolding.

The UMWA is fighting again for basic human rights against powers which attempt to discredit and even destroy it. Since April 4, seventeen hundred miners employed by the Pittston Company of Greenwich, Conn., have been on a “selective strike.” The remaining UMWA members throughout the region work to support them with 2 percent wage deductions. “The strike is not about economics,” said Bill Patton, a sixty-two-year-old miner and former Dickenson County Supervisor. “It is about social justice.” Wages are not an issue in this strike–miners are satisfied with their average salary of $15 per hour. The major concerns at the picket shacks and in miners’ homes are health care and job security. The company has proposed measures which weaken pensions and decrease health care benefits for fifteen hundred retirees, widows of pensioners, and disabled miners. Pittston also wants to relinquish the company’s responsibility for lifetime care for retirees and their spouses.

The strike, though necessary for maintaining all that thc union has worked for, was reluctantly called. After fourteen months of attempted negotiations, during which the UMWA ignored its own policy and worked without a contract, the union walked out.

Osborne Debert, a thirty-two-year-old miner from Lebanon, Va., states simply the reason: “They want to take a whole lot from us that we have already fought for.” In one of the world’s most dangerous occupations, miners virtually count on adverse effects from their occupations. Black Lung or other mining ailments will attack almost all miners at some stage in their lives. Previously, they had some consolation in knowing they and their families were to be cared for when the trouble came. Now without a contract, the Pittston miners, both active and retired, are again at the mercy of a resistant absentee owner when their work takes its toll.

The Pittston Company wants other major changes in long-standing labor rights including the repeal of the right to an eight-hour day. In other words, mandatory overtime would be a requirement. If Pittston gets its way, miners would be required to work seven days a week if thc company chooses. In Appalachia, where church and family ties are still very strong, this is particularly onerous. Still more examples of new “flexibility” proposed by Pittston include allowing for increased numbers of non- union workers in Pittston mines and subcontracting to other non-union companies (which are in some cases subsidiaries of Pittston, for work which is now done by union members.

Clearly the union had reason enough to head to the picket lines. With a resistant company refusing to bend on what it knows to be the undoing of standard labor practices, the strike was inevitable. Pittston surely knew this would occur–the contractual violations against the union challenge the most basic of rights. The company’s tactics seem to have a larger and more significant agenda. This challenge to the UMWA appears to many rank and file members to be a litmus test for not only the miners’ solidarity but for all of American labor. Bill Patton said, “They’re trying to break the

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union’s back and if we lose on this one we’ve lost everything.” The U.S. labor movement is indeed at a critical point in its history and this strike will demonstrate much about how unions will fare through the next decade.

The UMWA has shouldered this responsibility with impressive commitment and inspiration with a pledge to strike until their rights are reinstated. Sentiments like the following are expressed daily on the picket line: “We’ll be here as long as it takes” and “It ain’t over till we say it’s over.” Some like Elizabeth Cook, beautician, strike support worker and miner’s wife, promise to give all to help the cause. “I have to be honest with you,” she said, “I’d die for this union. I ask the Lord to help me be like Job in the Bible and endure to the end.” An overwhelming majority of the miners are steadfast with only one union member crossing the picket line during the entire strike.

Though spirits are high, no one dares believe the fight is almost over. Entire communities, pulling together for the long haul, are finding renewed closeness, a stronger sense of purpose, and new political awareness. Support from groups around this country and abroad adds significance. Elizabeth Cook, tired but determined, said, “This strike has been hard but it has been good for us.”

In November the town of Grundy, Va., elected local union president Jackie Stump to the House of Representatives by write-in ballot. The man he beat is the father of a circuit court judge responsible for numerous fines against the union. Even with only two weeks of campaigning, Stump won by a two-to-one margin against a legislator thought by some to be the most powerful in the state.

At Bill and Jan Patton’s home the police scanner blares out the latest police check of the picket lines. Every union home now has this tap into the activities of the Virginia

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State Police and Vance Security guards who keep constant surveillance on the union. “We used to respect the law here,” Bill Patton admitted, “but never again will the troopers get any support from any of the people in this community.” A large sign outside the M and R Store just a few miles away reads, “We respectfully refuse to serve State Troopers during the period of the UMWA strike.” Everywhere in the Virginia coalfields people have been shocked to find the state so blatantly supporting the company through the use of escorts for non-union coal trucks and thousands of striker arrests for small or nonexistent offenses. The union has been fined $32 million for practicing civil disobedience tactics like sitting in the road to block coal trucks.

On a bedside table in the Pattons’ home is Taylor Branch’s Partinq the Waters. All union leaders have been asked to read this account of the civil rights movement to learn more about the use of non-violent strategies. Minds are being broadened. Not a single union member has been arrested for violent offenses during this strike. Meanwhile, Pittston continues to guard its property with automatic weapons. At one mine a makeshift “pill-box” atop an equipment shed protects security guards. Scenes like this are ominous reminders of the presence of the hired outsiders some are again calling the “gun-thugs.”

In a small cove near Clinch River is a union campground known as “Camp Solidarity.” A community resident donated the property to provide lodging for the union’s support-

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ers during the strike. A gravel road leading to this refuge winds through the hills for miles. Here the mountaineers mingle with union members and supporters from as far away as Poland, Czechoslavakia, England, and even the Soviet Union, as well as many thousands from around the United States.

There is no official record of visitor numbers, but this small haven has provided up to sixteen hundred a place to eat and sleep in a single day. Liz Cook describes the operation of the union’s daily food service: “Pittston tried to shut us down by getting the kitchen here closed. But the Lord provided a way out and we started fixing food in our homes and bringing it in. I fixed forty pounds of macaroni salad in my kitchen in one day.” Union members who normally construct the wooden mine supports used their carpentry skills to build a permanent bunk house at the Camp just in time for winter.

Five miles from Camp Solidarity is the Moss #3 Coal Preparation Plant. For four days in September it was occupied in protest by ninety-nine miners and a clergyman. Nearly five thousand people stood outside blocking the gates. The picket shack is calm now, but the occupation is still referred to as an example of the power of unarmed people to physically overtake and control property and economics without force. High on the metal structure behind the gates new aluminum paint covers the bold words written during the takeover: “UMWA is here to stay.” Now, like the painted-over words, the occupation is not easily visible, but the results linger in the hearts of the miners. One man whose daily job is to inhabit the small picket shack outside Moss #3 said confidently, “I ain’t a bit afraid of them. We control things here.”

The Reverend Joe Johnson, an eighty-year-old former miner and active Freewill Baptist minister, sits quietly in his home with his wife listening to the latest on the police scanner. He remembers the days before the union, “I worked in water up to my knees for a dollar a day loading coal by hand, and if I said anything about it the boss would tell me, ‘If you don’t like it, there’s a barefoot man waiting outside ready to take your job.’ That’s what Pittston wants to get it back to.”

“I think Christian people ought to be the ones working (in the union) to get benefits for their people,” counseled Johnson, “The Bible says as you do it unto your neighbor, you do it unto God. Church people should work to help those in distress.” The State Police that travel the road past the Reverend’s house are not allowed to stop at his driveway and the nearby Maple Grove Church is a site where miners congregate but no troopers are allowed to turn around. Another church chained its parking lot entrance when it learned the state police were using the site. “We should love our neighbor and do unto them what we’d have them do to us,” said Johnson, “If we all bind together we can win this thing and I do believe that God’s will for us is to have a decent living.”

The Pittston strike continues as the weather gets colder. Snow has already fallen on the picket lines. The UMWA in a recent flyer said, “The campfires are blazing and the soup’s on at Camp Solidarity for the supporters who continue to stream in from around the nation and the world.” The strike seems firmly established in the hearts of the people of the deep mountain communities surrounding the Pittston land.

Results, however, are slow coming. Although Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole has visited the area, no federal action has been initiated as of this writing. To date, the State of Virginia has done little but aid Pittston’s continued operations. Pittston itself seems firmly entrenched in its position. The company claims it can last for another year or longer without a settlement.

Hidden behind these mountains is a pivotal struggle for justice and democracy by Americans. Yet many citizens of this country still know very little about our own current labor issues. In contrast, Lech Walesa was recently given the Medal of Freedom by George Bush, and the Polish Solidarity Union is known by every American with a television. In October, a Solidarnosc official, Jack Merkel, came to the coalfields without media fanfare and spoke to miners on the strike. He said, “This is the first time in the history of our movement that the workers of Poland have been able to support a labor union in the United States.” Before demands of the UMWA are met, they will probably need much more of the same.

Crossing the Clinch River is indeed like crossing a foreign border. This land of rich resources and hidden turmoil is tucked away from the mainstream. News coverage largely ignores its existence. Yet a strike of international dimensions is underway. Those who know this continue to come. Those who have always been here pledge to remain as solid as the mountains which surround them. They are not about to give in now.