Pittston: Class War in the Coalfields

Against the Current, No. 24, January/February 1990

Phil Kwik

CLASS WARFARE in Southwestern Virginia,” is how United Mine Workers (UMW) Vice President Cecil Roberts describes the strike by 1,700 miners against the Pittston Coal Group, which began on April 5.

Indeed, this strike resembles ‘class warfare’ more than it does a typical labor-management dispute of the 1980s. On one side are the strikers, their families and their communities, fighting for the very existence of their union. They are displaying a level of militancy and innovation not seen since the labor struggles of the 1930 that led to the creation of the large industrial unions.

Unlike many recent struggles against concessions, the striking rank and file and the International union leadership are on the same side in taking on the company. This strike is not a rank-and-file challenge to a bureaucratic union power structure Instead, the UMW International views this struggle as necessary to the survival of unionization in the Eastern coal fields and is directing a creative and militant strike with rank-and-file input and organization. Most rank-and-file miners support the International and are willing to carry out its tactics and strategies.

Increasingly, more and more rank-and-file U.S. trade unionists are viewing this strike as a pivotal labor battle. Since the strike began, some 30,000 unionists from across the country have traveled to Camp Solidarity—setup by the miners to house and feed supporters—to view the class warfare for themselves.

On the other side is Pittston, one of the largest coal producers in the country, ready to sustain massive financial losses in order to break the union. Since the strike began, the company has lost more than $13 million on its coal operations. Pittston, too, has rallied powerful allies to its side, including the governor of Virginia, the state police, federal courts and a complacent media.

It is anything but clear what the final outcome of this strike will be. The U.S. Department of Labor finally got negotiations restarted in early November under “super-mediator” William Usery. Miners attribute this to their militant strike tactics—in particular their September occupation of Pittston’s Moss 3 preparation plant—and to the increasing support they are receiving, especially from European unionists.

Usery has repeatedly said the strike would be over by Christmas, and some observers believe that the Labor Department would not have stepped in unless a settlement was imminent. However, at this point, Pittston seems unwilling to budge and the strikers are preparing for a long Virginia winter.

Whatever the particular outcome, the struggle against Pittston has opened new avenues for a U.S. labor movement that is generally lacking in creativity. It shows some of the things that labor must do if it is to regain the upper band in its battle with the bosses.

Whether this strike is a turning point’ for the U.S. labor movement, reinvigorating it in a lasting way to take the offensive away from corporate America, has not yet been determined. What the strike does show is that there is a growing number of rank-and-file unionists who are willing to support militant, innovative strikes with active solidarity.

It signals a resurgence in the labor movement and a challenge to the AFL-CIO’s “business as usual unionism,” in which it is better to cooperate with the boss than to fight and better to defend your own turf than to build solidarity with your brothers and sisters across the labor movement This is a brand of unionism that has led the U.S. labor movement to its weakest point in sixty years.

Preparing for the Showdown

Though the strike began on April 5 the battle actually began months earlier. In February 1988, the UMW signed a five-year agreement with the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA), the industry group that bargains for coal companies. The agreement, which sets the pattern for wages and benefits in the industry, included increases in wages and pensions, guaranteed transfer rights for laid-off miners to all their employers’ coal-mining operations, and ensured preferential hiring rights for miners at any leased or subcontracted mines on their employers’ lands. In return, the operators received labor cost savings made possible by a decrease in their contributions to the full-funded industry-wide pension fund.

Pittston refused to sign the agreement. The company’s main objection was the clause guaranteeing laid-off workers preferential hiring at subsidiary operations. Like the A.T. Massey Company three years early, Pittston wanted to slowly turn all its mining operations into non-union ones by laying off its UMW members and replacing them with non-union workers at its subsidiaries.

Instead of signing the agreement, the company demanded a wide range of concessions: unlimited contracting out; abolition of the industry’s multi- employer pension plan; elimination of health care of retirees and a 20 percent cut in care for active miners; and abolition of the successorship clause, which protects members if a mine is sold. Pittston made these demands while its production has gone up 72 percent in the past four years. Profits in 1988 alone amounted to $48.6 million.

Over the past decade, the UMW’s strategy in bargaining with the coal operators has been to try to preserve order and an industry-wide structure. While the union has been willing to grant some concessions to operators who could demonstrate financial need, it generally avoided the massive wage and work-rule concessions that plagued other industries.

But the union could clearly not accept Pittston’s demands, which would gut the union and seriously weaken the master agreement Instead, while Pittston stalled at the negotiating table, the UMW prepared its members for survival in the Virginia coal fields.

For the miners, preparation meant not only establishing a schedule for picket line duty. It meant drawing on the history of the area and the history of their union in order to get entire communities behind the strike, and to fashion an innovative and militant strategy.

Miners are often the most combative and militant workers. It’s easy to see why. Mining is one of the most dangerous occupations. Over the years, tens of thousands of miners have died in explosions or prematurely because of work-related diseases or illnesses. This hazardous environment tends to build strong ties among the miners.

The isolation of mining communities also reinforces the sense of solidarity among workers and the community. Many times, mining is one of the only occupations in town Many Pittston miners’ fathers and grandfathers worked for the same company. The fact that Pittston attacked the retirees’ health and pension benefits did not drive a wedge between newer and retired workers; instead it only brought the community closer together.

Miners were trained in civil disobedience; community, spouse and family support was built; and laid-off and disabled miners were prepared to become as much a part of the strike force as active workers. While working without a contract went against the better judgement of many miners, for whom “No Contract—No Work is a rule, the union used the time wisely.

Pittston also prepared for a strike. The company laid off 4,000 miners before contract talks began, hoping to make the union bargain defensively; it arranged a $100 million line of credit; it hired the notorious Vance security team, a combination of ex-Green Berets and military adventurers, who regularly protect plants and scabs during strikes; and it terminated health benefits for 1,500 retired and disabled miners and widows.

Miners vs. the State

Once the strike began, it was clear that this was no ordinary labor- management dispute. Day after day, camouflage-clad strikers were arrested blocking trucks that carried scab coal in and out of the mines and processing plants. Currently over 3,700 have been arrested.

The miners’ spouses, children, and religious and community supporters joined the fight from the very beginning. About forty women, calling themselves the Daughters of Mother Jones, took over the company’s regional headquarters in April. Students at half a dozen different high schools have left classes to hold UMW rallies. Town merchants closed down one morning when mass arrests were being made.

As the civil disobedience grew, the courts came to the side of the company. A series of injunctions tried to forbid the strikers from doing anything but sit out the strike. Beginning in June, state and federal courts imposed massive fines on the UMW for violating injunctions that prohibited mass picketing and blocking coal trucks—these fines now total almost $30 million. The courts also threw a number of miners’ leaders in jail for violating the injunctions.

Democratic Virginia Governor Gerald Baliles also proved an invaluable ally to Pittston Although Baliles refused to go to the coal fields to view the effect of the strike on the miners’ Appalachian communities, he did send 300-400 state police into the coal fields—costing Virginia taxpayers $1 million per month —to “keep order” and protect Pittston’s operations and scabs.

The state-police presence is everywhere: buzzing the miners’ rallies and Camp Solidarity with helicopters; hanging out along the roads leading to and from the grounds of Pittston’s mines; and following miners and their supporters as they travel through Virginia towns.

In July, these police-state actions became absurd: state police, backed by fed-end marshals, arrested anyone driving less than 55 miles per hour (the legal maximum speed limit) on Virginia’s winding narrow mountain roads. Driving under the speed limit has been construed by federal judges as a means of slowing down Pittston’s coal trucks as they deliver scab coal from mine to processing plant Those arrested have gotten as much as $5,000 fines and 90 days in jail.

Miners compare the millions of dollars in fines leveled against them to the $47,000 Pittston was fined in 1983 when seven miners were killed in an explosion in one of its mines. And despite having been charged with committing unfair labor practices in July, the company has not yet been penalized by the, National Labor Relations Board.

But time and time again, the strikers have fought back, changing their tactics and rallying new support for the strike. On June 12, 10,000 coal minders walked off the job in southern West Virginia in support for the Pittston strikers. By early July, these strikes had spread to 44,000 miners in Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky. The wildcatters defied a court back-towork order and even the leadership of the International for a time and threatened to shut down coal production east of the Mississippi.

At the same time camouflaged picketers shut down five coal-fired power plants in Pennsylvania when members of the United Steel Workers honored their picket lines.

However, neither the wildcats nor the sympathy strikes continued long enough to shut down U.S. coal production. This may be because of pressure from the conservative AFL-CIO leadership. On June 26, the federation circulated an advisory letter to state federations and city councils discouraging members of AFL-CIO affiliates from engaging in illegal activities in support of the UMW.

Throughout the course of the strike, miners have combined their civil disobedience” with more militant direct-action tactics. At night, the hills of southwestern Virginia crawl with camouflaged miners, monitoring police and security movement with radios. (The camouflage that the miners wear is not only a show of solidarity; it also makes it very difficult for them to be spotted in the woods that blanket the Virginia mountains.)

The miners litter the area around the mine entrances with “jack rocks,” nails welded together in such away so that no matter how they are thrown, they always end up with one point up. Many times these are attached to fishing lines so that they can be pulled into the woods if state police officers try to pick them up.

There are other tactics: skunk scent is shot into scabs’ cars; company and security trucks are trashed—in fact many have been ouffitted with plexiglass windows and steel plates over their radiators; and scabs’ homes are visited at night.

Solidarity Spreads

By early September, the strike at Pittston had turned into a national rallying point for the U.S. labor movement, which has seen too many defeats of late. The strikers’ militancy and tactics caught the imagination of workers from coast to coast, as thousands traveled to Camp Solidarity to view the class warfare for themselves. At three separate rallies early September, over 20,000 marched and demonstrated for justice at Pittston.

Surprisingly, even the leadership of the AFL-CIO began to get behind the strike. On August 23, top AFL-CIO officials were arrested on the steps of a Virginia county courthouse, marking the first time in recent history that the leaders of the federation had been arrested during a strike. (Whether this new “militancy” is anything more than rhetoric remains to be seen. There has always been a wide gulf between the federation officials’ words and deeds.)

Around the country support for the miners has spread, and militant tactics have been adopted. In Boston, for example, the combined effect of city and union funds being withdrawn from Shawmut Bank and public demonstrations that have resulted in the arrests of prominent city labor officials, have led to the resignation of Pittston board member William Craig from the board of the bank.

The strike has also become an international rallying point For instance, the Canadian Paperworkers Union and other Canadian unions picketed the Toronto offices of the Noranda company, whose vice chair, Adam Zimmerman, is on the Pittston’s board of directors.

It was on the crest of this wave of support that the strikers made their most dramatic move: the takeover of Pittston’s Moss 3 preparation plant, marking the first time since the sit-downs of the 1930s that U.S. workers have occupied a plant and stopped production for any length of time.

The Occupation

The occupation of Moss 3 was swift and stunning, and carried out with military-like precision. At about 4:00 p.m. on September 17, two large U-haul trucks stopped outside the plant entrance in Carbo, Virginia. Out of the trucks stepped ninety-eight camouflaged miners and one minister. Loaded down with sleeping bags and rations—but with their bands raised over their heads to show that they were unarmed—the ninety-nine marched quickly past the gate into the plant.

Two blue-uniformed Vance Security Assets Protection Team guards at the front gate were caught off-guard and fled. A few other guards, maintenance workers and management personnel, badly outnumbered, retreated into an inner office until the miners escorted them out.

Within minutes of the occupation, 200 miners and their supporters appeared out of the Virginia countryside. Some carried chain saws and felled trees in the mad leading to Moss 3; others massed at the entrance of the plant Both tactics prevented the state police from following the miners inside.

Word of what had happened spread quickly throughout the coal fields. Within an hour, cars of supporters lined the road leading to Moss 3. The occupiers painted “UMW Forever” and the numbers of the local unions involved in the sit-in on the outside of the preparation plant They hung a camouflage flag. By nightfall, the number outside of Moss 3 had swelled to 2,000.

While the strike has curtailed Pittston’s coal production by at least 30 percent, the occupation of Moss 3shutdown its coal production entirely. For three days, no scabs or scab coal moved in or out of the preparation plant During that time the UMW controlled the area around the plant and organized its supporters to defend the occupiers from the state police. Whenever there was a rumor of the police coming to evict the strikers, supporters would flood the entrance to Moss 3 until the rumor subsided. Then the supporters would regroup and plan for the next possilility.

The mainstream press, which has largely ignored the strike, almost completely blacked out the occupation.

Some of the largest newspapers in the United States did not cover the story until two or three days into it—and then only in one or two paragraphs. The wire services had few national stories, ensuring that the occupation would not be reported in smaller, local presses. The television newscasts said nothing, even though the UMW filmed the occupation and sent the networks copies.

On September 20, Governor Baffles said that he would no longer allow the strikers to violate court orders. State police and company security forces were authorized to enter the facility. At 3:00 p.m. a federal judge ordered the miners to vacate the plant by 7:00 p.m.

In a show of strength the miners ignored the deadline. Instead, they massed 5,000 supporters outside Moss 3 to rally to the defense of the miners. Then at about 9:30 p.m. the occupiers left the plant and melted into the crowd avoiding arrest Upon leaving, UMW Vice President Roberts said: We defied all the forces trying to get us out—the courts, the state police and Pittston. We only leave when the UMW says that it’s time to leave.”

The union’s decision to abandon the occupation surprised many miners and supporters. While riot all were initially happy with the decision, most seemed ready to support the union leadership. The union leaders justified the pull- out so that some fight could be saved for another day.” Vice President Roberts vowed that the union would use the tactic at other Pittston facilities.

Other Tactics

As of late November, the occupations had not yet continued. Instead, the miners tried other tactics. On October 2, the UMW struck six coal companies in West Virginia and Kentucky that supply coal to Pittston. Presumably, this will mean that Pittston will be unable to fill more of its orders.

And the miners used their organizing skills in the political arena. On November 7, UMW District 28 President Jackie Stump pulled off a stunning victory he was elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates by a 2-1 margin over the twenty-year incumbent, the father of the judge who has fined the miners over $30 million. The victory was all the more impressive because it was a write-in campaign; Stump announced his candidacy only three weeks before election day.

In the campaign, union members worked quickly to educate residents how to write-in a candidate. Every household in the district was visited during the campaign. Support groups drove voters to the polls Union members distributed 40,000 camouflage pencils imprinted with Stump’s name.

This strategy was modeled after the UMW strategy in 1986 in which six miners were elected to state assembly and local offices. The union’s goal is to have Stump lead a move in the State Assembly to chip away at anti-labor laws in the right-to-work state.

A New Trend?

The UMW has run an innovative and militant strike. The leadership has defined new tactics and strategies, and the members have been willing to carry out militant and sustained actions. Thousands of rank-and-file activists have rallied to support the miners, under the cry No More PATCOs!

It is difficult for one strike to turn the labor movement around. But the battle at Pittston, combined with those at Eastern Airlines, at “Baby Bell” phone companies, and in dozens of work places across the country, are beginning to have an effect on unionists. More and more of the ranks are willing to fight and to take dramatic action.

In the last few years, these unionists have become more conscious of themselves as a militant wing within the U.S. labor movement And increasingly they are posing themselves in opposition to the AFL-CIO leadership’s cooperative, business-unionist strategy—the p’-dominant ideology of the federation for the past forty years.

Activists in this new wing have yet to win a major victory, have yet to come to power in any major U.S. union. However, they are willing to answer the miners’ call and embrace their tactics and militancy. For this new emerging militant wing of the U.S. labor movement, the class warfare—in southwestern Virginia and across the United States—is just beginning.

January-February 1990, ATC 24

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