April 05, 2018

This day in West Virginia labor history


On this day in 1989, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) began its historic strike against the Pittston Coal Company. The issues leading to the strike were mostly regarding retiree health benefits.

The union had been working without a contract for a full 14 months when the strike began, which was pretty much unheard of at the time. During that time many miners received training in nonviolent action and civil disobedience.

Around 1,700 miners in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky participated in the strike, which lasted until Feb. 20, 1990.

It was my first big fight. I had only been working on economic justice issues with the American Friends Service Committee for a month or so, although I followed events as closely as I could in the Charleston Gazette in the year leading up to it. Everybody paying attention knew something was going to blow.

I remember sitting in the cafeteria of the WV capitol and being told by a UMWA rep that it was starting as we spoke. It would come to absorb my attention, energy and chi for the next 10 months and I forged some strong relationships that continue to this day. I'll always be grateful to AFSC for giving me the chance to jump in. I can't say that I had a huge impact on the strike, but it had a huge impact on me.

It was intense and exhausting, but, to be honest, I was having the time of my life.

When I look back on it, I think of friends, picket lines, burning houses, evictions, crashing coal trucks, (alleged) jackrocks, singing, banter, jokes, learning guitar, anger, Christmas, courage, goon guards, provocations, state police, constant motion, solidarity, direct action, mischief, learning, absorbing history, brave women holding the line, places, and the threat of violence, all to a Bob Dylan soundtrack.

At times, the atmosphere on the picket lines reminded me of the movie Matewan just before the shootout. It seemed to me at the time as if the fate of the world, or at least the labor movement, hinged on the outcome. Eventually, the union won a restoration of benefits, which have helped thousands of retirees and survivors over the years. But UMWA membership continued to decline.

The strike developed in the aftermath of another less fortunate strike against Massey subsidiaries earlier in the decade. Like Pittston would later do, Massey withdrew from the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA), the industry bargaining group. This was the beginning of Massey's spree of union busting, environmental failures, intimidation, political manipulation, safety shortcuts and the rest.

Massey's power would grow over the years in power and influence, like the rising power of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings.

Ironically, Pittston withdrew from the coal industry in the years following the strike, with many of its assets sold to Massey.

Fast forward to this date in 2010, when a mammoth explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch underground mine in Montcoal WV killed 29 miners. Before Massey bought the mine from Peabody Coal in 1993, it had been a union operation. But after a strong anti-union campaign led by former Massey CEO and now candidate for the US senate (!), the union was decertified by the late 1990s.

Without a union, miners had less of a voice in working conditions, and especially mine safety. With terrible consequences. You can read all about it here.

Much happened in the wake of the disaster. There were investigations, lawsuits, fines and criminal prosecutions, including the first ever conviction of the CEO of a major corporation for conspiring to evade safety rules. Massey no longer exists. But eight years later, the Republican controlled congress has yet to pass meaningful mine safety legislation, such as that advocated by the late great Senator Robert C. Byrd.

This day reminds me of the best and worst in West Virginia history, of what working people organized in unions can achieve and of what can happen if unions are weakened and defeated.

During WV's recent and successful teachers' strike, I felt echoes of Pittston days, with crowds at the capitol almost as large as the ones in 1989. And it was great to feel the warm presence of UMWA members rallying in solidarity.

Times have changed but our recent and more distant history shows that the need for working class solidarity is as urgent as ever. And that's not likely to change.


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