An effort to stage a dramatic end to the wildcat strikes that have plagued the Appalachian coalfields for two months collaspsed as gunshots were traded Wednesday night in an isolated mountain hollow about 30 miles from here.
No one was injured in the exchange of about 10 rifle shots between rival groups of United Mine Workers union members, although police were investigating reports that a work-bound miner was hauled from his pickup truck and beaten early this morning in the same area.
But the shooting was enough to cool any back-to-work ardor that was growing in this core of the West Virginia strike belt.
"I aint fighting my brother," said one of the more than 100 UMW members who turned out near the entrances to their mines on Cabin Creek to stage a showdown with roving pickets who were keeping the area's mines closed, in defiance of a return-to-work order from the UMW's top leaders on Monday.
He had expected "outside trouble makers" but found only about 40 neighbors and co-workers who want to keep the mines shut down until the union and the coal operators resolve a dispute over health-benefit cuts that triggered the unauthorized walkouts. "Now I ain't going back till I get my card [full health benefits] back," the miner said.
Resentment of outsiders runs deep in the tiny mining communities that line the coal-rich creek valleys around here, and this time the anger was turned on UMW loyalists from outside the Charleston area who came in, apparently at the bidding of UMW President Arnold Miller, to help convince the Cabin Creek miners to go back to work. One of the dissidents called them Miller's "thugs" and said the shooting was prompted by their appearance.
But they, too, were disillusioned. "We thought we were fighting scabs, not brothers," said one Pennsylvanian as he prepared to return home.
Orville Robinette, president of Cabin Creek's UMW Local 750, helped organize the unsuccessful back-to-work move for Wednesday's midnight "hoot-owl" shift. "People were running around hollering about the Communist Party and the Ku Klux Klan," said Robinette, "but these were our guys."
The scene at the fork in the Cabin Creek road that leads to two huge mine complexes was erie and tense, with overtones of an O.K. Corral shootout, as the two groups faced each other in deep mountain darkness: one group in the woods and the other in an exposed position at the burge in the narrow, rutted road.
Miners who dived behind cars and pickups as the guns fired about 9:45 p.m. milled around for the next hour or so, their faces bathed in the blue lights of three state police cars that arrived shortly after shooting.
At one point, a miner used a police loudspeaker to warn that men with guns were "waiting in ambush down at Dry Branch," a community near the entrance to Cabin Creek, and to pass on the word that police were offering escort service down the dark, 10-mile road that leads through the hollow. "I came in here under my own power and I'm leaving the same way," declared one miner defiantly.
Despite the area's reputation for violence, this was the first confrontation involving gunplay since the strike began, according to UMW District 17 Vice President Cecil Roberts, who spent the night in unsuccessful shuttle diplomacy between the two groups."There's been nothing this bad since the (union organizing) wars of the '30s up here," he said.
The wildcat strike, which had ilded as many as 85,000 UMW miners, about half the union's membership, is now largely confined to the Charleston-based District 17 and Eastern Kentucky's District 30, where 25,000 miners were reported out yesterday. In all, nearly 35,000 miners were striking, some over new issues, such as a grievance over holiday pay that idled 7,000 in Illinois.
Some observers believe the wildcat strikes will ebb and flow until Dec. 6, when the UMW contract expires and a nationwide coal strike, which would cut off roughly half the nation's coal production, is expected.