With Christmas around the corner, winter setting in and a new baby at home, this is the worst of all possible times for Bill Bowyer to go on strike.
"It's going to hurt me bad," he says slowly, measuring every word. "I'm looking at losing my [house] trailer and my truck. Don't see how I can keep up my payments on them.
"I got my back messed up in the mines. I was out of work about eight months," continues Bowyer, a big hulk of a man with forearms the size of street lamp posts. "I'm just getting my bills straightened out from that. Now you tell me where I'm going to get $153.85 for my trailer payment and $135 for my truck every month. I don't know."
Nonetheless Bowyer, 21, and hundreds of other coal miners who live on Cabin Creek, site of some of the bloodiest battles in the history of the American labor movement, are firmly resolved - and in some cases eager - to go out on strike next week.
With only days to go before the United Mine Workers union contract expires Tuesday, their words are full of bravado. Their talks is of staying off the job for months, not days or weeks. "They come out, I'd say they'll be out three months anyway," says Tony DeRaimo, a retired miner. "When a miner thinks he's right he'll stick with the strike whether he's going hungry or not."
This is the heart of UMW country, a place where John L. Lewis is revered as a god. More than 50 men died in a year-long strike that first brought the union recognition on the Creek back in 1913: and it has supplied some of the union's staunchest supports ever since. One of them, Arnold Miller, who used to mine coal at the same Bethlehem Steel mine where Bowyer now works, is president of the union.
But even the most militant unionists acknowledge the basic elements that make up a strike equation have changed drastically in recent years: namely unions simply can't bring the nations economy to its knees as it could in decades past.
Union strength has diminished. Only 50 per cent of the nation's coal is now mined in UMW mines, compared with 75 per cent just three years ago. Vast new, nonunion coal fields have opened in the West. And utilities and other big coal customers have stockpiled months of reserves anticipating a strike.
The rest of the country simply may not care - or notice - whether there's a coal strike or not. But people in the coal camps on Cabin Creek with their quaint sounding names - Dry Branch, Acme, Kayford, Miami, Upper Giles, Carbon Quarriet - will.
Their emotional ties to the union and what it has meant here run deep. The men who work underground for Carbon Fuel Co. and Bethlehem Steel at the head of the Creek are third-and fourth-generation miners; many of their fathers and grandfathers worked for the same companies. There's a touch of kamikaze in many of them, a deep-seated feeling that coal miners must reassert themselves or their situation will deteriorate further.
"I'd like to see them stay out six months to make the whole country hurt," Garnett Scott, a 72-year-old retired miner declares in his trailer home. "I'd give up my $225 a month pension to see it."
"Lot of the younger guys are looking forward to the strike," says Scott's son, Roger, a 22-year-old miner. "It's coming in the middle of the winter. They'd like to have some time off."
This year has been a bad one for coal miners and their union. The UMW, split by a divisive election campaign earlier this year, has no strike war chest. Unlike members of most unions, UMW members receive no strike benefits.
The union's health and welfare fund, financed by a levy on each ton of coal mined is in deep trouble. And Miller has announced that members will lose all medical care and death benefits if a strike occurs. In addition, pensions of thousands of older miners, like Garnett Scott, are to be reduced beginning Jan. 1 if a strike occurs, discontent with Miller and the anticipated strike along Cabin Creek, a meandering stream about 20 miles southeast of Charleston. "This is no good. I'm 100 per cent against the strike," declares Raymond Burgess, a retired disabled miner. "My pension is the only thing I've got. There're taking bread off my table."
"You've got a bunch of young radicals in the union now," he says as he leans on an old crutch. "Listen, they've got good times, the best of times. They're getting $60, $70 or $80 a shift. Why should they complain? I used to load coal with a shovel for 12 cents a ton."
Health and pension benefits have long been the UMW's biggest drawing card. For more than a quarter century, they provided miners free medical care and pensions. When benefits were reduced last summer, partly because a series of unauthorized wildcat strikes had reduced the funds' income, miners went out on strike. This further depleted the fund, and what savings many miners had.
Since last summer, miners have had to pay 40 per cent of the cost of each doctor's visit and up to $500 for a hospital stay. This has threatened the financial future of a series of clinics and hospitals, which the union helped set up in the mountains, and severely cut back on medical care.
Business at the Cabin Creek Medical Center, an impressive new facility, has dropped 30 per cent since that time. Medical Director Dr. Robert Young says patients are waiting longer and getting sicker before they come in for examinations. Hospitalization rates for those who do come in have doubled.
"The most serious problem I see in a prolonged strike is how it will affect the health of the miners and their families," said Young."It's really sad to see what's happening to the coal miners. As hard as they've fought over the years coal mining is still the most hazardous industry in the country."
A few miles down the road, six former miners gathered around a makeshift bar at Vatellas Grocery at dusk.
As the beer flowed, a heated discussion developed over the UMW. One of them suggested, "I tell you, the union is a thing of the past. We may get a contract this time but it will be our last."
A mine engineer, a broad-shouldered, burly man with a wool jacket, shook his head. "They might get along without a union somewhere else but not on Cabin Creek," he said. "It's where the union was born. And it's where it's gonna die."