Striking miners came from all over Southwest Virginia coal country to thunder, "No contracts, no work" at a mass rally here yesterday and to hear a warning that danger might await those who do go back on the job.
"The union officers have to order them back, but don't have to go," shouted Horace Jones, at 56 a retired veteran of 29 years in the mines. The estimated 1,800 persons rattled the Castlewood High School auditorium windows with their roar of approval. "The owners say they'll give you protection in and out of the mines, but who's going to protect you when you get back home?" Jones, of Duty, Va., asked.
Jones was one of three main speakers, all disabled retired miners who said they called the rally independent of the United Miner Workers leader-ship to remind the badly divided rank and file of that most scared of miner's bonds, the one between a miner and the father whose footsteps he followed into the mines.
The issue of pension rights has become the central one in this area, where many mines were scheduled to reopen at 12:01 a. m. today the Taft-Hartley injunction. The district has 18,000 miners, 4,000 of them retired. Those who retired under a 1950 agreement are ineligible for raises and have not received their $215-a-month retirement pay since the strike began.
Some miners said before the rally they might go back to work because of hardship from the 97-day walkout - "if I can screw up my guts," - and many men were not cheering at the rally. But no one admitted to anything but solidarity with the pensioners afterward.
The solidarity did not necessarily extend to union officials, who were conspicuous by their absence. "Chicken, that's what they are," said John Jones, (no relation to Horace Jones), a boat operator at one of the Westmoreland Co.'s 12 area mines. "They should have been here. That's what the matter with this union."
Earlier, District 28 President Ray Marshall said he had no plans to attend, because "it's a rank and file meeting." Under Taft-Hartley, union officials are subject to jail unless they urge the rank and file to return to work.
Jones got more cheers when he noted that the NMW had received $14 million in gifts from other unions, but had yet to hear from NMW president Arnold Miller about its distribution. "Where is it? Where's our share?" the miners shouted.
Jones offered the miners reasons to stay home. Federal marshals had served most of the injunctions Friday and Saturday on wives and neighbours, he noted, and not on some union officials whose remote homes or weekend outings had made them hard to find. "Taft-Hartley ain't worth the paper it's wrote on."
In 1974, he noted, "We stayed out, they seized the mines and then we went back to work. If we stay out the owners will settle. They don't want the government to see their books."
The state troopers that Gov. John N. Dalton last week ordered into the area have remained at the mines, but they are deeply resented and were no-where in evidence at the rally. "We don't normally attend things of this kind," said Field Lt. R. H. Oliver, "but I guess if anything happens we'll be able to get over there pretty quick."
Delbert Williams, 54, who spent 20 years in the Moss 2 Mine at Clinchfield, called the troopers "an occupying army." His speech was interrupted frequently by good-natured catcalls when he wandered off into tales of the early days, but he got emotional cheers when he affirmed the miners' dignity.
"From the first time a pick dug into a seam of coal we've been called the scum of the earth," he said. "No more."
Union locals were meeting in every mining town through the weekend and more are scheduled today to receive officials instructions to go back to work. Spokesman for several mine companies affirmed that they were ready to open and could begin moving coal as soon as the miners returned.
The older miners insisted that they would defy Taft-Hartley injuctions against picketing. "I don't care if they take me to jail," said rally speaker Horace Jones before the meeting.
The miners displayed considerable resentment toward news media, whose coverage many of them said has been biased in favor of mine operators.But they agreed in a standing vote after some argument to let reporters remain in the rally.
Before the meeting was over a bluegrass group called "The Buffalo Mountain Boys" brought the house down with a song that leader Burl Rhea said he had written the previous evening:
We're goin' down to Georgia to pick peanuts in the fall, you can't mine no coal under the Taft-Hartley law. "We're goin down to Washington to tell them we go to tell that Carter boy we're not gonna run no coal ."