United Mine Workers Local 1405, which meets in the John L. Lewis Union Hall in Big Stone Gap, was one of the most anticontract locals in Southwest Virginia's coal fields.
Its members were always in the forefront of picketing and its 25-year-old president, Doug Cowlier, told his men about the contract: "I wouldn't spend the matches to burn it up."
But more than half of Cowlier's membership rejected his advice, and the contract was accepted 169 to 158. The last contract was voted down 69 to 309.
The turnaround at Local 1405 heralded a shift in miners' sentiments throughout Southwest Virginia. With about two-thirds of the ARCA'S votes counted, the contract was winning by more than a 2-to-1 margin, and union President Arnold Miller said early last night that the signs were hopeful nationwide for passage.
One of the most overwhelming procontract votes came at the other end of the valley at Local 1256, where the men work in the deep mines of the big Clinchfield Coal Company in Russell County. The vote was 199 to 45. Previously, the local had voted no, 135 to 114.
One of the men who changed his mind was vice president Freddy Fuller.
"I read it (the new contract) while I was in the hospital," as the result of a prestroke mining accident, he said, after casting his ballot in a cardboard, but I feel we've come to the point where we should vote for this one." furniture packing box. "I don't think we got all the things we wanted . . .
When all the blue ballots were counted, local President Jack Quesenberry said: "I wasn't surprised. We had a better health clause in this contract. The operators took out the antistrike clause. This is a good contract. You can see that - we voted for it."
But at the other end of the gymnasium at the Dante Recreation Center, dan McCamey, president of Local 1098, was not so sanguine.
"In eight months, the miners are going to regret they voted for this contract," he said. McCamey's local went against him, and for the contract, 132 to 102. The previous time, the local had voted no, 160 to 71.
Though the contract advocates had won a big victory in Southwest, they were far from jubilant.
After the returns became conclusive, District 28 president Ray Marshall said: "It surprised me? I felt virginia would ratify the contact, but I didn't think it would do it 2-to-1. I would have to assume a lot of people voted for a job instead of a contract."
At the region's headquarters in Castlewood, District 28 secretary-treasurer Douglas Arrington said: "There are very few people who think this is a good contact. But the miners feel they have lost their leverage. And they know the UMW negotiating team in Washington isn't going to push any harder."
District President Ray Marshall and the district's other representative on the international union's bargaining council had voted against accepting the contract negotiated by the UMW top leadership. But in the week-long politicking among coal miners in Southwest, the district leadership had gotten behind the contract, if only grudgingly.
Oddly enough, UMW president Miller won a decisive victory in a district that voted heavily against him in his election for president in 1977. Furthermore, during the long strike, many miners in the Southwest have been extremely critical of Miller and called for his removal from office.
Early in the week, there was still strong resistance throughout Southwest's coal fields. Many miners were angry that the union old-timers - including in some cases their fathers and uncles - would be getting a smaller pension than those who retired since 1976.
"The old miners fought for us so long," said Roger Rowe of Local 1405, "and now the operators are trying to take it away from them."
But by the end of the week, as the strike entered it's 16th week, even the old-timers were beginning to reconcile themselves to the latest offer.
Two weeks ago the old-timers' plight had drawn a crowd of more than 2000 at a rally at Castlewood High School. But another rally held Thursday afternoon attracted only 65 people.
Horace Jones a black lung retiree kept close watch on the vote returns at District 28 headquarters. In the beginning he was urging the miners to hold out for a better deal for him and other pensioners. But by late yesterday when the vote was clearly going in favor of the contract by a margin of more than 2 to 1, Jones said: "I'm sad about this but there are men who are losing their homes. This strike has gone on for a long time, the men are hurting. I'm a reasonable man. Whatever else you can say I'm a reasonable man."