The wildly flowering dogwoods and greening mountains of Appalachian spring have wrapped a deceptively benign cloak around one of the nation's most unusual labor controversies.
The struggle of 123 coal miners, on strike here for almost three years to form a union, is building toward a climax this week.
Since 1976 it has been as thoroughly dramatic as anything from labor's great organizing days: armed camps, company cops, shooting, woundings, jailings, beatings, suffering families and resolute men and women.
But in fact, the climax may have been reached last week when the United Mine Workers and the Blue Diamond Coal Co. cut a deal that virtually guarantees that when the representation election is held Thursday, the striking Stearns miners will lose.
So as the vote at Blue Diamond's Justus mine nears, the strikers and their wives are dismayed and scornful of the arrangement agreed to by UMW President Arnold R. Miller.
The kindest words they use to describe the arrangement are "sellout" and "treason". Their dismay is compounded by the fact that the UMW has spent close to $2 million to finance this organizing venture.
"We poured our hearts and souls out so we could be part of the UMW and the rank and file poured in the money," said Thomas Walker, a striker and father of six children.
"Then the union president sells us out. Cuts our throat. Sells us down the river. These are honest, hardworking coal miners who don't understand that. If we lose this strike, they'll never organize another mine in this country."
As underground mines go, the Justus mine, operated by Blue Diamond's Stearns Mining Co., is not large enough to have much impact on national coal supplies. At a peak, it employs around 180 miners producing coal for electrical generation in Georgia.
But as a symbol, the Stearns strike has been important, perhaps even more important than the UMW's highly publicized and successful organizing strike in 1973 and 1974 at the Duke Power Co.'s Brookside mine four counties east of here.
UMW rank and filers see Stearns as a sign of their determination to unionize the coalfields, where they control a decreasing share of national production.
Industry executives see the Knoxville-based Blue Diamond's resistance as an important step in confronting the UMW and curbing its efforts to reestablish itself in the Appalachian fields.
Not that the Stearns strikers' demands are that extravagant. Their major demands are company-paid pensions (they have none now) and the right to have a safety committee like other UMW mines to keep an eye on working conditions.
For the militant, reform-minded regime Miller headed before internal politics shook up the UMW in the mid 1970s, Blue Diamond was a made-to-order target.
Immortalized in Appalachian song as the classic oppressor, the company long has been criticized for its safety practices. The safety violations and 26 deaths in two explosions at its Scotia Coal Co. at Oven Fork, Ky., in 1976 led to reforms of the federal mine safety law.
But here at Stearns, the target had been too elusive for the dissensiontorn UMW. The union has paid each striker $100 a week and had two fulltime organizers on the scene. But it has not shamed Blue Diamond into a contract as it did with Duke Power at Brookside.
"What they've got down there in Stearns is a $2 million lemon," said a former UMW attorney in Washington. "And it looks like they're trying todump it the best way they can."
Miller and other UMW officials in Washington deny, of course, that it is a sellout or anything similar. Saying the agreement was the best they could get, they continued last week to talk publicly about victory at Stearns.
The simple arithmetic, the logistics and the strikers' lack of official information conspire to make a victory Thursday about as likely as snow in July.
Sixty of the 123 strikers will be allowed to vote, as will 110 nonstrikers, hired since the july 1976 walkout. They will pick the UMW, a company endorsed employe association (which meets on company property), or neither. "It's ridiculous. I'm not even a miner and I can see that," said Clifford Walker, Tom's brother. Added Beulah Walker. Tom's wife: "Somebody ought to show Miller how to count-110 is more than 60."
The union has not informed the strikers which of them will be allowed to vote, nor has it offered any explanation of how the numbers were arrived at.
The balloting, moreover, will take place at the mine, raising the possiblity that even the eligible strikers will not cross their sacrosanct picket lines to vote in an election they know they cannot win.
"Three years ago, nobody could have convinced me we would have to cross our own picket to vote in a National Labor Relations Board election," said Darrell Vanover, a leader of the strikers.
"Why Miller would agree to have the election on company property is beyond me. It ought to be on neutral ground. But look-they don't tell us what's going on. We don't even know who is eligible or how they decided-who could vote. We didn't even know they were negotiating with the company," he said.
The dispute goes back to March 1976, a few months after Blue Diamond bought the Stearns Mining Co. By a 127-to-56 ballot, the miners voted to be represented by the UMW.
The company challenged the vote, but in July, a week after the men struck, the NLBB certified the UMW. Contract talks went on, to no avail, for some months. But a year ago, the company signed a contract with strike breakers it had hired.
The NLBB held that contract invalid, but said it was not clear who actually represented the workers. That set the stage for the secret talks between the union and the company and the new representation vote this week.
In a place like McCreary County where jobs are scarce, unemployment around 12 percent and 30 percent of the populace on food stamps, the strikers' determination is impressive.
Of the 127 who voted for the UMW three years ago, 123 still pull picket duty. They have traveled coast to coast to raise money, and they share the food and clothing that has streamed in from across the country.
Like the women at Brookside, the strikers' wives formed a club that held bake sales and raffles to help pay expenses. Their fund has paid drug and dental bills and other emergency costs for three years.
"We begged, borrowed, or whatever. People have been very good to us. It's been wonderful," said Irene Vanover, who heads the club. "Before the strike, I knew very few of the miners' wives. But this has brought us together. I love them all."
Her son, Darrell, became a leader of the group after her husband, Mahan, then the picket captain, went to jail for 56 days with 10 other strikers for violation of a court order limiting pickets.
For Mahan Vanover, a coal miner for 36 of his 60 years, this battle has a repetitive ring. He and three other strikers were members of the UMW until 1953, when the old Stearns Co. refused to sign a union contract.
The mine was closed for a year and then reopened without a UMW. "The union didn't give us any support then, so we went back to work-that's all there was," he said.
This time around, however, he thinks there is a difference. "If we lose here, it is going to hurt the union leadership. And I don't see any chance of winning. Our boys have gone all over to tell the story, Kentucky, West Virginia, Illinois, Tennessee, and the rank and file is plumb angry about this," he said.
(Some mines in the region were shut down briefly last week by UMW members to show their support of the Stearns strikers).
Tommy Walker talked about that and what lies beyond Thursday for the Stearns Miners.
"We've traveled around and I can tell you the rank and file does not approve of what's happening here. They will protest," Walker said.
"But what I'm proud of is that even if we lose, I can say I met 122 men who were willing to stand up, even if they sold out," Walker continued. "We're not gonna let go. This strike won't be over until the Justus Mine is under the UMW, regardless of Arnold Miller, or Blue Diamond or the employe association. It's not over yet, buddy." CAPTION: Map, no caption, By Richard Furno-The Washington Post