A coalition of mountain Christians and political activists today pitted the teachings of Jesus, the skills of a Washington attorney and 160 shares of stock against one of Appalachia's most controversial, most wealthy, and most Catholic coal companies.
The groups, in an unusual twist to corporate responsibility campaigns, asked the Delaware chancelery in Wilmington to order Blue Diamond Coal Co. to register their stock, and thus bring the number of shareholders in the company to more than 500. The Securities and Exchange Commission subjects firms with 500 or more stockholders to its regulation and public disclosure requirements.
The group and Blue Diamond, whose mine safety and union resistance tactics have been under attack in Appalachia for decades, had repeatedly refused to register the stock and had demanded that coalition representatives sign affidavits swearing that they were not "participating in a conspiracy prohibited by the 1934 Securities Exchange Act or against the business of Blue Diamond Coal Co." by seeking information which their positions as a stockholders would give them.
In a rare comment on criticism of the Knoxville-based company, President Gordon Bonnyman, a devot Catholic and major contributor to the church, admonished the nuns and priests involved in the stockholder effort to stick to more traditional charity work and read the Scriptures. He suggested they read John chapter 8, verse 7, and St. Paul's second letter to the Thessalonians. The reference to John evoked the admonition to sinners not to cast stones; the verse from Paul chides "busybodies" in the Christian community.
Sister Marian McAvoy, president of the Marion County, Ky., based Sisters of Loretto, the largest shareholding organization in the group, said she and the other Catholic orders involved had sought a "Christian dialogue" with Blue Diamond management about its mining, labor and environmental practices, but had been "intimidated" and "rebuffed." She said registration of the stock, purchased over the counter through a New York broker, was the first step the group was taking in a planned "transformation" of the company.
Blue Diamond, chiefly a deep mining firm operating in Kentucky, became the target of a bloody United Mine Workers of America organizing drive in 1976 at its Stearns mine. The push came a few months after its Scotia mine exploded, killing 26 men in the second worst U.S. coal mining disaster in the 1970s. The company is under federal indictment for charges related to the explosions.
The UMWA, supported by the groups joining in the suit, lost the Stearns organizing drive this year, after months of protracted struggle in which armed miners traded shots from woods with company guards huddled in battlefield-style bunkers. Several guards and miners were wounded and one nonunion miner was ambushed in a still unsolved murder case.
Blue Diamond officials claim the groups involved in the suit encouraged violence at Stearns, intimidated the families of company officials and are merely using the stockholder action to rekindle the strike. Sister Mary McAvoy termed these charges "very untrue."
Phillip Moore, a Washington public advocacy attorney who is representing the litigants, said it was "very unusual" for a firm to refuse to register stock. If the stock is registered and Blue Diamond becomes subject to SEC regulation, Moore said, the company's records would be more accessible and dissidents allowed into annual board meetings.
Father Joseph Hacala, S.J., of the Jesuit Appalachia ministry, said the regional bishops in Appalachia were aware of the involvement of the Catholic orders in the suit and "have been quite supportive." The Commission on Religion in Appalachia, the largest ecumenical regional group in the country, also joined the suit.