The striking coal miners stood on one side of the narrow mountain road, glaring at working miners on the other side.Three Virginia state police cars were parked between.
"It wouldn't take us more than 15 minutes to shut that operation down if [Gov. John] Dalton's slugs would leave," said one of the striking United Mine Workers, pointing his cigarette toward the state troopers and the nonunion strip mining operation behind them. "We never had that much trouble getting the nonunion boys to stay out before."
Under the constant guard of about 240 state troopers, most of Southwest Virginia's nonunion mines have stayed open since the Umw began its strike three weeks ago. As a result, the state still is producing about half its normal tonnage of coal, a sharp contrast with the neighboring coal state of West Virginia, where all coal mining -- union and nonunion -- has virtually stopped. In Kentucky, approximately 25 percent of the nonunion coal operations have been closed since the strike began.
National coal production plummented with the onset of the strike and neither the union nor the owner's Bituminous Coal Operators Association, scheduled to resume talks today in Washington, appear optimistic that a settlement is near.
"We can't haul any coal from our mines in Kentucky," says James W. McGlothlin, president of United Coal Co., which has mining operations in both Kentucky and Virigina. "But we haven't had any problems in Virginia whatsoever."
McGlothlin, who claims that three of his trucks have been burned and drivers shot at in Kentucky, credits the police protection offered by Dalton for keeping nonunion mining operations open in Virginia. But union officials in Virginia are bitter about the extraordinary police presence in the six mountain counties here, 330 miles southwest of Washington. Union miners have charged that Dalton flooded the coalfields with five times more state troopers than normally patrol there in order to repay mine owners who contributed more than $100,000 to his campaign four years ago.
"I don't think there is any question that the political contributions are the reason the police are in there," says Harlan Hall, president of a Virginia UMW local.
"That is just not true," says Dalton spokesman Charles Davis. "The overriding interest here is the preservation of the principles embodied in Virginia's right-to-work law." That law stipulates that workers in the state are not obligated to join unions.
Violence, or the threat of it, is not uncommon during coal strikes, and the current strike -- outside Virginia -- is no exception. In Kentucky's coalfields, where police have not been reinforced, nonunin trucks have been sabotaged, drivers shot at and miners involved in fights. In West Virginia, state police arrested two nonunion coal guards Wednesday on charges of firing at two UMW officials outside of a union headquarters in Beckley.
Two officials of Bethlehem Mines Corp. in Drennen, W. Va., reportedly suffered head and facial injuries Wednesday when club-wielding pickets smashed the windshields of their vehicles as they reported to work.
Four years ago, Dalton sent police to Virginia's coalfields only after a number of acts of sabotage were reported, including the firebombing of nonunion trucks. Union officials charged that the nonunion mine operators were destroying their own equipment to justify police protection. But by then, the police were already there.
This year, Dalton deployed his troopers in Southwest Virginia a full week before the strike began. That action infuriated state UMW officials, who said the extra police were both unnecessary and intimidating. They further charged it was no coincidence that the troops arrived at the same time that Republican emissaries were pressing mine owners for political contributions.
Whatever Dalton's motives, the region has remained relatively quiet. Virginia state police report only seven strike-related arrests, most for throwing four-pronged nails onto roadways traveled by coal trucks and police cars. Two striking coal miners were arrested and charged with throwing objects at occupied cars -- one a rock, the other a partially filled can of soda.
The most serious incident occurred two weeks ago when a nonunion miner was shot to death by a union member in a Lee County bar after an argument over coal.
"We try and keep that kind of thing out of here," says a bartender at the Southwest Grill in Pennington Gap where the shooting occurred. "You can't have people in here arguing about union and nonunion or you're just asking for trouble."
Meanwhile, campaigning for this fall's governor's race -- and for coal money to help pay for it -- already is under way. Last month, Dalton, a Republican, provoked Democrats in the General Assembly by inviting coal operators to a fund-raising dinner in the state mansion for Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman, the announced Republican candidate to succeed Dalton. Democratic legislators protested that it was improper to use the governor's mansion for partisan politics.
Republicans countered that Democratic leaders who accompanied Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb, the likely Democratic gubernatorial candidate, on a recent fund-raising tour through Southwest Virginia threatened coal operators with a 3 percent state tax on coal if they did not ante up for Robb. Democratic legislators deny the tax threat.
Mine owners at the meeting refused to discuss the topics discussed, but privately many say the coal tax is revived regularly by both Democratic and Republican politicians to keep coal contributions generous.
In fact, the Republicans are not alone in mining the region for campaign support. Virginia politicians seeking statewide office traditionally trek to the rugged and remote southwest corner of the state seeking financial backing. Four years ago, according to state records, both coal companies and unions denoted a total of $400,000 to candidates of both parties.
McGlothlin, the president of United Coal, supported Andrew Miller in the Democratic primary for governor in 1977, then switched his allegiance to Dalton after Henry Howell won the Democratic nomination.
Although McGlothlin was appointed by Dalton to the Virginia Port Authority board of commissioners, this year he reportedly is heading a coalition of mine owners for Robb. They already have pledged $250,000.
McGlothlin will not say which candidate will get the bigger share of his company's coal money this year, but he is quick to say what he wants that support to buy.
"This is America and the free-enterprise system," says McGlothlin. "I can't understand any justification for why we should stop working."