Every day before he goes to work on Prater Creek, Paul Brassey packs along with his lunch two .38-caliber revolvers, a 12-gauge shotgun, a high-powered rifle and several boxes of shells.
On the job, he and strip miners he works with for the Triple Elkhorn Mining Co. are protected by riot-helmeted guards from Storm Security Systems Inc., or "storm troopers" as they are called.
When the company moves coal from the stripmine site on Prater Creek to a preparation plant on the Big Sandy River, the storm troopers lead a military-like convoy of 20-ton Mack trucks. Everyone is armed to the teeth. One company worker even carries a machine gun. Sometimes a helicopter hovers overhead.
As it moves onto U.S. 23, the convoy looks like an invading army, foreign and formidable. But company officials feel the show of force is necessary. With the United Mine Workers union strike in its sixth week, they fear violence may break out at any moment. Violence has always surrounded union disputes in the coal fields. This strike is no different.
Last Wednesday, for example, a convoy of 14 trucks, carrying coal from the Triple Elkhorn strip mine on Prater Creek, encountered 150 union pickets at a railroad crossing near here. The pickets, many of whom had just come from an union meeting, expected the trucks to stop. They didn't. Suddenly, a barrage of rocks and gunfire let loose.
"We came down the hill and it was like a damn shooting gallery," said Carl Ousley, driver of the lead truck.
From 10 to 90 shots were fired in the next 30 seconds as the huge trucks roared by in single file. Bullets tore into tires, flattening them; they ripped into radiators and oil filters and shattered windows. One driver took a bullet in the right shoulder; another suffered a head wound.
It wasn't the first time violence has broken out in this area in the southeastern corner of Kentucky in recent weeks. And it probably won't be the last.
An union organizer was shot on a picket line in nearby Letcher County in one incident. Two truck drivers working for another nonunion coal company were wounded in another. And early yesterday two Chessie System railroad bridges were rocked by explosions.
Understandably; tensions are high.
There was a time when a national coal miners strike would bring the nation to its knees, a time when UMW chieftain John L. Lewis was courted by presidents, and his men were the highest paid industrial workers in the world, the pride of the U.S. labor movement.
Today UMW members mine only about 40 percent of the coal in Pike and Floyd counties, two of the largest coal producing counties in the country. The union hasn't been able to organize a major new mine in the area in memory. And most of the nation hardly realizes a coal mine strike is under way.
But tradition dies hard in these Appalachian hills where the Hatfields once battled the McCoys. The men are rugged and independent; guns and violence are part of the culture.
"Possibly the violence goes back to when the union first organized, and the problems they had then. And that wasn't that long ago," says Capt. Morgan Elkins of the Kentucky State Police.
"There's a fear of what could happen, not necessarily what has happened, [that the companies are trying to] break the union. It has become a tradition that when there is a strike there are problems."
Robert Carter, president of UMW District 30, puts it more simply: "Don't underestimate an United Mine Worker. He won't let anyone s--- on him. He'll fight back."
What has angered union members here is the attempt of nonunion mining companies to move coal to markets. Technically, the strike has nothing to do with these operators. It is a contract dispute between the union and the companies where its members work.
On March 27, union members rejected, by a 2-to-1 margin, a contract UMW president Sam Church Jr. had negotiated with the Bituminous Coal Operators Association.
But miners know that anytime coal moves out of the coal fields it weakens their bargaining position. In the last two weeks nonunion operators have tried to move coal in this part of eastern Kentucky, where the mines are split between union and nonunion operations more than anyplace else in the country.
Union members have put pickets at the gates to these mines, and at times have forced coal truck drivers to dump their loads on the roadway. "If I saw a load of coal come down this road, it would irritate me. No doubt about it," Julius Mullins, a long-time UMW activist, said as he sat on his porch in Weeksbury, Ky. "I'd probably want to do something about it."
Some coal companies have reacted in a manner union men call reminiscent of the 1930s when companies hired Pinkerton agents and thugs to break the union. One company, for example, hired six vacationing members of the SWAT team from the Birmingham, Ala., police department to guard its property.
This invites trouble, says Elkins, who grew up in the coal town of Jenkins and commands the state police outpost in nearby Pikeville. "Force begets force. And a show of force causes one of two things: submission or retaliation."
In the past, state police in eastern Kentucky have functioned almost as an arm of the coal companies in such disputes. But Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. has ordered them not to "babysit" for the companies this year and police have adhered to a strict code of neutrality.
This has led to angry protests by coal companies. Triple Elkhorn hired the storm troopers after state police present at last Wednesday's incident didn't make any arrests. The company is a subsidiary of Zapata Fuel, a Texas firm originally founded by Vice President Bush.
"Our attitude is as long as the state police refuse to protect us we will do whatever possible to protect our employes," says Fred Dawson, president of Triple Elkhorn.
"We don't have anything against the UMW. Our miners are nonunion by choice. We just want to be left alone," adds Dawson, who, like almost every other company employe, now carries a gun.
The company has continued to haul coal. But fears run high. "I got to do it. I got to make a living," says truck driver, Hershell Kestner, 25. "I know I'm risking my life every day doing it. My wife doesn't want me to work, but I have to."
The UMW has had great difficulty organizing men like Kestner. Some own their coal trucks and are contract haulers. They regard themselves as private entrepreneurs. They have high monthly payments on their trucks, and can't afford to stop hauling, strike or no strike.
Other miners prefer to work in nonunion mines for the simple reason that they can make more money in them. Miners at the Chapparal Coal Co. in Pike County, which the UMW is trying to organize, for example, make $90.88 a day, compared with $84.52 under the old UMW contract.
Many nonunion miners work six-day weeks. They also don't face strikes like the current one, or the one that shut down union mines for 111 days in 1978, the last time the UMW contract came up.
The union has two main selling points: it offers an attractive pension plan, and its mines are generally safer than nonunion ones.
"i can see a young fella's viewpoint," says UMW district president Carter. "Hell, if he's making good money and has a good hospitalization plan, he could care less about pension 30 or 40 years away."
"Of course, if it weren't for the union, those guys wouldn't be making the wages they're making. That's what gripes me. They don't realize what's holding these wages up," Carter adds. "We're the ones always losing time and wages while the nonunion mines keep working. They get pretty much the same wages and benefits and they don't have any of the pain."
What can the union do about it?
"Nothing," Carter replies.
Union members in this district voted against the proposed contract by a 3-to-1 margin, chiefly because of a concession allowing companies to discontinue royalty payments to the union that they traditionally have made on coal purchased from nonunion operators.
There is no end in sight for either the strike or the violence.
"I'd say they'll be little incidents now and then until we get a contract. No question about it," says Carter.
Paul Bussey, who works for Triple Elkhorn, doesn't like this. "It's a bad thing when you have to pack your guns with your lunch," he says. "We don't come to work because we're brave. We do it because we have to make a living."