About 600 striking coal miners and their families put aside their picket signs yesterday as several of them mounted a makeshift outdoor pulpit in Lobata, W.Va., to call for divine intervention in settling the nearly five-month-old strike against the A.T. Massey Coal Co.
One of the preachers, Ballard Yates, a member of United Mine Workers of America, Local 2248, turned to the uniformed company guards filming the service from behind newly installed plastic windows atop the tipple at the Sprouse Creek Processing Co. and told them, "All you're doing is protecting a man Massey that's full of evil."
Yates then rhetorically asked two local men who have served as Massey subordinates at the processing plant, "How can you call yourselves Christians and treat a bunch of men like you do?"
Another miner-turned-preacher, Mike Dingess, implored the guards to leave their posts and "get right with God."
Yesterday's church service outside the processing plant, which cleans coal and drops it from the tipple into railroad cars, was the latest move in what UMW officials call a chess match with Massey, the nation's sixth-largest coal producer.
A total of 143 persons, including three elderly widows of miners, were arrested last week for sitting in the middle of Route 49 to block trucks delivering coal from a nonunion Massey mine for processing at Sprouse Creek.
The complicated strike, which has focused on the Sprouse Creek plant and Massey's adjoining Rocky Hollow mine, affects more than 2,600 miners, including 1,100 at Massey mines in West Virginia and Kentucky.
Last October, the UMW and the Bituminous Coal Operators of America agreed to a nationwide contract, the first time in 20 years the miners and mine operators have reached agreement without a strike. But several coal producers, including Massey and National Mines (a subsidiary of National Steel), dropped out of the BCOA before the old contract expired Sept. 30, and thus were not a party to the agreement.
Traditionally, the union's contract has been signed with parent companies. But, in a corporate structure peculiar to the mining industry, Massey has a host of subsidiaries and lease agreements, and is holding out for separate contracts with each.
The area's highest-ranking Massey employe is Don Blankenship, president of Rawls Sales, a Massey subsidiary that bought up leases on hundreds of coal-rich acres on the West Virginia and Kentucky sides of the Tug River a decade or so ago. Blankenship said Rawls has contracts with a number of companies -- some Massey subsidiaries, some with different ownership -- to mine the coal. Each of those contractors operates on 30-day leases with Rawls Sales.
The union has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, contending that Massey is the "common employer" of the striking miners.
UMW spokesman Joe Corcoran has accused owner E. Morgan Massey of "running a corporate shell game, in which he has isolated himself and his shareholders from responsibility at the mine site."
The miners contend that, without a contract with the parent company, Massey could cancel any of its leases, thereby throwing miners out of work, and then start up again with a newly constituted lessee and hire nonunion miners. Under a company-wide contract, job openings at other Massey operations would be offered first to the laid-off miners.
One of the major objections Massey has to a union contract, Blankenship said, is the requirement to contribute to two union pension funds. Union operators say they are placed at a competitive disadvantage because they must pay $1.72 a ton into the underfunded 1950 pension fund that covers workers who retired through 1975. Because most of Massey's companies had not been formed by then, Blankenship said, it is paying for miners who never worked for Massey.
Meanwhile, the strikers, who receive $200 a week in union benefits, funded by a 2 1/2 percent assessment levied on working UMW members, vowed yesterday to stay outside the fence until they win.
UMW negotiator Don Barnett, who traded his picket-line camouflage outfit for a three-piece suit for the service, was applauded when he said, "We'll fight Massey with our minds and hearts, against Massey's mercenaries."