CARBO, VA. -- Moments after the United Mine Workers voluntarily ended their occupation of a towering coal processing plant, union vice president Cecil Roberts, his voice hoarse from defiant, evangelistic speeches, raised his fist and shouted, "We're going to hurt Pittston economically . . . . We're going to have another target for you. When we call you, you come on!" His speech drew thundering chants of approval from the 5,000 union members and supporters who had blocked the entrances to the plant in support of the 98 miners and one clergyman who held it for four days, then peacefully walked away after a federal judge ordered them to do so. That was 11 days ago, but the strike against the Pittston Co. is now six months old with no end in sight. UMW leaders are continuing the rhetoric while recruiting union, religious and other support to this isolated corner of southwest Virginia. The effort is, as Roberts promised, hurting Pittston. The significance of the strike, unusual in the long history of coal disputes because of its largely nonviolent nature, has reached well beyond the bargaining table. The U.S. labor movement views it as a harbinger of labor's future; the coal industry expects the outcome to determine whether an agreement that has governed labor relations with the miners for 40 years will crumble, and miners and their families say the union's survival and their hard-won way of life are at stake. The strike also may be pivotal in the Virginia gubernatorial race. Southwest Virginia is a traditional Democratic stronghold and Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the Democratic candidate for governor, handily carried the region in 1985. Some miners say they may stay home Election Day to show their anger about Democratic Gov. Gerald L. Baliles's use of the state police to enforce Virginia's right-to-work laws. Such a move would benefit Republican nominee J. Marshall Coleman. To U.S. District Judge Glen M. Williams, whose Abingdon courtroom has been filled with strike-related matters and who has become an unofficial mediator, the two sides are "like a gingham dog and a calico cat and all that will be left is a thread. It's pure obstinancy . . . . There's all this posturing and lying." Pittston, Williams said, "has given a little more than the union, but it's precious little." There have been 3,700 arrests of union members and supporters since the strike began, according to the union. State fines against the union for strike-related activities and for civil contempt of court orders total about $24.5 million. Williams has levied another $1.3 million in fines against the union and its officers. The union has posted at least $5 million in appeal bonds, and on Tuesday its lawyers asked the Virginia Supreme Court to review a state court order that it pay $21 million of the state fines. National Labor Relations Board officials said that the formal complaints from both sides total more than 600, the largest number filed in any strike in recent history. The strike began April 5, after 14 months of unsuccessful negotiations following the expiration of a contract. It involves 1,900 union miners from Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky. It has stilled Pittston's operations in West Virginia and Kentucky, which account for one-third of its production, and has hurt production in Virginia. No coal was processed at Pittston's largest plant, the Moss 3 preparation plant near here, during the four days it was occupied. "The strike is having a substantial impact on us," said Pittston chairman Paul W. Douglas in an interview. "It's been heavy on us, no question about it." The union says it is striking to maintain job security and health and pension benefits, which Pittston cut off when the strike began. It says Pittston is trying to break the union by shifting assets and production to nonunion mining subsidiaries. Pittston denies that it wants the union out, but contends that health-care and pension benefit costs have soared beyond affordability and have been abused by members and physicians alike. Pittston also says it needs greater operational flexibility to meet the demands of the international coal market. In June, after massive arrests of miners and supporters for blocking the entrance to coal facilities, up to 44,000 miners from nine states -- roughly one-third of all U.S. coal miners -- joined in wildcat strikes. Hundreds came to the coal fields to join slow-moving car caravans aimed at impeding the coal trucks.Vivid Rhetoric, Images The rhetoric and images in this strike have been dramatic; men with camouflage-painted faces emerge from the thick foliage along the roadside; slogans compare the treatment of strikers with that of blacks in South Africa and unionists in Poland; tears flow in a crowd of gruff-faced miners listening to eloquent battle songs evoking God, the family and the American flag. Some miners speak of not trusting the courts and the police anymore; others talk defiantly of never relinquishing their standard of living. They equate hard-won victories over the years with the mining deaths and injuries that touch many families. Gail Gentry, his legs crushed in a mine accident, lives in a wheelchair. James South has had part of a lung removed. Ruth Harrison, the wife of a disabled, retired miner watches her husband wheeze as he walks up stairs, the result of years of coal dust exposure and multiple heart attacks. "We've had grandfathers die. Uncles, friends, died too," said Cecil Davis, 61, a miner from eastern Kentucky stationed last week outside the processing plant. "My uncle Fred got blowed up in an explosion. That makes me the union man I am today, and I'll die union." Union members say the corporate team that took over the Pittston company five years ago is insensitive to miners' hardships.Conflict Over 39-Year-Old Pact The union called the strike after Pittston decided to pull out of the Bituminous Coal Operators' Association agreement that was established by union leader John L. Lewis in 1950 to set industry-wide wage rates, safety standards, and health and pension benefits in exchange for labor tranquillity. Between its 1984 and 1988 agreements, more than two dozen companies quit the association because their companies faltered or felt they could get a better deal with the union if they bargained separately. The UMW reacted, in part, by offering concessions to some companies to stay in the association, a move that some believe will give Pittston greater leverage in forcing concessions in this strike. When the association agreement expired in February 1988, Pittston cut off the health insurance of 1,500 retired or disabled workers and their widows. It also stopped contributing to a 1950 industry-wide benefit trust that includes 130,000 retired miners from many companies. The union says 2,000 to 5,000 are former Pittston employees; the company says the number is closer to 500. In June, the company restored insurance coverage and offered current employees a modified health plan. Pittston spokesman William Byrne said previous health coverage was being abused, saying the average blue-collar family in the United States ordered four prescriptions in 1986, while Pittston families ordered an average of 48 prescriptions. Asked to explain this, he said, "How about a little Valium here and there." Union officials say they have received support, including donations, from 30 national labor and community activist organizations and that 13,000 people, most of them visitors to the coal fields, have come to Camp Solidarity, a campground near Pittston's processing plant. Jesse L. Jackson, United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez and AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland have come to be arrested or to preach the gospel of nonviolent civil disobedience. Politicians from Boston, Connecticut and Illinois, Episcopal ministers from conservative congregations in the northeast and Catholic nuns from Appalachia have been arrested alongside widows and retired miners and hundreds of hefty workers dressed in their trademark camouflage fatigues. The Rev. Jim Sessions, executive director of the Commission on Religion in Appalachia, which represents 17 denominations and 10 state councils, joined the miners in their takeover of the processing plant. Like other religious leaders who have sided with the miners, he said the miners' welfare and the company's economic interests are "not even in our eyes." "This union has drawn the line," he said as he sat during the plant takeover on the control room floor, his shirt and tie sooty from coal dust. "The future economy, the livelihood of this area is up for grabs in this strike." The union will not discuss the amount of outside contributions it has received but earlier reported a strike fund of $104 million, which was down to $95.9 million in June. Recent donations include $110,000 from the United Auto Workers and $50,000 from steelworkers.Judge Takes Key Role With delays in NLRB rulings and the lack of any negotiator of stature, Judge Williams said he has stepped into the vacuum, playing the unusual role of impartial courtroom judge and informal, but aggressive, interloper. When sit-ins at mines and plants threatened the flow of coal, Williams ended the actions by jailing three union leaders for civil contempt. When the miners began wildcat strikes in nine states and joined in massive car caravans here, Williams jailed strikers and out-of-state miners. "Every piece of civil disobedience that has been stopped, I've stopped it," Williams said. It was also Williams who got both sides to resume negotiations in July when he unilaterally set up a meeting. And on the day after the miners gave up the processing plant, 2 1/2 hours after Williams's 7 p.m. deadline, he retroactively extended his deadline to 11 p.m. "Pittston was incensed about me extending the hours of my order," Williams said. " . . . I've tried to use a carrot and stick approach." UMW President Richard Trumka, Roberts and other union leaders have harshly criticized the courts and the police, saying that U.S. labor law is unfair because it leaves the union no tools to pressure a company into negotiating. To enforce court orders, hundreds of state troopers and, recently, a cadre of U.S. marshals, have been posted here at a cost to Virginia taxpayers of more than $1 million a month. Police report continuing incidents of rock-throwing, other damage to coal trucks by miners and several injuries on both sides.Old Battle, New Issues While management and labor have battled for decades in the coal fields, the issues here are modern ones, including the waning influence of unions, the changes being forced by technology and the impact on benefit packages of steadily increasing health-care costs. UMW membership has declined from 400,000 in the early 1920s to 70,000 today, in part because the union failed to win new mines in the West and because technology reduced the number of people needed. In 1950, it took 18,000 miners to produce 18 million tons of coal from Virginia's mines. In 1988, 11,000 miners produced 46 million tons, according to John Randolph, director of the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research at Virginia Tech. Between 1983 and 1986, American coal fared poorly in international markets, but the foreign market for Pittston's and other company's metallurgic coal used in steelmaking has boomed recently, according to Randolph. About 65 percent of Pittston's coal is exported, primarily to Japan, Brazil and European nations. Pittston says it needs more flexibility to fill the orders of its international clients. About 60 percent of the coal exported from the United States in 1988 was produced in the Central Appalachia region that includes Southwest Virginia, eastern Kentucky and parts of West Virginia, and much of that coal is shipped through Virginia's Hampton Roads ports. Randolph said that exports from those ports fell about 20 percent in June and July. Although it is difficult to tell what role the strike has played in that trend, Pittston produces 15 percent of those exports, the largest single share. Pittston's second-quarter report recorded coal sales of 3.6 million tons, down 500,000 tons from the same quarter last year. Its unionized coal operations lost $3.6 million in the quarter. Asked if he thought an end to the dispute were near, Pittston chairman Douglas said, "I have no grounds for thinking that."
Dana Priest Dana Priest, a reporter at The Washington Post for 30 years, covers national security issues. Recently, she has investigated Russian disinformation operations, censorship around the world, the massive national security state, CIA operations and veterans issues. She is the Knight Chair in Public Affairs Journalism at the University of Maryland. Follow