Camouflage-clad men carrying homemade signs stand along the dusty road leading to the mine’s entrance, where other men and some women — also outfitted in the familiar camouflage colors — sit on the pavement blocking coal trucks from entering steel gates.
State troopers in their pressed uniforms and sharp hats tell the people to move or be moved, but the warning falls on deaf ears, as the people sing “We shall not be moved.”
Eventually, the squatters are lifted from the road, carried by police one by one to a nearby bus, and shuttled off to jail.
This was a common scene 20 years ago during the Pittston coal strike, a 10-month-long labor dispute in the mountains of Appalachia.
The United Mine Workers Association’s strike against Pittston Coal Co. began on April 5, 1989, with both sides entrenched for a long battle. Some 1,700 union members in Southwestern Virginia, Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky took to the picket lines, claiming unfair labor practices.
Benefits were at the center of the dispute — particularly healthcare for miners and retirees.
Cecil Roberts, then vice president of the UMWA and point man in the fight against Pittston, recently spoke with the Times-News about the strike and the events leading up to it.
Roberts said that in 1988, the UMWA reached a labor agreement nationwide with most of the major mining employers — except Pittston.
There, union members continued working in the mines while UMWA officials held negotiations for a new contract with the company.
After 14 months of talks and no contract, then-UMWA President Richard Trumka called a selective strike against Pittston.
Roberts said it was clear to union officials that Pittston wanted a strike instead of a new contract.
“The most convincing part of this was the fact that we worked 14 months past the expiration of the contract, and all through that 14 months we were continually bargaining with Pittston, trying to reach some kind of a compromise agreement with them and they continued to say no,” Roberts said.
“All of that was a clear indication to us that what they were hoping to do was get to a point where they could implement a last best offer that would have been devastating to the workers, broke the union at that point in time, and then they could have been free to have whatever terms and conditions of employment that they desired,” he said.
The Times-News contacted Pittston’s office in Abingdon, and was told the company would not comment on the strike.
But 20 years ago, Pittston President Mike Odom suggested the union’s mission was to “crush” the company.
“We’re up against a major union that’s got $100 million to crush us, and that’s their objective — to crush us,” Odom said at the time.
Soon after the strike began, Pittston cancelled health benefits for retirees and widows. The company said it couldn’t afford the cost, but union members saw it as a betrayal.
Union organizers rallied their troops, encouraging nonviolent tactics such as civil disobedience that was used in the civil rights movement.
Roberts said the union drew support from the local communities — not only because it used nonviolent measures — but because the company had cut off retiree healthcare, after union members had worked 14 months without a contract.
Roberts said the community viewed Pittston’s move to cut retiree healthcare as “totally unnecessary.”
“They’d taken advantage of people who had given their entire lives to the industry,” Roberts said. “People supported the fact that we were trying to do this in a nonviolent manner, that we were fighting for the healthcare of these pensioners.
“Striking miners were standing up not just for themselves, but for their fathers and uncles and grandfathers who were too old to fight for themselves.”
While many of the striking miners used nonviolent tactics in the dispute, some violence was reported, including rock throwing, vandalism, and even homemade bombs. Jack rocks — a jagged edged device designed to flatten a vehicle’s tires — were a common site along coal truck routes.
Some miners denied taking part in violent measures, saying company guards and replacement workers, called “scabs,” were distributing jack rocks along the roads to implicate striking miners.
Union members were arrested, jailed and fined. By the end of the strike, 4,000 people had been carted off by police.
Thousands of supporters — many of them members of other unions across the country — made their way to Southwestern Virginia to stand side by side with miners on the picket lines.
But they had no place to stay.
Union supporters decided to convert a recreational area near Castlewood into a central hub, calling it Camp Solidarity. Volunteers used an existing snack bar to prepare meals for folks coming into town, and built a shelter with bunk beds where people could sleep.
A large field provided ample parking space for visitors and supporters with campers.
Shirley Hall, whose husband James Hall was among striking miners, served as one of the camp’s volunteers, who called themselves “Freedom Fighters.”
“We had like a phone bank setup and when we needed food, we would call certain people and say, ‘Hey we need you to bake a cake, or fix a pot of beans of whatever,’ and we’d pick it up the next day,” Hall said.
Organizers of Camp Solidarity assigned jobs to various volunteers. Some would get water, some would get food, and some would get firewood for the camp’s huge grill.
Everyone worked together like a well-oiled machine, striving for a common goal.
“It was unreal, the support that we had from the people, the community, the churches, other unions. It was amazing,” Hall said.
She said union supporters came to Camp Solidarity from across the country and even from around the world. Visitors arrived from as far away as Hawaii, Russia, Germany, Italy, France, Scotland, and Australia.
Camp Solidarity served as a the central point for striking miners and supporters.
And each week, huge rallies with speeches and music were held in St. Paul to encourage union members.
“It was a very exciting time, and it paid off in the long run,” Shirley Hall said.
Several months into the strike, union officials felt they needed to plan something spectacular to rally their troops and to make the company realize they weren’t about to give up.
By that time, union members and the union itself had been fined thousands of dollars, and thousands of people had been arrested in civil disobedience demonstrations.
Union members were getting tired.
“It was the union’s opinion that there had been a lull in the activity at that time. People were getting a little despondent because there hadn’t been a lot of activity, and so the union decided that something dramatic had to occur,” Roberts said.
While the union had used the civil disobedience lessons of the civil rights movement up to then, it decided to look back further to the 1930s, to the sit-down strikes that occurred in the early days of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
“We looked at that and thought if there were someway to occupy a facility of Pittston’s and pull this off without them knowing it was coming, and keep this non-violent, then that would be a dramatic statement to Pittston that this strike wasn’t over, it wasn’t ever going to be over until there was a fair settlement that protected the workers and allowed them to return with dignity and respect, and also protected the pensioner’s healthcare and protected their income once they retired,” Roberts said.
The plan was crafted behind closed doors. Union officials told members when and where to be, but they didn’t divulge what was about to happen. Some 99 striking miners, who had volunteered to participate in whatever way they could, were selected from various parts of the strike zone, including Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky.
“They weren’t briefed until they got to Virginia, then they were told what was going to happen, and they were given the opportunity to back out if they wanted to, but they chose not to,” Roberts said.
When the caravans rolled in front of Pittston’s Moss 3 Preparation Plant, the 99 union members and one minister knew the mission: They would walk with hands high in the air into the plant, telling guards they were nonviolent.
Outside, union organizers gathered about 1,500 members and supporters in front of the plant. They sat in the road, blocking traffic in and out.
“Incidentally we had timed this, because we knew when the state police were changing shifts, so there wasn’t a large contingency of state troopers there at the time, so this went off without any problems,” Roberts said. “When the police arrived, we had control of the plant.”
For several days, the union occupied Moss 3, while supporters held vigil outside. At one point, as many as 5,000 union supporters had gathered in front of the plant, waving UMWA signs and cheering the men inside. Supporters traveled to the site from New York, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois and beyond, representing all different types of unions and the AFL-CIO.
“Machinists were sleeping on the ground, Teamsters came from all over. They were all willing to do whatever we wanted them to do,” Roberts said.
By Wednesday, union officials, deciding they’d made their point, ended the occupation at Moss 3. Union members who had been holed up inside the plant since Sunday marched outside, got into pickup trucks, and disappeared.
Stump to victory
By the fall of 1989, the union was facing thousands of dollars in fines — many of them imposed by Judge Donald McGlothlin Jr., Virginia circuit court judge for Russell County.
Hoping to make a statement, the union launched a grassroots political campaign to unseat McGlothlin’s father, longtime legislator Donald McGlothlin Sr., and union officials enticed UMWA District 28 President Jackie Stump to run a write-in campaign against the elder McGlothlin.
After a massive door-to-door campaign by union members, Stump defeated McGlothlin by more than a two-to-one margin.
UMWA officials viewed the election as a referendum on the strike — and they were the victors.
The bitter labor dispute didn’t just capture local headlines — it drew the attention of the nation. Activists including civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson, Farmworkers founder Cesar Chavez, and then-AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland all traveled to the coalfields to talk with striking miners first hand.
Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole also visited strike lines, and eventually appointed former Labor Secretary William Usery to serve as special mediator between the two sides.
Usery met with union and company officials day and night to hammer out an agreement. A settlement was announced in early 1990, and was later ratified by UMWA members.
After the strike ended, the Supreme Court threw out most of the fines that had been imposed by the state judges. However, union officials were ordered to participate in 10,000 hours of community service activities.
For his part, Roberts said he and some other union representatives traveled to Lee County and worked alongside U.S. District Judge Glen Williams — who had imposed some of those fines against the union — to help clean up a river.
“I think Judge Williams — we can’t say we liked every decision he made, but we all had respect for him at the end of the day. It was very good day for all of us,” Roberts recalled.
In Washington, lawmakers passed the Coal Act, guaranteeing healthcare for all union pensioners. That law, Roberts said, was a direct result of the Pittston strike.
Roberts said the strike was important to the union on several fronts.
“I think had Pittston prevailed here, I think we would have seen the failure of our pension plans for one thing,” Roberts said. “The second thing, I think the pensioners’ healthcare would have collapsed not only at Pittston but everywhere.”
He said lots of “good things came out of that strike.”
“I still believe it’s probably the most effective strike that’s taken place in at least the last 50 years and maybe longer,” Roberts said.