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Pittston strike: 'Everyone felt that this was their fight'

Sharon Hayes • Jun 27, 2009 at 12:00 AM

Each year for the last 20 years, members of the United Mine Workers Association have gathered in Southwest Virginia for the union’s annual fish fry to catch up on the latest news and reminisce about old times.

At this year’s fish fry set for Sept. 26 at the Castlewood Fairgrounds, the UMWA will mark 20 years since the strike against Pittston Coal Co., and what’s been accomplished since then for organized labor across the country.

UMWA President Cecil Roberts, who was vice president and field commander during the strike, said the labor dispute served as a rallying cry for union members across the country. And the conclusion of the dispute could determine the fate of unions everywhere.

“One of the reasons we got so much help from all of organized labor was that everyone felt that this was their fight,” Roberts said. “This was a time in the country when workers, unions, were reeling.”

Unions across the country felt under siege throughout much of the 1980s. Early that decade, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization went on strike, seeking better working conditions, better pay and a 32-hour workweek. President Ronald Reagan, saying the strike was a threat to national security, ordered the striking union members back to the job. More than 11,000 air traffic controllers who didn’t return within 48 hours were fired.

The move encouraged more private companies to use their own discretion in hiring and firing employees.

“If you go back and look at this period of time when the (Pittston) strike took place, George Walker Bush was president, and that was on the heels of Ronald Reagan, who had fired the air traffic controllers. Every union that had gone on strike from that point forward had been replaced, which was something we hadn’t seen in this country since the 1930s,” Roberts said.

“It was something that became a regular occurrence — when workers went on strike, they were replaced after the air traffic controllers were fired. And workers started believing that they couldn’t win a strike.”

Church foundation

A decade before the Pittston coal strike, the UMWA — headed by then-President Sam Church — adopted policies that would help the union withstand the pressures of a prolonged labor dispute.

At the 1979 UMWA convention, Church pushed for, and the union approved, giving the union president authority to call selective strikes.

Up to then, the UMWA negotiated with the Bituminous Coal Operators' Association for contracts for union members. If a strike was called, all union members working at BCOA companies walked off the job at the same time.

In addition, Church advocated changing the way union dues were collected. Up to 1979, the union had to periodically ask for a dues increase. Church wanted to set up increases to reflect a union member’s hourly wage, so that as wages increased, dues automatically increased as well.

Church, who now lives in Pennington Gap, was unable to talk with the Times-News for this story. But his wife, Patti Church, who worked for the union back in the late 1970s, talked about her husband’s work and its impact on the Pittston coal strike.

She said the automatic dues increase and the concept of selective strikes helped the union beat the odds.

“I really didn’t understand the huge significance that those two things could play later on in the Pittston strike, but if it had not been for that dues increase to make the union more financially sound, and the ability for the selective strike, it was so significantly important to saving the union,” Patti Church said.

In 1982, Sam Church ran for reelection as UMWA president, but was defeated by Richard Trumka.

Patti Church said her husband stood side by side with Trumka and Cecil Roberts during the Pittston strike, standing up for a common cause.

For his legacy, she said Sam Church should be remembered for the groundwork he laid a decade before the Pittston strike.

“Those two important things — selective strikes and the union dues — I think history should remember him for that,” Patti Church said.

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