1989 Pittston Coal Strike A Battle For Workers' Rights

Southwest Virginia miners make a stand during the 1989 Pittston strike.

CARBO, Va. – Walt Crickmer remembers the strike. He was in the lead coal truck when the rocks rained down, smashing every windshield in the convoy and setting the tone for an 11-month standoff.

Cecil Roberts remembers the 1989 Pittston Coal Strike too, calling it a successful, nonviolent crusade for the right of workers to organize. Roberts said the strike turned the national tide at a time when even the White House was busting labor unions.

Crickmer said there was no clear winner.

While there is disagreement over its lasting effects, the strike drew a line in the coal dust – and drew national attention to the remote mountains of Southwest Virginia.

Photos by Bill McKee and Debra McCown, Bristol Herald Courier. Other Photos Courtesy of Earl Dotter, Joe Corcoran and the UMWA Archives.

Roberts, then vice-president and now president of the United Mineworkers of America, said the strike made a difference for workers across the country – especially in Southwest Virginia, where millions of health care and pension dollars still flow into the region. Something he said wouldn’t be happening otherwise.

“Labor winning here, I think, helped to turn things around for the entire labor movement,” Roberts said.

“The labor movement was in dire need of a victory, the UMWA was in dire need of a victory,” he said. The union members were “fighting for their own jobs and a way of life in southwest Virginia and southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.”

And, Roberts said, “Pittston had cut off retiree health coverage.”

Crickmer, who at the time was a division manager overseeing the Moss 3 mines and prep plant for Pittston subsidiary Clinchfield Coal Co., remembers it differently.

“When I look back 20 years at it, I think it was a very difficult time for a lot of people,” Crickmer said. “I don’t think anybody really won. I think that it was extremely costly for the company, and it cost the union as well.”

The conflicts

The years leading up to the strike – the 1980s – were a tumultuous period for the U.S. economy.

Amid a worldwide recession, coal prices were in a slump, Crickmer said. U.S. industry was moving overseas. U.S. coal producers faced new global competition. Coal companies, including Pittston, faced growing competition from non-union operations.

Roberts said the tone for organized labor had been set early that decade, by President Ronald Reagan’s 1981 decision to fire striking air-traffic controllers – an action Roberts said kicked off a wave of union-busting by companies around the country.

In Southwest Virginia, the fear was that if one coal company successfully cut off retiree health care, the rest of the industry – and other industries – would follow suit. So, after 14 months of working without a contract, union workers dug in their heels.

“If Pittston Coal could get rid of 1,700 people having coverage through retirement … people who had given their lives to a company, and the widows who had coverage, who would be next,” asked Jerry Stallard, an international auditor-teller for the mineworkers union who was a local union official during the strike. “We thought it would be a snowball effect, not only in the coal industry but in others.”

Karl Kindig, who was general counsel for Pittston Coal during the strike, said the company wasn’t out to bust the union or to take away health care – it was merely seeking its own contract with the union, separate from the Bituminous Coal Operators Association, which represented several coal companies and was dominated by Pittston’s larger competitors.

“I don’t think Pittston could’ve survived very long under the BCOA contract,” Kindig said. “It was pretty clear that Pittston had to do something to get control of the terms and conditions of employment for its own operations, and in that sense I think it was just something we had to do.”

For both sides, health care was of central importance.

“Our health care costs for former employees were at a much larger percentage of our cost than the other companies, and we needed to address those costs if we were going to stay in business,” Kindig said. He said the company’s approach to help manage costs was to provide a financial incentive for Pittston employees to make more careful choices in their use of care: Each would receive $500 cash to cover the first $500 of health care costs.

“We had to go through a lengthy strike just to get [a] simple change,” Kindig said. “It was just difficult to get them to accept anything that was at all different from the contract they negotiated with the BCOA.”

From the union side, health care was a critical issue: When Pittston took away retirees’ health cards, it became a rallying point for a community that considered it an injustice to renege on the benefits promised to men who had suffered the health effects and injuries of decades working underground.

The decision to pull the health cards – considered by some the company’s worst strategic mistake – was not meant to be permanent, former company officials said. But it broadened support for the strike because in the coalfields just about everyone had a father, uncle or grandparent who relied on those benefits.

When the strike began April 5, 1989, both the union and the company planned to stay for the long-haul.

The strike

Fifteen tractor-trailer loads of coal escorted by 10 state police cruisers followed Crickmer on that first day of the strike, rolling down a mile-long road lined with picketers from the mine to the prep plant.

“The convoy did not go half a mile before every windshield of every vehicle, including the state police cruisers, was knocked out, and at least 50 percent of every tire on those trucks and cars were jackrocked and flat,” Crickmer said.

“There were at least 500 pickets in the woods, all in camo, and it was a constant rain of large rocks and jackrocks,” he said.

“I saw state police rolling out of their cars, hunkered down behind their cruisers as the rocks just pelted them, rocks the size of footballs taking out windshields and side glass,” he said. “It didn’t quit the rest of the strike. Every day was the same.”

The company set out daily to move truckloads of coal so it could keep doing business. Pittston became adept at protecting the convoys with foam-filled tires, a protective substance to keep windows from breaking and metal plates to protect the truck radiators from gunfire.

Still, the coal didn’t always reach its destination. One route was so treacherous it was dubbed the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

“It was literally overwhelming numbers, it was thousands of people every day,” Crickmer said. “Any road you went on, you were moving coal on, you could expect to see hundreds of pickets along the road and they would be rocking you and jackrocking you and shooting you all the way.”

Union participants describe a philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience and a sense of excitement that permeated the picket lines, a constant adrenaline rush as people would sit or stand in the middle of the road to block the coal trucks.

“If the coal doesn’t go out of there, then they don’t get paid for it,” Stallard said. “We were trying to slow down the coal.”

Stallard was at the McClure River Prep Plant, one of two Pittston plants operating during the strike, when the first convoy of trucks arrived there.

“There were probably 200 or 300 of us sitting at McClure in the road and they took, I don’t know, two or three hours for them to get the people out of the road and put on buses and taken to the courthouse to be processed,” Stallard said. “The next day we’d do it, instead of 300, we’d do it eight or nine or 10 at a time. That way when they’d got 10 of us up and locked up, there’d be 10 more. … Shortly after that, we started to impede traffic.”

Roberts said the Pittston strike was like no other because the union adopted the tactics of the civil rights movement: non-violent civil disobedience to challenge authority and a willingness to risk the entire union treasury as court-issued fines mounted.

“People understood that if you fill up the jailhouses and fill up the courthouses then sooner or later you’ll get someone’s attention,” Roberts said. “Soon we got the attention of the judges, and soon we got the attention of the governor, and soon we got the attention of the President of the United States, and he sent the secretary of labor down to the coalfields.”

Throngs of support

Arriving from across the nation, union members and supporters flooded into Russell and Dickenson counties to help clog the roads and keep traffic at a snail’s crawl – with “tourists” frequently stopping to take pictures of what was going on. Among those who visited were well-known artists and songwriters of the labor movement, as well as United Farm Workers President Cesar Chavez and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson.

Reporters from far and wide converged on the coalfields, bringing national media attention to the strike.

“The scene was very theatrical,” remembers Greg Edwards, who covered the strike as a reporter for the Roanoke Times. “It kind of lent itself to a lot of news coverage.”

Even the women got involved: At one point, nearly 40 wives and family members of union miners occupied the lobby of Pittston headquarters, singing songs in support of the union.

“Pittston just walled off the area and went on with business as usual,” local television newscasts reported that night. But the strikers said the women’s actions inspired the fight.

Union women also stood beside their husbands and fathers on the picket lines, and cooked for the striking workers and supporters at Camp Solidarity, a field on the bank of the Clinch River where strikers and their supporters rested, ate and slept.

“All the family members were involved, the community, the churches, other unions, and it took everybody working together for us to win the strike,” said Shirley Hall, who was there every day of the strike, just like her husband.

Hall said stores were asked to put signs in their windows to show their support for the mineworkers – and those who refused were boycotted. Most supported the strike, she said.

The group of union women called the Freedom Fighters, still considered a potent political organization in the coalfields, got its start during the strike, Hall said, as everyone came together for a common purpose.

In Clintwood, where just about every business relied on the mineworkers for its bread and butter, many establishments opened their doors to extend credit and otherwise help the strikers.

“All the merchants, all the businesses, everything over here was real supportive of the coal miners because of what was going on,” said Ronnie Robbins, who was working as a coal miner in a neighboring county then and now serves as commissioner of the revenue in Dickenson County.

Even the local doctor’s office contributed by seeing patients for free, Robbins said.

People who were in Clintwood remember the crowds that filled the downtown streets in front of the courthouse – especially when strikers were in court.

“There wasn’t a place anywhere to sit; just about everybody was standing,” Robbins said. “Young, old, children, they were all out here supporting the coal miners.”

Crickmer said there was considerable community support for the company as well.

“Every business in the area was working alongside Clinchfield on our side,” he said.

“Their employees were going through the picket lines, their employees were working on equipment,” Crickmer said. “I don’t know of an instance where any supplier refused to come on the property. They all chose to stand there with us.”

Not so nonviolent

Crickmer said that, despite the union’s message of nonviolence, violence by union supporters was ongoing – though mostly by those arriving from out of state.

“Every day was the same. It was like you were in a big giant battle, a war, and you became accustomed to the intensity of it, they came home with you and they came to your house. They knocked out the windows in your house, they destroyed the windows in your car,” he said.

“At home they blew up your garage at your house, they would jackrock your driveway, your kids would come out going to school, they’d step on the jackrocks,” he said. “These are the kinds of things we heard from our hourly people constantly. … It was just unbelievable harassment.”

Jackrocks are a welded knot of nails, thrown onto the road with their sharp points upright to puncture tires.

“Whatever else you want to say about the UMW, they’re incredibly good at public relations, and they adopted a public relations policy that they would just call this a nonviolent strike and talk about nonviolent civil disobedience, but the reality was very different,” Kindig said. “There’s no question about it: I spent a good part of a year going to court on a regular basis and documenting in some detail the incidents of violence that occurred during the strike.”

Hall said the only violence she saw was when the state police got “a little rough” with some of the strikers, “pulling their ears and twisting their arms and that sort of thing.”

The union was fined more than $64 million for actions taken in defiance of court orders. The fines were ultimately overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Though no one died in strike violence in Virginia, a striker was shot and killed on a picket line in West Virginia, Stallard said. While the center of the action was in Virginia, he said, the strike extended to other states where Pittston had operations, and even to the company’s Greenwich, Conn., headquarters.

He and other union members blame much of the violence in Virginia on the company, saying it was staged to make the union look bad.

“Nobody died, which is sort of a miracle given some of the things that happened, people having their homes shot into at night, rocks through windshields as cars are driving down the road, workers that had been injured by shotgun pellets,” Kindig said.

Peaceful occupation

Roberts said a turning point came in September, when 99 strikers took over the Moss 3 preparation plant in Carbo. The takeover was “the final determining factor in Pittston realizing that this was never ending without a fair and just collective bargaining agreement,” he said.

The takeover came suddenly on a Sunday afternoon – but within minutes more than 1,000 people had converged outside the plant.

“When I came over that evening, there were people for miles lining both sides of the highway,” said Patti Church, whose late husband, Sam Church, was a local union leader who later went on to become president of the UMWA. “There were so many people that literally there was only one lane of traffic open along the road.”

Four days later, the men occupying the plant, having made their point, walked out.

Crickmer said it came just an hour before company officials and state troopers planned to re-take the plant – and somebody must’ve tipped them off.

“We got the ability to manage our mines to a degree, and we gained the right to ask people to do various jobs and change work rules, and we got the right … to pick the best of the best in the union ranks to put a new mine in,” Crickmer said.

“At the end of the day the workers won a [new] contract, they won a victory for themselves, they won a victory … for the labor movement,” Roberts said. “And I think that started the workers and the union movement itself coming back.”

Crickmer said the biggest union win was what came after the strike: a piece of federal legislation introduced by U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., later called the Coal Act, that extended benefits from existing union companies to include union miners whose employers were no longer in business.

Roberts said the 1992 enactment of the law never would’ve happened without the strike.

The union considers the Coal Act an important protection, but to company officials it represented a broken trust.

“It flew in the face of the whole concept of collective bargaining because before the Rockefeller bill everybody understood that you could bargain with the union about what you paid your retirees,” Kindig said. “And then after we did that, the federal government just came in and basically … imposed liabilities on us that we had negotiated out of our contract.”

Still, both he and Crickmer said people moved on quickly after the strike was over.

“For the most part, a year later it was behind us,” Crickmer said. “You have to adapt. You have to go back to what you’ve got to do. We had bigger problems. We had to produce coal productively and compete in a market that was dropping like a rock. The only way you can do that is work together on it.”

20 years later

A lot has changed in Southwest Virginia in the 20 years since the strike.

The number of coal mining jobs available – especially union jobs – has continued its decline. The coal industry has consolidated. And the economy in the region has begun to diversify.

Pittston’s operations are now part of Alpha Natural Resources, a mostly non-union shop that has become the nation’s third-largest coal company.

The Moss 3 prep plant has been bulldozed; a newer plant sits in its place, and bears the same name.

The field in St. Paul where the strikers rallied every Wednesday night is now home to a Food City shopping center. And Camp Solidarity is a hard-to-find pasture down an overgrown road from the unincorporated Russell County community of Carterton.

Stallard said there remains in the region a lingering distrust of government and authority, after otherwise law-abiding folks were arrested for simply standing up for their jobs.

The state delegates and U.S. congressmen who made appearances during the strike are still prominent in the region – and the political fortunes made and broken on the picket lines remain a part of Southwest Virginia’s social fabric.

There’s Jackie Stump, the union man-turned-delegate who met his wife in jail after they both were arrested for blocking a road.

And there’s Donald McGlothlin Jr., the one-time Russell County Circuit Court judge who fined the union more than $64 million and is now a Lebanon lawyer. It was McGlothin’s father who lost his seat in the House of Delegates to Stump that year.

“If it had been anybody else with name recognition … they could’ve got elected,” said Stump, who served as a delegate until 2005. “My daughter loves to go around and tell people that her mom and daddy met in jail.”

Stump said the ultimate result of the strike is that both sides learned the value of compromise – and that it’s a whole lot better to work things out than sit through a lengthy strike.

A better way

Alpha Natural Resources still runs some union operations that once belonged to Pittston, and the company’s executive chairman, Mike Quillen, said there’s a better relationship now between labor and management.

“There really hasn’t been any significant labor unrest since that time, so certainly I think everybody is glad to see those days are behind us and there’s relationships now that would not cause that to re-occur,” said Quillen, who at the time of the strike ran Pittston’s non-union operations – and suffered a well-publicized beating while trying to cross a picket line.

“I think the communication and the way they [companies and unions] work together is obviously better than it was back in the ’70s and ’80s, but I think the other thing that’s also pretty evident by the record is the big union companies in Virginia are now gone,” Quillen said. “Whether it’s Westmoreland or Clinchfield or Island Creek, they didn’t survive as a competitive company and a lot of it had to do with the cost of the [union] medical plans.”

Quillen said there was ultimately no winner in the strike – because even though the union kept its health plan, Pittston didn’t survive.

Kindig said the unions, in a sense, have become “a victim of their own success.”

“They have been very successful in improving the working conditions and the compensation for employees, both union and non-union, and they’ve kind of worked themselves out of a job,” said Kindig, who noted that since the labor movement’s heyday in the early 20th century, government has taken on issues of working conditions and safety, eliminating much of the need for workers to join unions.

Steve Fisher, an emeritus professor from Emory & Henry College who participated in the strike through the Appalachian Peace Education Center, has written about labor issues in the mountains, including the Pittston strike.

“Generally these kinds of strikes don’t get national attention unless somebody’s killed, that’s been the history,” Fisher said. “What got national attention [in the Pittston strike] was the nonviolent resistance and the fact that they made conscious efforts to reach out to unions and to communities not just in Appalachia but all across the United States and across the world.”

Fisher said there was a sort of “radical moment” in the Pittston strike, “a moment when you could see really what democracy was about.”

“I think for many people it was a moment of hope, a moment of community, it was a time when community people and union people and young people and others rallied around because they saw that this was the future of their communities,” Fisher said. “It was quite a time.”

dmccown@bristolnews.com | (276) 791-0701

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