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Pat Wall

Striking U.S. Miners Fight Hired Guns

(August 1977)

From Militant, No. 370, 26 August 1977.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

July the 17th marked the first anniversary of the strike by a hundred and sixty coal miners at the Stearns mine in Eastern Kentucky.

Eclipsing even the events of the Grunwick picket line, the owners have hired fifteen gunmen – “goons” to the strikers – who, since March this year, have fired nightly at miners’ pickets and their shack. The gun-men supplied by the “Storm Security Agency” are entrenched in a fortified compound and come and go by helicopter. Shots have been returned at the gun-men, probably by outraged citizens of McCreery County who support the miners.

Two pickets and three “goons” have been wounded. Thirty-two miners, including Lee Potter, the UWMA organiser, face frame-up trials connected with the wounding of the gun-men. Just as the Grunwick dispute has far-reaching consequences for unorganised, or weakly organised workers, the Stearns strike is a pointer to the future as far as American workers, and particularly miners, are concerned.

No Contract No Coal

The strike stems from the refusal of Blue Diamond Coal, which operates the Justus mines in Stearns, to sign a contract with the United Mine Workers of America (UWMA), because it provides for a union safety committee. Blue Diamond also operate the Scotia mine in South Eastern Kentucky, where explosions killed twenty-three miners and three mine inspectors in March, 1976.

The explosion at the Scotia mine and the recent explosion at the PMT mine at St Charles, Virginia, which killed four miners, were apparently caused by the build-up of odourless methane gas. Stearns miners claim that gas monitors, which are a legal requirement, and which should automatically shut off equipment if a dangerous gas level is detected, are so fixed that machinery continues to operate no matter what the gas level.

The New York Times quotes Mine Superintendent Caffey as admitting that this was a “violation, but not a reason to shut down the mine.” No wonder Stearns pickets use the slogan: “Mine coal safely – or not at all.”

Attempt to Smash Union

The Kearns strike is only a foretaste of the battle which faces the UMWA. The mineowners, with the backing of big business and the Carter administration, are determined to end national collective bargaining in the coal industry.

The UMWA contract with the coal operators runs out in December and a national coal strike could break out any time between now and the end of the year.

Arnold Miller, Miners’ President, is already attempting to open the contract for renegotiation, mainly on the issue of financing the miners’ health and pension funds, as benefits have been severely cut in recent weeks. In refusing to re-open negotiations Joseph P Brennan, President of the Bituminous Coal Operators Association, the owners labour relations arm, declared: “It is a question of condoning wildcat strikes and fooling around with the pension funds, and we are not going to do either.”

Strikes have escalated during the past two years, in the face of the refusal of the coal operators to honour the terms of the three-year contract signed in 1974, especially over working conditions and safety procedures.

In 1976, the owners claim that strikes cost the industry 1.9 million man days and 20 million tons of coal. If anything, the strike tempo has increased this year. Faced with the miners’ militancy, the employers are preparing for a show down. With the end of the old dictatorial John L. Lewis/Boyle era of union leadership, the owners feel that the UMWA can no longer deliver the goods, even with a “no strike” clause in the contract.

The owners are determined to take a hard line. One labour relations vice-president is quoted as saying:

“We’re not going to stand there and offer 50 cents an hour and get nothing back … What we’ve gotten from the 1974 agreement, which was the best on record,” he complained, “was surging wildcats. This year we want quid pro quo.”

Some form of national contract is still possible. To the surprise of many observers, the Aluminium Corporation signed a new agreement with the trades unions at a higher level than expected (but below the inflation rate). This and the earlier national steel contract, could be a sign that the employers view of the miners as the Achille’s heel of organised labour and that the new contracts are also seen as a means of isolating the miners from potential support.

Owners’ Strategy

The sober fact is that only 52% of coal is mined under UMWA contracts. UMWA funds are in a chaotic situation and could not sustain strike benefits for a prolonged period. The union lacks staff at both local and national level. The Miller leadership dismantled the “Miners for Democracy” staff it had assembled during the successful 1972 election campaign, instead of integrating them into the union structure. Nor have the rapidly developing safety committees and the stewards been given prominence in the official machinery.

The coal operators therefore see an opportunity first to undermine and then to destroy the UMWA. They are preparing for a prolonged national strike to bleed dry the funds of the union. They plan to supply coal from non-union mines and from the strip of mines of the West. They will undoubtedly be backed by the oil and steel barons who have considerable investments in the coal industry, by the banks, the courts and the Carter administration.

The Carter energy plan calls for the nation’s utilities and industries to double the amount of coal they use by 1985. A market for an extra 380 million tons of coal opens up a vista of profits bonanza for the owners, as well as reducing US dependence on imported oil. At a recent meeting of the National Coal Association in Washington, Federal Energy Administrator John O’Leary promised sympathetic action with regard to pollution control and safety procedures.

When the chips are down, the miners will find no allies in the White House, or among the “Friends of Labour” in a Congress dominated by the Democrats.

If the coal operators are successful in isolating the miners, they will offer local settlements based on a single mine, or company. These would be conditional on a no-strike clause, job speed-ups and an end to union safety committees. For the UMWA, it is not just a battle for a new contract, but a battle for survival.

Fighting Spirit

While the odds would appear to favour the owners, the outcome of a national coal strike is far from certain. Despite the apparent national unity of the operators, differences of opinion undoubtedly remain behind the scenes. History shows many examples of retreat and division among the owners when faced by the fighting spirit of the miners.

Over the past decade the owners have tried by every possible means to hold back the miners. They based themselves on the old corrupt Boyle leadership. Then they courted the new Miller leadership and the 1974 contract, with its elaborate and time-wasting grievance procedures, and the miners answered with massive strikes. The bosses relied on the courts with fines and back-to-work injunctions, but the miners defied the courts and won.

In July, 1976, the Cedar Coal Company in West Virginia provoked a strike by miners who were insisting that the rules set down in the 1974 contract should be carried out by the owners. After following the lengthy grievance procedures, the dispute went before an arbitrator. So flagrant were the company’s violations of the rules, that the arbitrator found in favour of the miners, not a common occurrence.

The owners refused to abide by this decision, so the miners then sought enforcement through the Federal Court, but this was refused. Having no other option, the miners came out on strike. The employers then went to court and a judge ordered a return to work, fined the union and even threatened to jail 200 miners. Over 100,000 miners stopped work in sympathetic action, ignoring completely the court injunctions, fines and threats of imprisonment.

The union leadership ordered a return to work. This in turn was ignored and the strike continued for a month. Only when the judges had dropped all injunctions and fines did the miners call off the strike.

Union Democracy

For decades the miners were ruled by the dictatorial regime of John L. Lewis, followed later by Tony Boyle. In 1972, the reform movement, “Miners for Democracy”, defeated the old leadership. Arnold Miller was elected President, Harry Patrick Secretary/Treasurer and Mike Trbovich Vice President.

This led to major democratic changes in the union. Elections for local and district office were held, in some districts for the first time in living memory. Miners now have the right to vote on union contracts, the UMWA Journal was opened to rank and file miners, free debate was allowed at UMWA conventions, where opposition militants had previously been beaten up by Boyle “goons”.

In spite of the increasing volume of “non-union” coal being mined, union membership doubled to 180,000 over the past ten years. In 1964 the average age of coal miners was 48, today it is 34. Today the UMWA membership is bigger, younger and more militant than ever before.

Recent union elections, however, show that the rank and file still lack confidence in the deeply divided union leadership. Arnold Miller was re-elected President, with Lee Roy Patterson, favourite of the employers and a Boyle henchman, running second. Harry Patrick, the UMWA Secretary/Treasurer and previously a colleague of Miller in the 1972 campaign, came third. The fact that Miller and Patrick between them secured twice the votes of Patterson shows the miners have no desires to return to the “old regime”. On the other hand, the division between former allies Miller and Patrick, and the election of the President by a minority vote, reflect the failure of the reform movement to purge the old elements and build a fighting leadership.

In the coming struggle, the ability of the miners to create a leadership at local level will be a vital factor. As in Britain, miners have a fund of sympathy among working people, but in and of itself that is not enough. Links will need to be forged with power, steel, aluminium and other industrial workers, to secure the effective blacking of non-union coal.

An immediate appeal for funds is also essential. Faced with the certain intimidation of company “goons”, police, state troopers and the courts, maximum support from other workers in the mining areas must be obtained.

Above all, the miners need a fighting programme to secure maximum unity and to win over the non-union mines: For a $100 a day minimum, union safety committees in all mines, increased sickness and pension funds guaranteed by the owners, the right to strike at local level, a ballot of all miners before any contract is signed.

The miners will need to raise the demand for the nationalisation of the mining industry. But that will remain a pipe dream while American labour relies on the Democratic Party. More than ever, American workers require a Labour Party, independent of the employers, independent of Democratic or Republican politicians, and firmly based on the organised trade union movement.

American workers face a series of stormy battles over the coming months and years. In the course of these struggles the demand for an independent party of labour will grow. Notwithstanding the urgency and importance of the challenge facing American miners, the issue of a Labour Party transcends all other issues for the American workers.

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Last updated: 3 June 2016