Labor draws the line

Mills, Nicolaus

Motown to Coaltown LABOR DRAWS THE LINE MINEWORKERS DIG IN UNLESS YOU have driven them before, there is no quick way up or down the twisting roads that take you through the West Virginia and...

...Yet even the violence of this strike is rarely accurately reported...
...The UM W's strike against A.T...
...It was not the kind of frantic cheering you hear at baseball games or rock concerts...
...and a company, simply by closing a mine and opening it up again at a new location under a new name, could acquire workers for whom it had no long-term obligations and to whom it could pay starting wages, no matter how much experience they had...
...Massey is one that does not get much coverage outside of West Virginia and Kentucky, and when it does get covered, what makes the news is the kind of violence the wire services find easy to pick up a shooting or a clash between strikers and scabs...
...Camouflage T-shirts and pants have become the uniform of the day among the UMW miners on strike what work shirts and blue jeans were to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and also a reminder of the large number of Vietnam vets among the miners and of their visceral patriotism...
...The gift of the T-shirts from one union to another was no theatrical gesture...
...It is not simply that Massey has acquired the kind of hardware helicopters, an armored personnel carrier that one associates with a military operation...
...You are on the cutting edge," UAW regional director Frank Runnels declared at a rally...
...Informational leafleting at Shell Gas stations in Wheeling produced dramatic results in late July...
...As the first cars reached the bridge and began crossing into Kentucky, other cars, their headlights on despite the noon sun, were still coming down the West Virginia side of Route 49...
...It was quieter, more personal, and the UAW workers, who had been on the road for seventeen hours now, sensed the difference...
...Massey's move was an altogether different one...
...Drive by the same mines at night and highintensity search lights are everywhere...
...The National Labor Relations Board has made a preliminary determination that, as the UMW charges, Massey is a single employer, not a series of subsidiary operations, and should deal with its workers on that basis...
...What mattered was that they had come...
...For the UMW the result has been a challenge from which there is no retreating, and in coming to the side of the Massey strike, the UAW workers, who had travelled all night from Detroit, were making it clear they understood the Mine Workers' situation...
...It was as if the arrival of the Auto Workers had made it possible for the UMW miners and their families to acknowledge, if only for the moment, the strain and isolation the strike had made them feel...
...You could see some fighting back tears...
...In order to maintain reemployment and pension rights, miners work on a system that allows them, when a company closes a mine, to move to another company mine on the basis of their existing seniority...
...As their cars drew close, they slowed even more...
...For what is going on Commonweal: 452 here is not simply another struggle between a union and a coal company, but a clash that has been Vietnamized...
...You could hear people talking back and forth...
...In Michigan, where UAW influence runs strong, Detroit Edison and Consumer Power of Michigan, two utilities that use Massey coal, should be feeling public pressure shortly...
...Strikes in the coal fields have never been peaceful, but this is a show of force that suggests a large component of psychological warfare...
...The UMW has made its strike against Massey a selective one, thus allowing it to pay its workers medical benefits plus $200 a week strike wages from a strike fund totalling $70 million...
...As soon as the UAW caravan came into sight, cheers rose from the miners and their families, standing at both ends of the bridge and along the railroad tracks at the bottom of the mountains...
...The real story of the Massey strike is, however, in what is at stake for the United Mine Workers and the American labor movement in the 1980s...
...It is that, like the American army in Vietnam, Massey has begun to change the countryside, to implement its own version of a strategic hamlets program...
...But as the United Auto Workers 217-car caravan,''Motown to Coaltown II," snaked out of the mountains along Route 49 and headed for the Matewan Bridge, it didn't just seem to be moving slowly...
...What Massey demanded from the UMW was separate contracts at each of its subsidiaries, and in the mining industry, as both sides knew, this was an impossible demand...
...Massey , a company jointly owned by Fluor Corporation and Royal Dutch/Shell Group, is not, however, a fight in which David has come armed only with a cause and rhetoric...
...Without such a transfer system, a miner, as soon as the coal seam he was working on gave out, would go back to the same status he had when he first entered the mines...
...It goes to the heart of what the UMW under its president, thirty-five-year-old lawyer and former miner Richard Trumka, sees as its role in resisting the crippling demands that have come to be expected of basic industry in America...
...Guards, communicating with each other over CB radios, note every car that stops, every unexpected visitor to a UMW picket site...
...If they can break a union here in Kentucky and West Virginia, they can break it in Detroit.'' These were words the UMW strikers needed to hear, and in return they gave each auto worker a camouflage T-shirt with "Motown to Coaltown II" stencilled across it in huge block letters...
...From the foot of the bridge you could hear the honking of the lead cars long before you heard the sound of their motors, and then as the UAW caravan drew closer, you suddenly realized how long it stretched...
...For a union that has traditionally taken an industrywide approach to strikes, it is a novel set of tactics to be using...
...It seemed to be in slow motion...
...But in 1985 no union leadership seems more attuned to political reality and at the same time more convinced it can rely on a membership where whole families still speak of what life was like before there was a union...
...It was a strategy for breaking the UMW in the area of the country where it is strongest...
...The first "Motown to Coaltown" trip was in 1978, during an 111-day United Mine Worker strike...
...Last September when Massey pulled out of the Bituminous Coal Operators Association and refused to re-sign the contracts it had with the UMW, it was not simply attempting to do what so many companies have done in recent years impose a series of givebacks that would let them improve their corporate picture...
...It was clear that if the Auto Workers had come empty handed, they would have been just as welcome...
...This August 10 "Motown to Coaltown II" was bringing food and clothing for UMW miners, now in the tenth month of their strike against A.T...
...NICOLAUS NOLLS (Nicolaus Mills teaches at Sarah Lawrence and is on the editorial board of Dissent...
...Massey, the nation's sixth largest coal producer...
...Massey admits to spending $200,000 a month on security, and the evidence is everywhere...
...Motown to Coaltown LABOR DRAWS THE LINE MINEWORKERS DIG IN UNLESS YOU have driven them before, there is no quick way up or down the twisting roads that take you through the West Virginia and Kentucky coal country...
...What is going on in the David-and-Goliath battle between the UMW, with its 155,000 active members, and A.T...
...Drive by a Massey coal mine during the day and what you are struck by are miles of chainlink fences and cement observation posts with cameras and armed guards...
...Most important in terms of the future, the UMW is putting in place a corporate campaign designed to create special problems for Massey's parent companies by focusing on their South African operations, particularly Shell's coal mining...
...And in dealing with Massey's claim that its subsidiaries should have the right to negotiate separate union contracts, the UMW is winning the legal battle...

Vol. 112 • September 1985 • No. 15


 
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