Virginia, a right-to-work state where for much of its history a union endorsement was a political death sentence, isn’t a state with a lot of labor movement milestones.
And yet at one time it had thousands of members, and might still even though more than three decades have passed.
The obituaries that followed last week’s death of AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka often said that, as president of the United Mine Workers, he oversaw the successful strike against Pittston Coal in 1989-90.
That strike mostly played out in Virginia — not entirely in the coalfields, either — and goes down in history as one of the most unusual labor actions ever. Previous coal strikes had often been marked by violence and, regrettably, this one was, too.
Strikers pelted trucks driven by replacement workers with rocks, smashing their windows.
Homemade spikes called jackrocks littered the roads, puncturing tires.
A few people got shot at and one striker in West Virginia was killed.
But the dominant feature of the strike — the thing that catapulted it into national, even international, attention — was that the miners adopted the civil disobedience tactics of the civil rights movement. That wasn’t Trumka’s idea, but he bought into it and led his union on a very different type of strike.
The background: In 1984, Trumka negotiated a new contract with coal operators, the first time in 20 years it had done so without a strike. Trumka, a Villanova-educated lawyer, seemed a different sort of labor leader, one who had the overwhelming support of his union, and one who companies could do business with.
Except one. In 1984, the Richmond-based A.T. Massey Co pulled out of the industrywide agreement. Massey wanted concessions. The UMW went on strike — a strike that mostly played out in West Virginia. It quickly turned violent. Strikers armed with baseball bats and crowbars bashed the vehicles of replacement workers. As the strike dragged on into 1985, strike leader Eddie Burke hit upon a new approach: Strikers simply sat down in the roads and blocked vehicles. The company went to court and obtained an injunction against such methods. The union complied, and the strike went on to last 15 months.
Eventually Massey signed a separate contract and the UMW regarded the whole thing as a defeat. In 1988, Trumka negotiated a second nationwide contract without a strike, further enhancing his reputation — but then Pittston Coal wanted out.
To the union, this felt like the Massey strike all over again. From the union’s point of view, the Massey strike had played out in a vacuum — nobody outside West Virginia really cared. The issues involved with Pittston, though, were of nationwide importance. The UMW contracts had created a single fund for health benefits for retirees; existing companies paid into a fund that covered workers for companies that had long since gone out of business.
Pittston felt that was driving up its costs and only wanted to take care of its own retirees. The UMW wondered what would happen to those “orphan miners” if every company did that. How could they make the case that a strike against a coal company mostly in Southwest Virginia had national repercussions? Then they remembered those brief sitdown strikes in West Virginia.
Union officials started studying the history of nonviolent protests, from Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. Much of this history was new to them — they were from nearly all-white Appalachia. Cecil Roberts, one of Trumka’s lieutenants (and today head of the UMW) carried a copy of Taylor Branch’s book about the civil rights movement, “Parting the Waters,” until it was dog-eared. Then they started training their members, which wasn’t the easiest thing to do. Some older miners felt civil disobedience was unmanly, and the tactics of ’60s hippies. But Trumka was adamant: “This strike has got to be a strike without violence.” And the miners trusted Trumka.
Technically, the miners weren’t the first to act — their wives were. One day in April 1989, a convoy of vans and pickup trucks rolled up to Pittston headquarters in Lebanon; 37 wives, widows and daughters of UMW members got out and occupied the building. They sang “We Shall Not Be Moved.” The next morning, the sitdown strike was splashed in headlines across the state — exactly what the UMW wanted.
And then it was the men’s turn. Some 1,500 strikers blocked the entrance to three Pittston operations. When state troopers arrived to break it up, the men simply sang. This was not how a UMW strike was supposed to go. Troopers dragged the strikers away — a public relations mistake for the police and a PR victory for the union.
State troopers arrested so many men, there wasn’t room for them in the county jails. The miners carried no IDs and only identified themselves as “sons of John L. Lewis,” the famed UMW leader.
The Dickenson County courthouse was so chaotic that, when someone found a rope, some miners simply escaped out of a second-floor window. A crowd formed outside, chanting support. A jury trial was in progress. After a break, some jurors returned sporting UMW buttons. County officials started posting bond for men they didn’t know. And the next day, students at three high schools in Dickenson County spontaneously marched out of class and rallied in support of the miners — many of them their fathers and grandfathers.
And that’s how it went for much of 1989, except that demonstrations extended to Roanoke, to Richmond, to the suburbs of New York City. As a public relations ploy, the strike was deliriously successful.
National figures such as Jesse Jackson trooped to Southwest Virginia. So did British folk singer Billy Bragg. The tactic was not without risk; courts imposed $64 million worth of fines.
The union strategy was simply ignore the courts and hope the fines could eventually be negotiated away.
Eventually the strike drew so much attention that Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole intervened.
A contract got negotiated in early 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the fines and, more importantly, Congress in 1992 passed a law dealing with the health benefits of all those retired miners from defunct companies. That might have been the most lasting outcome of the strike, one that burnished Trumka’s reputation and helped him become AFL-CIO president.
We can only wonder how that strike would have played out today, in a social media age, or an era in which the coalfields are overwhelmingly Republican and not Democratic as they were then. All we know is there are still people in the coalfields today who should thank Trumka for their health benefits.