How the Pittston Miners Won

Against the Current, No. 26, May/June 1990

Phill Kwik

WHEN RANK AND file members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) voted to accept a contract with the Pittston Coal Group on February 19, they won a major victory against a corporation bent on busting their union.

They did this with a display of militancy rarely seen in the U.S. labor movement since the mid-1930s. For ten months, thousands of miners, their families, and supporters—dressed in camouflage, signifying what one UMWA official called “class warfare”—sat down in front of coal trucks, occupied company buildings and plants, took “direct action” on company property and scabs’ trucks, and marched to courthouses and capitals to preserve their union. They inflicted huge loses on Pittston’s coal operations—$25.2 million in the fourth quarter of 1989—and forced the company to back down.

As significant as this is, however, the mine’s did even more: through their militant tactics and their willingness to reach out to broad segments of the U.S. labor movement, the strikers reawakened the consciousness of labor’s rank and file. The miners showed that by fighting, not every strike is lost, not every union broken.

The Contract

The new contract itself—ratified by 63% of the 2,000 miners voting—was not a smashing victory for the union. However, it appears to check, for a time, continued erosion of the pattern set by the Bituminous Coal Operators Association’s national master agreement with the union.

Pittston refused to sign the 1988 BCOA contract and tried to significantly alter the pattern. Early in the strike Pittston chief executive officer Paul Douglas said, “We will negotiate, but we will never sign an agreement that keeps us in [the industry-wide pension and health funds].”

Many of the contract’s provisions are similar to those found in the master agreement. The union forced the company to maintain all pension benefits for miners who have retired since 1974, and to maintain 100% medical healthcare for active and retired miners at the same level as in the national agreement Pittston will also stay in the fund which provides health benefits to miners who retired before 1974, but the union has allowed the company to make an up-front, lump-sum payment of $10 million instead of the traditional payments based on hours worked. This amount pales in comparison with the $54 million debt currently saddling the fund and is significantly less than other coal operators will contribute. It is unclear at this point what effect this will have on the fund.

The company did win a “health care cost-containment” clause, which established a $500 deductible every six months. Pittston will compensate for the deductible by paying each miner $500 at the beginning of each six-month period. If a miner doesn’t use all the money for health care, he or she keeps the remainder. The company’s obvious hope is that miners will forego health care so they can pocket the money—possibly saving Pittston much more than $500.

The new contract’s job security provision are similar to those in the BCOA agreement The union also won jurisdictional language similar to the 1988 master agreement Some observers question how much of a union victory these provisions are in an industry that will probably not expand much in the next ten years.

Pittston won the right to operate around the clock and a flexible work schedule. The company will have three options at its mines: to run a straight eight-hour, five-day shift; to run a 10-hour, four-day shift; or to run 28-day rotating shifts. UMWA officials claimed these provisions will allow the company to add more miners and improve job security for union members.

At least some rank and file miners—even many who voted in favor of the contract—aren’t so sure. Some wonder whether the ten-hour day provision will codify the forced overtime they’re already dealing with Others oppose the continuous seven-day-a-week operation at the company’s highly automated “longwall” mining operations, believing that an overnight maintenance shift is necessary to insure equipment safety.

Continuous longwall production, however, has dramatic profit advantages for the company, because it keeps the costly equipment churning out tens of thousands of tons per shift with few workers. Many miners are also troubled by environmental problems associated with longwall mining.

The contract provides a $1.20 per hour wage increase over the first three years of the contract. In the contract’s fourth year, Pittston miners will get whatever wage increase is negotiated in the new BCOA agreement. The contract expires on June 20, 1994, seventeen months after the BCOA contract runs out.

Along with the contract, Pittston and the UMWA agreed to a partial amnesty for the strikers accused of “strike-related violence.” At one point, Pittston had demanded the dismissal of hundreds of strikers. The union agreed to accept short term suspensions of 39 miners. The fate of four others will be determined by an arbitrator.

This “disciplinary” provision apparently did not sit well with some strikers who remember the 1985 Massey strike, when 100 miners were dismissed from their jobs on similar charges. In two districts—Kentucky and Logan County, West Virginia—miners told reporters that they were especially angry about the lack of amnesty for all strikers. Kentucky was the only district to reject he contract, in Logan County it was narrowly approved.

The agreement reached on December31, was sent to the miners for ratification despite a February 12 ruling by Virginia Judge Donald McGlothlin. He refused to suspend the almost $64 million in fines he had leveled against the union. UMWA officials had originally said that the tentative agreement would not be presented for a ratification vote until all fines were dismissed. Union officials are still arguing in court to get the fines dismissed; the case is expected to drag on for months.

A few days before the judge’s decisions the National Labor Relations board dropped all charges brought by both the company and the union during the strike. In this settlement, the UMWA agreed to extend to Virginia a court order which regulates picket-line conduct in West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

This order apparently would make it more difficult for the union to use some of the large-scale civil disobedience used at Pittston. Violating such a court order would probably lead to quicker and more massive fines and harsher jail terms than the union might otherwise receive. The court order will be reviewed in three years, at which time the UMWA hopes it will be dropped. Confidentially, union members have said that the court order wouldn’t prevent them from doing what is necessary to win a strike.

A New Day?

The union made few major breakthroughs in better wages, benefits and conditions for its members. It did stop, for a time, the erosion of the master agreement. Many rank and file miners realize that the battle with Pittston is not over, and are preparing for the next round.

But the importance of this strike lies elsewhere than the bottom line. This strike is a victory for the miners and the ranks of the U.S. labor movement, because it has reawakened the old labor adage: ‘An injury to one is an injury to all.”

For workers across the United States, the battle raging at Pittston was their fight. Thousands came to the Virginia coal fields; some sat down in the streets to block trucks, others defended the occupied plant from the state. They all brought material aid, solidarity greetings, and a sense that this was a historic battle-

More significant, perhaps, is not what the travelers to Virginia brought with them or what they did to help, but what they learned. They learned that when workers act as a movement they can defeat Corporate America.

The strike has put aside, for a time at least, the twin axioms of AFL-CIO business-style unionism: “Strikes don’t win” and ‘Labor and management must cooperate, not confront each other.” And across the country workers are learning the lessons: from Wisconsin, to Massachusetts to California, workers everywhere are discussing militant tactics and the need for solidarity.

The 1980s—which saw the collapse of the business union bureaucracy in the United States—began with the Reagan administration’s destruction of the Air Traffic Controllers Union. The 1990s—with the miners’ victory over Pittston—have begun on a different note. Will this be the decade that sees a revival of a militant rank and file U.S. labor movement? While that question won’t be answered for a while, it is clear that there is something stirring today in the U.S. labor movement.

May-June 1990, ATC 26

© 2020 Against the Current