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This Day in Labor History: September 17, 1989

[ 45 ] September 17, 2011 |

On September 17, 1989, 98 miners and one minister conducted a peaceful takeover of the Pittston Moss 3 Coal Preparation Plant.

The Pittston strike was one of the most brutal and hard-fought of the last three decades. The sit-in was part of a 10 month strike that pitted the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) versus the Pittston Coal Company. Arguably the most militant strike of the past half-century, the UMWA engaged in a variety of actions, ranging from the nonviolent takeover to militant women’s organizing to violence.

The strike began when Pittston canceled the health benefits of 1500 retirees, disabled miners, and widows. Centered in Virginia, the strike spread into West Virginia and Kentucky too, involving 40,000 people. The Pittston company was going through a rough patch and figured the best way to turn a profit was to pretend like it was 1920 and treat the workers like dogs. It canceled health insurance for all workers who had retired before 1974. It then ran the mines 24-7 with no overtime for the workers. Pittston then refused to renew the contract with the UMWA, leaving 1500 people without health care.

This was not an isolated incident. The history of coal mining in Appalachia is fraught with violence and extreme poverty. For decades, the coal companies ran the mountains like a fiefdom, not only controlling state politics and the economy, but limited the ability of people to move around, to buy goods, and to work. Any attempt to fight for a better life was met by grotesque spasms of violence and death from company goons. After decades of struggle, the UMWA finally broke through under John L. Lewis’ leadership. Wages and conditions improved under Lewis’ leadership, but poverty, exploitation, unsafe conditions, and black lung disease remained the day to day reality of most miners.

The president of the UMWA in 1989 was Richard Trumka. Trumka, who rode the Pittston struggle into the AFL-CIO power structure, all the way to the presidency of the federation, realized that the UMWA was going to need to use a variety of tactics to win against a recalcitrant company. It started by working without a contract and placing pressure through the company. This corporate campaign went nowhere.

So in April 1989, the UMWA called a strike against Pittston. The strikers used traditional means of picketing. Pittston quickly obtained court injunctions against the strikers, limiting their ability to picket.

Most unions during the 1980s and after have obeyed the injunctions and seen their strikes fall apart. Often, when we’ve had these labor discussions on the blog, commenters have been uncomfortable with my defense of using extra-legal methods for working-class people to defend themselves. If we don’t obey the law, this argument tends to go, why should we expect the companies to do so? But the courts are often rigged against the workers, as they were in pre-New Deal days. The ultimate defense for using extra-legal activity is to admit relativism and say that workers are right in doing so because they are defending their families and their jobs and the livelihood and that virtually anything is acceptable in defense of those things. At least that’s the position I’m taking.

The UMWA pretty much operated from this premise in the Pittston struggle. They focused heavily on non-violent civil disobedience. They opened a sort of women’s auxiliary to the strike. The Daughters of Mother Jones as they were known, named after the legendary mineworkers’ organizer of the early 20th century, conducted a sit-in at the Pittston headquarters in Virginia. Mineworkers began blockading roads into plants, leading to their arrests. This was illegal, but all nonviolent.

The illegality cost the union big time. The courts served the UMWA with millions in fines for its actions while ignoring the company thugs that were provoking the union and committing crimes it then blamed upon the union. Again, when the law is entirely on the side of companies, at what point do workers have the right to disobey the law?

The biggest event of the strike was the sit-in that began on this day 22 years ago. The 99 people inside the plant were protected by thousands outside. The sit-down ended without much resolution, although its use of classic New Deal-era tactics brought a ton of publicity to the cause.

The continued intransigence of the company then brought workers into the use of low-level violence. Over the next several weeks, workers, outside of official union authority but wearing the camouflage that became the movement’s uniform, began throwing rocks and company vehicles, spreading nails along roads leading into the plants, vandalism of company vehicles and the private vehicles of company officials, and other similar tactics.

Wildcat strikes also began spreading across the region, with up to 37,000 workers who were not UMWA members going on unauthorized strikes in order to not only put pressure on Pittston to settle with the union, but to protest their own terrible working conditions and poor-health care in the non-union mines.

The Pittston strike finally ended on February 20, 1990. It was nearly a total success. Miners again received their benefits. Pittston had to pay $10 million toward the health care of the miners who had retired before 1974. The mines could stay open with extended shifts, but the amount miners had to work was limited by the agreement. The UMWA got the fines against them dropped (which had included $13,000 a day against individual union officials and a total of $64 million against the union) in exchange for 10,000 hours of community service, which spread among the members, wasn’t too bad.

I don’t want to overstate the lessons we can take from an individual strike. But at Pittston, workers showed that they could stand up against a rapacious multinational corporation by using militant tactics and standing together against corporate brutality. It showed that the old-school union methods still had value and could be effectively deployed. It showed that collective solidarity still mattered. Given that it happened relatively recently, it’s probably the single most important strike for current labor activists to study. Maybe there are answers for current labor struggles in the brave actions of the Pittston miners.

Previous editions of this series have discussed Homestead and the Great Railroad Strike.

Comments (45)

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  1. …began spreading across the region, with up to 37,000 workers who were not UMWA members going on unauthorized strikes in order to not only put pressure on Pittston to settle with the union, but to protest their own terrible working conditions and poor-health care in the non-union mines.

    The Pittston strike finally ended on February 20, 1990. It was nearly a total success…

    I think the most valuable lesson from this episode would be what occurred between these two paragraphs, and how it was different from what happened in other episodes where the outcome was different.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Well, there’s a lot to read on Pittston if you are interested. I tried to keep the post under 1000 words so I couldn’t go into all the detail I wanted to, but basically Pittston Coal Company was losing a ton of money because the blockades of the mines and the willingness of the UMWA to ignore the courts meant they could get virtually no coal out. It very much became in their interest to settle this thing.

      • Thanks!

        We’re not just talking about bad press, then.

        How’s this for a thesis: labor actions work through economic, not PR, pressure. Effective public messaging is necessary to prevent the practices of economic pressure from being broken.

        • Brian says:

          I would add to your point that in some cases, PR can be used directly to exert economic pressure. It’s just not going to happen in the coal industry.

      • Joe Benge says:

        Hi Erik,

        I know this post is several months old but I’m hoping you’ll see this; I found this one via your most recent “This Day in Labor History” post. If you do see this comment, would it be possible for you to mention some of the sources used for this post, or the reading on Pittston you mentioned above?

        I did some research into the decline of the UMW-BCOA bargaining system in the Appalachian coal industry, and obviously Pittston was a key event in that, but I only found a few sources on the strike. I’ve read Richard Brisbin’s book, seen Anne Lewis’s film, and there’s a chapter here and there in books like Fighting Back in Appalachia, but I would greatly appreciate any additional sources you know of. I hope it’s not too late to ask.

        Joe

        • Joe Benge says:

          Oh, James Green writes about Pittston in Taking History to Heart, too. But that’s the extent of my knowledge on the strike, apart from newspaper coverage from the time. Anything else would really help.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          I don’t really remember. Probably it was mostly from online materials. But I already knew a lot about the strike because I used to be relatively close to Jim Sessions, who was the minister involved at Pittston, when I was organizing in Knoxville about 12 or so years ago.

          • Joe Benge says:

            That’s cool. Thanks anyway; I appreciate the response. One of the chapters on Pittston in Fighting Back in Appalachia is actually written by Jim Sessions. Must’ve been an amazing strike coming at that time and in the context of the previous few years.

  2. ChristianPinko says:

    Erik, has anybody written about how labor militancy, including extra-legal militancy, could work at a big-box retailer? I wonder how much such methods could work outside of the traditional manufacturing or extractive sectors.

  3. c u n d gulag says:

    Erik,
    Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I just can’t figure out how I missed it. Where the Hell was I and what was I doing that I don’t remember this at all? I’ve always followed issues like this.

    You mentioned a term I haven’t heard in ages – ‘wildcat strike.’
    I can’t remember the last time I heard that on the news. And that may be another indicator of why labor’s in such a horrible position in this country. That, and you rarely hear about honoring picket lines anymore.

    • Scott P. says:

      “That, and you rarely hear about honoring picket lines anymore.”

      I know that in Michigan, sympathy strikes are illegal. Moreover, my union’s contract specifically stipulates that we will not engage in sympathy strikes.

      • c u n d gulag says:

        And that right there is part of the problem.
        Without that, unions defanged themselves.

        I remember when I was a kid in the 60′s, a strike in one place sometimes led to wildcat strikes elsewhere, and members of other unions refused to cross the picket line, and possibly line the pockets of management.

        Now, that’s part of the contracts language. That’s sad…

        Unions have made more and more concessions over the decades. Unfortunately, too many of them took whatever power labor may once have had, and thrown it out the window.

  4. Bijan Parsia says:

    The ultimate defense for using extra-legal activity is to admit relativism and say that workers are right in doing so because they are defending their families and their jobs and the livelihood and that virtually anything is acceptable in defense of those things. At least that’s the position I’m taking.

    How is this relativism? I.e., it’s trivial to have a non-relativistic moral system which says, “Breaking the law for x, y, z reasons is not just morally permissible but morally required.” Cf MLK. But this is not any sort of relativism.

    I think this paragraph takes you further away from a reasonable position, aside from the confusion about relativism. I presume, for example, that your “virtually anything” does not include mass terrorist attacks on unrelated individuals or assassination of judges or CEOs. I presume, likewise, that there are legal regimes which you would regard as sufficiently fair as to make it morally wrong to violate?

  5. Matt says:

    For decades, the coal companies ran the mountains like a fiefdom, not only controlling state politics and the economy, but limited the ability of people to move around, to buy goods, and to work.

    Well, that explains where the Kochs got their plan for America. ;)

  6. Often, when we’ve had these labor discussions on the blog, commenters have been uncomfortable with my defense of using extra-legal methods for working-class people to defend themselves

    Speaking only for myself, my main discomfort was when you said you had “no problem” with the violence (smashing windows, etc.) you wrote about recently. I think there are problems, or potential problems, with such violence, even if it’s only capitalists who suffer a few broken windows.

    This post is much more even-handed and open to the real challenges that extra-legality (in this case, not violence) poses. And like one of the commenters above, I don’t know why or how I missed this event.

  7. RepubAnon says:

    It’s always preferable to stay within the legal system – but that assumes the legal system is neutral.

    Take Syria, for example: the pro-democracy demonstrators are performing actions illegal under Syrian law. Does this mean that the pro-democracy demonstrators should limit their actions to those permitted under Syrian law?

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Right–in theory, it’d be great to stay within a neutral legal system, but when it comes to the relationship between capital and labor, that neutrality has been very rare. So even under “normal” circumstances, what are working people to do?

      • Bijan Parsia says:

        Why neutral? I, personally, think a system strongly biased toward labor would be better, and fairer, than one that was strictly neutral. (Unless your notion of neutrality took into account power and structural imbalances, of course. Even then, I’d suspect biasing it toward labor would have overall better effects.)

        • mpowell says:

          This is an interesting though probably irrelevant question. I think there are two ways to define neutrality. One is a lesser, strictly legal sense in which the applicable law is applied without prejudice. Of course, it is unlikely that American labor jurisprudence frequently rises to even this level. But it is always a desirable goal, in my opinion.

          The second possible sense regards the actual content of the law. And there I would argue that first, it would be difficult to define what ‘neutral’ really meant. But secondly, I would agree that the only defensible legal structure would be one the offered extensive protections for workers as vulnerable as coal miners.

          • Bijan Parsia says:

            One is a lesser, strictly legal sense in which the applicable law is applied without prejudice.

            While there are various points in many legal system where lack of prejudice or bias is required (or an ideal), it’s hardly required overall, yes? Presumption of innocence is a bias, after all. Substantive outcomes and existing structure are key inputs to any evaluation of a legal regime.

            Conservative “colorblindness” theories are designed to protect the unjust status quo in spite of the pro forma neutrality. But that’s exactly neutrality as injustice.

    • Hogan says:

      One of my biggest problems with the NLRA regime is that it makes political struggles look like legal disputes, both to outsiders and to all too many rank-and-file union members. Being right matters little enough in legal disputes; in political struggles it matters not at all (what’s right tends to be exactly what’s in dispute), and you need to adjust your strategy and tactics accordingly, the same way capital does.

  8. [...] This Day in Labor History: September 17, 1989 – [...]

  9. DrDick says:

    But, but, but Hayek and Ron Paul say that the capitalists and management are the good guys, always looking out for the best interests of their employees and giving them the best deal possible!

  10. efgoldman says:

    A coal mine strike can succeed because the company can’t just pack up and move the plant to another state or another country. Not so in manufacturing industries.
    Erik, if you haven’t already, check out the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket.
    http://www.ci.woonsocket.ri.us/museum.htm

    • Erik Loomis says:

      The Museum of Work and Culture is definitely on my to do list. Probably will wait til this winter when the weather turns worse and doing outdoor stuff is harder.

    • mpowell says:

      In the short term, manufacturing doesn’t have this option because factories are a significant capital investment. But in the long term, yes, they have this option. That’s part of why having different union laws between states is not a reasonable arrangement.

  11. Linkmeister says:

    Did y’all notice that on Thursday the House passed a bill “which would bar the [National Labor Relations] board from ordering companies to close, move or open factories when labor laws are violated”?

  12. bobbyp says:

    Often, when we’ve had these labor discussions on the blog, commenters have been uncomfortable with my defense of using extra-legal methods for working-class people to defend themselves..

    Erik…you are to be congratulated. Your run of the mill progressive/liberal needs to confront this issue directly and give it some deep thought. It’s as if most of them are unaware of our history. Or, to take a recent example, they have forgotten everything about the civil rights struggle. This is what made me so upset when Hilsoy and others all jumped on the bandwagon to condemn Bill Ayers. It was such unthinking bullshit (not that I am a big supporter of the Weatherguys)…this retreat into formalistic, well, “when we pass a good law, all will be well”.

    I believe the labor movement brings the issue of “justifiable violence” front and center. Please do continue.

  13. Rhino says:

    The next time some concern troll crypto-republican starts clutching their pearls over union ‘violence’ just give em this quote:

    ” extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”

    I think it was Che Guevara?

  14. basement cat says:

    If I remember correctly, the women’s participation was crucial because the women, who were not themselves union members, were beyond the reach of the labor injunctions. The movie Justice in the Coalfields has good interviews with a lot of the participants, including footage of sweet old Baptist church ladies getting hauled away by the Virginia state police.

  15. [...] Sen. Olympia Snowe Waiting For? (this also seems to be an affliction of conservative Democrats) This Day in Labor History: September 17, 1989 Massive Defense Spending Leads to Job Loss How It Could Have Been Different This Time States [...]

  16. [...] editions of this series have included the Bisbee Deportation on 1917 and the Pittston coal strike of 1989. Share and [...]

  17. [...] series has also covered the Pittston Strike of 1989 and the Stono Rebellion of 1739. Share and [...]

  18. [...] Jim Sessions, a major figure in the labor world who was the minister who sat in with workers at the Pittston coal strike. We began to meet local union leaders through Jobs with Justice, etc. We decided we wanted to have [...]

  19. [...] Great Railroad Strike September 9, 1739–The Stono Rebellion September 17, 1989–The Pittston Strike October 26, 1676–Bacon’s Rebellion November 5, 1916–The Everett Massacre November [...]

  20. [...] total of 98 United Mine Workers of America members and a minister occupy the Pittston Coal Company’s Moss 3 preparation plant in Carbon, Va., beginning a year-long strike. Among other issues: [...]

  21. Larry says:

    I always enjoyed Trumka’s famous quote and to sum up the need for extra-legal actions in some (many, most) labor disputes. “You can take the damn treasury, but you won’t take us.”

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