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This Day in Labor History: September 17, 1989

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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.

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