On December 6, 1977, the United Mine Workers of America walked off the job. This moment demonstrated a moment when workers thought they could gain more power in the economy. But they effectively lost this strike and the war on workers throughout American got underway.
By the 1960s, the UMWA was a dictatorial mess. John L. Lewis ran his union like his own personal empire. This led to all sorts of problems, including purges of anyone who challenged his leadership. But at least Lewis actually cared about workers. His successors did not. When the Farmington Mine blew up in West Virginia in 1968, UMWA president Tony Boyle demonstrated complete indifference to the 78 dead miners. Why have a union if that union is going to side with the companies? So the workers started a grassroots revolt, first around health and safety. Then, union executive Jock Yablonski, long a Lewis guy, decided to challenge Boyle for the presidency. Boyle fixed the election and then hired thugs to murder Yablonski and his family. The incredible arrogance to think he could get away with that is hard to comprehend. The feds got involved, ran a fair election, and Boyle died in prison.
This movement became known as Miners for Democracy and it elected Arnold Miller as the UMWA’s new president. As it turned out, democratic unionism doesn’t necessarily mean competent unionism. Miller was in way over his head and had some dictatorial tendencies of his own. There was a ton of grassroots activism in the union still and much of that energy ran toward more local control over union matters. The midcentury expansion of unions had effectively killed any real influence rank and file workers would have over their unions. Neither the Mine Workers, Steel Workers, or Auto Workers had real elections for president. At least in the UMWA and USWA, workers didn’t get to vote on whether to go on strike either. These decisions were handled in the national office.
Miller may have been elected on a reform platform, but he wasn’t much of a reformer. The UMWA struck in 1974 and Miller hoped that a more democratic process to this would cut down on the wildcat strikes that restless workers had increasingly embraced. It did not. The contract was actually very good on the financials, but locals still chafed over centralized control. In fact, the only way Miller could get elected to a second term in 1977 was to agree to allow locals to strike over local conditions.
This meant that when contract negotiations opened up with the coal industry shortly after his reelection, he had to fight to allow for at least limited local strikes based on local conditions. The coal industry was not having it. Realizing the likelihood of a strike, the industry ramped up production quickly so that utilities would have huge coal supplies to weather a labor stoppage. They also claimed the right to fire any wildcat striker. Basically, they wanted to take power back from the workers. So yeah, a strike was coming.
The contract expired on December 6, 1977 and the UMWA went out that day. The miners were pretty cranky. There was a lot of low-level violence in this strike, mostly of the cutting tires and throwing eggs variety. But workers in Georgia blew up an augur and a railroad carrying scab coal in Kentucky was blown up, though just the lines, not the cars. No one was really hurt, barring getting hit by an egg. But a coal car was turned around by workers standing in the tracks and in Kentucky, cops tear gassed workers. Responses in the various states really depended on the governor. Kentucky and Utah were bad, West Virginia, where Jay Rockefeller had bigger political ambitions, and Pennsylvania were much better.
A tentative contract was agreed to February 1978, but it wasn’t a very good one for the workers. For one, workers had to pay into health care plans, a previously unacceptable demand from the companies. The employers refused to do anything on the wildcat issue and Miller didn’t want to fight for that anyway. Response from the workers was apoplectic. Contracts were burned publicly in front of television cameras. The membership overwhelming defeated the contract in March.
At this point, the Carter administration stepped in. Carter was no friend of labor, but this was still unclear in early 1978. He tried to use his power under the Taft-Hartley Act to force workers back on the job. Sort of. Carter was a weak president and responded weakly here too. He used the provisions for mediation and a cooling-off period, but the workers just ignored him. Carter then didn’t really do anything to enforce the injunction against striking that followed. The coal companies had stockpiled so much coal that it was hard to argue this was any kind of a national emergency. The district court issuing the first injunction refused the administration request to make it permanent and Carter just gave up on it. Just a weird president, vacillating over issues like this and coming across looking weak to everyone.
What finally ended this strike was frustration among enough workers over the holdouts on the wildcat strike issue. Employer contributions to health and pension funds–which were significant–were based on productivity and a lot of workers wanted to see those funds in their accounts, not strike all the time. So both sides gave a little at the table to end this, mostly around issues going to new dispute settlement proceedings to speed up resolution and undermine the wildcat strikes.
Now, the UMWA still had to get the miners to accept it. So it hired Johnny Paycheck to do an ad for it on local radio stations. That plus everything else seems to have worked and the miners approved the contract in March. But it was a pretty bad contract, where miners lost on almost all issues. It had fought for three decades for a cradle-to-grave welfare program and the mine owners gained a lot of that back. Miller had a heart attack shortly after the contract was signed and was effectively kicked out of office at this time, both because of his personal behavior problems and because of anger over the contract.
The UMWA never did gain any of this back. It has been under attack for decades now and today is effectively a pension fund, not a union. There’s just a tiny number of active members working, including I believe almost zero for at least 25 years now in Kentucky.
This is the 461th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.