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#ThisIsAppalachia: Coal Miners


A Strike Like No Other Strike

Walter Davis and Reed Young |August 19, 2019

The history of Central Appalachia for more than a hundred years has been interwoven with the lives of coal miners.  As a result of their efforts, mineworkers brought much more to their communities than a paycheck. Their actions promoted public schools and improved the quality of life for their families and children.

Strategies from the labor movement by necessity involved community organizing. Miners were among the first to fight for the eight-hour day and health and retirement benefits. When it became obvious that there was a physical price to the body for being in the mines, miners fought for disability coverage and Black Lung benefits. Even in places where life was difficult, miners and their families built communities.

 “No pay, we stay.” — Blackjewel miners, Harlan County, 2019
Coal miners blocking railway tracks in Harlan County, Kentucky in recent weeks bring to mind the long history of struggling for justice in the coalfields of Central Appalachia.

The blockade is to stop freight cars from carrying away the product of the miners’ unpaid labor.  The Blackjewel company paid miner wages with checks that bounced as it filed for bankruptcy on July 1st. At that time, it was the sixth largest U.S. coal producer with 1700 employees, 200 located in Harlan County.

The banks then stripped money from the miners’ accounts throwing them into overdraft. The state failed to require a performance bond which would have guaranteed four weeks of pay (the company was later charged for operating without that bond for two years). State officials didn’t seem to notice or care until Blackjewel filed for bankruptcy. Kentucky Governor Bevin began a charity collection for the miners’ families. However, what the miners want is their pay, not charity; dignity, not disrespect.

Miner Curtis Cress, standing next to the railway tracks, is quoted in Resource speaking of what it means to be a coal miner, ““It’s part of my heritage, you know? My dad and papaws had always done it,” he said. “And I’m proud of that heritage.”

While politicians rushed to show support for getting the miners paid, they did not explain their inaction on enforcement of regulations or why Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell (KY) blocked the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.

As we write this, the story of the Blackjewel miners continues to unfold.  A Knoxville company, Kopper Glo, has acquired the Harlan County mine in the sale of Blackjewel assets. As they close, only 35-40% of wages are committed to be set aside. Miners continue to demand all they are owed and their pension funds.

“A Strike Like No Other Strike” – Pittston Miners, Southwest Virginia, April 1989-February 1990
These Harlan County miners recall a stand taken by miners 30 years ago. The coal miners in the Pittston mines in Southwest Virginia reached a breaking point when the company unilaterally cut off retirement and health care funds to about 1500 retired miners, widows of miners, and disabled miners.

Pittston management miscalculated the response, not just of the union members, but also of the communities where they lived. A mass uprising followed in a fight for worker rights and the quality of the lives of families. The allies of the miners included significant numbers of women, who contributed a large amount organizing work through groups like “The Daughters of Mother Jones,” and “The Freedom Fighters.”

Pittston threw everything at the union. The courts limited legal pickets and the Virginia State Police was complicit with the company by bringing non-union labor into the mines and escorting coal produced out. In solidarity, on April 18, 1989, the Daughters of Mother Jones held a 30-hour sit-in in the lobby of the company headquarters in Lebanon, Virginia.  Instead of folding under the pressure, thousands of union members and supporters blocked roads leading to the mine – 4,000 people were arrested.  Fines against the union mounted, but it chose to face the burden.

The United Mine Workers Association adapted the non-violent direct-action tactics of the civil rights movement. Inspired by the call for justice, people from other unions, the local communities, churches, and young people came to the strike. The UMWA built a culture and community of resistance around the strikers and supporters.

Pittston became a cultural event, a free space. In total, 2,000 miners and 40,000 supporters were involved in this strike. Richard A. Couto wrote, “Camp Solidarity was created for the thousands who came to support the strike. The lessons and history preserved in families and union locals found more public and wider expression at Camp Solidarity.”

At the height of the strike, miners occupied the Moss 3 company plant. Joe Burns wrote in In These Times about what came next: “On September 17, 1989, the union upped the stakes when 98 miners and a member of the clergy dressed in camouflage entered the Pittston Coal treatment plant. They approached the security guards and informed them they were peacefully taking over the plant. Like the sit-down strikers of the 1930s.”

Rev. Jim Sessions of Knoxville was that minister who entered the plant with the miners. He described the experience to us recently: “It was a humbling privilege to accompany 98 miners on that Sunday afternoon as we stepped through the gates of the Moss 3 coal preparation plant near the small town of Carbo in Russell County, Virginia, and watched the guards scatter and depart. Living together and protecting one another for those four days and nights of the occupation was a life-changing experience for me. And I discovered that I was not the only ‘faith leader’ in the occupation. There were four bi-vocational pastors/miners among us.  We were brothers who took care of one another under tense and dangerous circumstances… circumstances that helped turn a strike into a victory.”

Pittston UMWA meet railway protestors.

The Pittston Strike Continues to Inspire
Miners have seen one failed promise after another by federal and state officials. Safety inspectors have been reduced. A runaway opioid invasion of mountain counties by the pharmaceutical industry continues.

Here is a lesson that organizing is important to preserve what is won. You might think black lung disease is waning. Think again. Last year, the largest cluster of new black lung cases was recorded, 400 in Southwest Virginia. One possibility is that new mining practices for efficiency create greater risk to the miners. The cases are appearing among younger workers.

Thirty years ago, Pittston workers and their allies taught a wide array of young people, and those not so young, non-violent strategy and tactics and the steps to fight for free spaces outside of corporate control. The work and the inspiration continues.

Reading: “Bloody Harlan” Revisited: Blackjewel Miners Draw On Labor History While Facing Uncertain Future By Sydney Boles, Resource,

Read more about the Pittston plant sit-in in Singing Across Dark Spaces: The Union, Community Takeover of Pittston’s Moss 3 Plant by Jim Sessions and Fran Ansley, in Fighting Back in Appalachian: Traditions of Resistance and Change, edited by Stephen Fisher, Temple University Press, 1993.

For a video of the Pittston strike: One Day Longer The Pittston Strike 30th Anniversary