Appalachia strike echoes US labor trends
This is coal country. Heavy-laden trucks heading from the mines to the processing plants rumble along US 119 as it snakes through the little towns of the Tug Valley. Countless rail cars full of coal wait in switching yards.Skip to next paragraph
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But some of the coal in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky is doing its waiting in the mines. An often violent strike against the A. T. Massey Company, one of the nation's major coal companies, has been under way for nearly a year.
However remote these coalfields seem, what's happening here reflects a number of developments on the labor front nationwide.
Once-solidly unionized industries are being fragmented. Both management and unions must conduct their negotiations with one eye on international competitors. Some companies have gone ``double breasted''; that is, they have union and nonunion operations, typically different subsidiaries of the same parent company.
The coal industry is doing better than generally realized; in fact, US coal production reached an all-time high last year. But market pressures have splintered the Bituminous Coal Operators Association; the biggest operators can afford contracts the smaller ones can't, and so the latter are saying, ``We want out!''
Moreover, coal mining in this part of the country is labor intensive rather than capital intensive; the reserves are top quality, but are deeper in the ground and less continuous. Out West, coal mining is more like earth-moving: They scrape off a thin layer of topsoil and just shovel the mountain onto a rail car.
``The issues are job security and panel rights,'' says Jim Reed, president of the United Mineworkers local at the Massey-owned Sprouce Creek Processing Plant.
``Panel rights'' enable miners to transfer from one mine to another within a certain area, with seniority rights intact, as old mines play out and new ones are opened. Indeed, the miners accuse Massey of setting up mines so that they won't last long enough for those who work them to qualify for pensions.
The United Mineworkers is also pressing to have A. T. Massey deal with the union as a single employer; historically Massey's various mining subsidiaries have signed individually with the UMW.
From A. T. Massey's point of view, these issues are red herrings. Over in Richmond, Va., E. Morgan Massey, president of the company his grandfather founded in 1916, says, ``The big issue continues to be whether a union can enforce its unilateral will on people through the use of violence, . . . through shootings organized and directed by union headquarters and union officers and paid for by union funds.''
Dozens of people have been injured seriously enough to warrant hospitalization, generally as a result of their windshields being shot out, according to Massey officials. Dozens of homes have been shot into and hundreds of tires slashed. Mr. Massey himself is sharply critical of West Virginia Gov. Arch Moore, charging him with failure to enforce the law.
Union officials point out that their side, too, has suffered. Last week a bomb blast shook a union hall in Pikeville, Ky. A union picket, a woman, was wounded by gunfire several weeks ago.
All in all, the union contends that violence has been ``minimal,'' considering the length of the strike. Union officials also charge that the Massey companies, with their videotapes of incidents, have presented a distorted image of the strike by exaggerating the violence.
Mr. Massey sees the single-employer issue as a pretext for what he calls UMW president Richard Trumka's ``vendetta'' against the company -- whose operating subsidiaries include a number of large nonunion mines in West Virginia and Kentucky.
``The presumption is that [the strike] is the only way the union can get at those mines, through the parent company,'' Massey says. He decries the notion that separate bargaining is done ``for the sole reason of defrauding the union out of their seniority rights.''