Williamson, W.Va. — 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.
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.''
Massey contends that Massey subsidiaries were willing to sign the Bituminous Coal Operators Association agreement, the industrywide master contract, last Oct. 1, but that the UMW would not let them.
The union counters that Massey was not bargaining in good faith and had no intention of granting even limited panel rights. ``Panel rights? We've got none whatever. We can't panel nowhere,'' says Frank Browning, another local president.
West Virginia coal production peaked in 1947. And last year the state accounted for only 14.7 percent of the nation's total production, around half its 1947 share.
Diminution of union power is also a part of the picture. The union's share of coal production has fallen substantially. Speaking of the panel rights question, Paul Clark, assistant professor of labor studies at Pennsylvania State University, says, ``At one point the UMW was influential enough to discipline employers to keep them from playing those kinds of games.''
Unemployment in West Virginia ``continues right at the top'' among the 50 states, says Ralph Halstead, assistant director of the state Department of Employment Security in Charleston. Joblessness for the state as a whole is ``right at 10 percent,'' he notes, considerably above the national 7.2 percent. ``Unemployment is concentrated in the industrially underdeveloped counties and the southern coal-producing counties,'' he notes.
The figures aren't hard to believe if you drive through the communities in Tug Valley and its environs, with its carry-out stores and other small businesses that seem to be hanging on by their toenails.
Highways are lined with roadside ``yard sales.'' People seem to have emptied their closets and attics, bought some new merchandise somewhere to resell -- bright blue and white electric fans against the summer heat seem to be popular -- and then just set up along the road in the hopes of scaring up a few dollars.
You would expect strikers to evince at least some pro forma optimism about the long term. But in an interview at the T Motel, unofficial union strike headquarters on Williamson's main drag, some union local presidents were rather glum about coal mining's future here.
``In another eight to 10 years, there may not be any,'' suggested Bill Davis. ``Not when they've got slave-labor mining overseas. We need more than a bowl of rice and a couple of fishheads for a week's work.''
It is a point of understandable sensitivity that Massey -- privately held until the early 1970s and now a joint venture of Royal Dutch/Shell and the Fluor Corporation -- has been developing a coal mining complex in China.
``If I had it to do all over again, I would have married that girl in Ohio. She was six foot tall and crazy about me,'' said Frank Browning, who is no midget himself. ``I'd be working in some factory somewhere.''
The strike has shut down a number of Massey's operating companies since last Oct. 1, when the last master contract with the United Mineworkers expired. More controversially, one Massey division, the Rawl Sales and Processing Group, has been operating (at up to 60 to 70 percent of normal production, company officials say) with ``scabs'' or ``replacement workers'' (pick the term that fits your bias) since Dec. 1.
Prof. Herbert Northrup of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, who has studied issues of union violence, calls what's been happening ``a deliberate union tactic.'' Unions get away with this behavior, he says, because law enforcement let them.
But Penn State's Mr. Clark denies that violence is a deliberate part of the union strategy -- ``Trumka is too smart for that.''
Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, Emil C. Farkas, regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, is optimistic that a settlement will be worked out ``in the not too distant future.'' The NLRB general counsel ruled in April that A. T. Massey is a single employer. But this issue is entangled with the ``core dispute'' -- the panel rights question, he notes.
Mr. Farkas says that quiet contacts with Massey, the UMW, and Governor Moore's office continue.