Two Sides Dig in Over Key Union Vote

The United Mine Workers attempts to reverse its decline by organizing an Appalachian valley coal mine

TWO old coal field antagonists are facing off again in this Appalachian valley, home to some of the most bitter labor showdowns over the past half century.

This time, the United Mine Workers (UMW) is trying to halt a 15-year old slide here with a new organizing drive at Upper Big Branch, a small A.T. Massey Coal Company mine.

Massey is a formidable foe but the UMW is capable of winning here, says Cornell University labor expert Kate Bronfen-Brenner. Victory in this valley, she says, ''could be the start of the revitalization of the mine workers'' and ''could have ''national ramifications for the rest of the labor movement.''

The union, whose membership has dwindled to 75,000, can ill afford to lose the upcoming over whether to unionize.

''This little drive,'' says Mr. Jarrell, will either mark the union's resurgence or ''the beginning of the end.... If we lose here, we could lose anywhere.''

The AFL-CIO's new leadership of John Sweeney and UMW president Richard Trumka have made organizing a top priority. The UMW has launched a nationwide drive to organize non-union operations.

Massey, one of the nation's largest coal producers, discounts the importance of the vote here. But this week, Massey president Don Blankenship went underground to talk to miners at the Upper Big Branch mine.

''Far as we can tell, that's something he's never done before,'' says UMW local president Cal Jarrell. ''They're as worried about this as we are.''

The valley is part of UMW District 17, which covers southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. The district has long been a union stronghold and the locale of historic labor battles such as Matewan and Blair Mountain. It is also the home of the UMW's incoming president, Cecil Roberts.

The divide between Massey and the union is long and deep.

A decade ago, the UMW staged a 16-month strike against all Massey mines over retirees' health care. The union won the point, but many miners lost their jobs.

In 1980, the UMW resorted to violence to prevent Massey from opening its Elk Run mines with nonunion employees. But Elk Run became the first crack in the union's armor in this valley, fully organized since the 1930s.

Lately, UMW officials say Massey has reverted to old practices - a six- and seven-day week, armed guards, and cowing workers into not reporting accidents.

Massey vice president Jerry Eyster talks of a union that ''uses violence to intimidate people;'' and calls its economic and workplace demands ''unachievable'' if companies are to remain competitive.

A LETTER to miners at Upper Big Branch from mine president Richard Zigmond recalled the fate of other mines that have gone union in recent years.

''Because of their inability to compete,'' Zigmond wrote, ''these companies either have closed or are in the process of closing.''

But for the surviving companies, demand is strong. The mines run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and trucks barrel through the valley day and night. This coal is in demand because its low-sulfur content allows users to meet federal Clean Air Act requirements.

Still, the past two decades have been hard on the union. New mining techniques and mechanization have made many workers expendable. Hundreds of feet below the Appalachian hills, one or two workers can remotely control the ''continuous miner'' - a tank-size machine that gnaws at the cavernous mine walls, producing hundreds of tons of coal a day.

Some mines have only a dozen workers. Today, for every employed UMW miner in District 17, two are out of work.

In the mine parking lots, cars bearing out-of-state plates are common. Over the years, Massey has hired workers without union sympathies, angering local people. ''They could at least ... give us a chance,'' says miner Randy Sprouse, who lives on welfare. The UMW claims that pro-union miners have been blacklisted. Recently, Massey began hiring more locals. The union claims Massey is responding to threats from state officials to rescind tax breaks. Massey denies any such pressure.

The UMW is attempting to organize at two deep-mine facilities opened by Massey since mid-1994. The first vote is set for Dec. 14 among the 100 miners at Upper Big Branch. Then, the UMW will turn its attention to some 300 miners at the nearby Marfork mines.

Senior UMW organizer Howard Green predicts a domino effect. ''Once we win Upper Big Branch,'' he says, Marfork ''will be a piece of cake.'' Then, he says, the UMW will move on to Massey's other mines.

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