April 5, 1989 – Remembering the Pittston Strike – Plenty of Law . . . No Justice

Sunday marked the 20th anniversary of the start of the Pittston strike, a coal miners’ strike that would drag on for 14 months into 1990. On April 5, about 1,700 miners in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky struck Pittston Group’s coal mining operations. Within a couple months there were demonstrations and solidarity strikes that involved 10 times as many people.

This was a strike that provided and still provides a window into who we were as a people and what we value. It still does. Twenty years after the strike began is time to re-examine the portrait of us as a people.

Today, coal is once again in the news, and controversial. Today’s controversy focuses only on the environmental impact of burning and mining coal. It largely ignores the danger and the impact on the workers who extract that coal.

But the conditions under with US miners have worked and lived have been among the worst in this country. In the last couple years we have again seen death in the mines as a result of the neglect of the Bush Administration and its gutting of the agency charged with protecting miners. link

And occasionally the workers decide it is time to improve their conditions.

On April 5, 1989 the United Mine Workers (UMW) called a strike against the Pittston Coal Group for unfair labor practices. Miners had worked 14 months without a contract before the UMW called the strike. Among the practices cited by UMW were the discontinuing of medical benefits for pensioners, widows, and the disabled; refusal to contribute to a benefit trust established in 1950 for miners who retired before 1974; and refusing to bargain in good faith. Miners in Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia struck against Pittston. The miners and their families engaged in a civil disobedience campaign against the company. The strike led to violence between strikers and company representatives; state troopers were called out to arrest striking miners. The strike ended on February 20, 1990 when miners voted to ratify a contract with Pittston.

The 1989-1990 Pittston strike was an event full of irony.

US news coverage was almost uniformly negative about the Pittston strikers, while, at the same time, they were praising a strike by Russian coal miners that was in many respects indistinguishable. Both strikes saw harsh police repression. The only explanation for the difference was that the Russian strikers were portrayed as fighting for freedom and fair treatment, while the US miners, who were seeking similar improvements in working and living conditions, were portrayed as violent law breakers.

Another irony was the role that law enforcers played – or refused to play – in suppressing the strikers.

Some prosecutors and judges basically refused to participate in suppressing the strike; other judges actively and enthusiastically punished the strikers. What political factors may have influenced these decisions, and to what extent were the findings of contempt completely discretionary?

. . . The US Supreme Court’s ruling in BAGWELL mandating that the question of quelling union resistance be appropriately handled through criminal rather than civil contempt is a major protection for strikers. Cynics might note that well-heeled corporations can always hire legal talent to frame strikers’ acts as violent and unlawful. Still, forcing such cases to be heard by juries both insulates strikers from neoliberal judges’ free exercise of discretion and opens up space for the radical identification of the jury with workers and their underlying conceptions of justice and fair contract.


Even though conditions in the mines were horrific, the region was mired in such poverty that Pittston was easily able to hire strikebreakers.

In April 1989, 1,700 miners went on strike, in February 1995 only 470 of those worked for Pittston. The Pittston corporation continues mining coal. The “replacement workers” whose voices and experiences are represented in the film bring us to question the justice of a system in which a worker earning five dollars an hour could not make enough money on which to live and in order to feed his family was convinced to take a striker’s job. By expanding ideas about what justice is, the film shakes loose the regional stereotypes and comfortable class complacency in which we often live. The ambiguity of the strike’s results and the meagerness of social justice to which it testifies implicate us all . In Appalachia, in the South, in workplaces everywhere, there is still dark trouble, still deep suffering, still “plenty of law but little justice.”

Pittston refused to bargain about the issues that concerned the coal miners, actions that frustrated the miners and pushed them to take stronger action.

Ultimately, some strikers convinced themselves that lawbreaking in the form of damaging vehicles with rocks and tire puncturing devices, blocking roads, and threatening replacement workers and other Pittston employees was not only justified but was the only way to win the struggle. While the UMWA distanced itself from these acts, and many strikers claimed that reports were exaggerated or outright fabricated, the legal system saw this phase as utter defiance of the orderly operation of society. Strikers were held in contempt of court and millions of dollars of fines were imposed against individuals and the UMWA, which was held responsible for these acts. Brisbin sees this as almost an inevitable dynamic, given the law’s coercive operation on only one side of the dispute. Pittston could not be pressured legally to bargain or to cease functioning with replacement workers and thus was difficult to move. Individual strikers could break the law often without being punished and saw lawbreaking as a way to increase the costs for Pittston to an unsustainable level. These postures, however, made agreement on ending the strike almost impossible to reach.

Justice in the Coalfields” tells the story from the miners’ perspective.

Lewis’ [film, Justice in the Coalfields] draws in sharp relief the conflict in the American consciousness between middle class individualism and values of collectivity. With extended excerpts from interviews with Martin Fox, director of public affairs of the National Right To Work Committee, and Bradley McKenzie, a local miner and organizer of the student resistance during the strike, Justice lays bare the economic and political interests that are at the heart of the rhetoric of economic individualism. Fox describes strikers’ activities as “goon behavior,” and belies the Right To Work Committee’s hidden agenda by refusing to “see workers in the plural, only in the singular.” The Fox excerpts clearly show the deep interconnection between right-to-work laws, an ideology of individualism, and the self-interests of multinational corporations. Against Fox’s politics, a youthful looking McKenzie indicts not just the policies of the Pittston Company, but the ideologies, injustices, greed, and inconsistencies of an entire global economic system. McKenzie gives voice to a resilient, placed collectivity: “You stick up for me, I’ll stick up for you, . . . we have the right to fight, . . . the community has rights …” In Justice in the Coalfields, Bradley McKenzie becomes an organic intellectual who enables us to see ourselves and society in new ways, making possible new understandings of collectivity and new struggles for justice.

Though largely forgotten now, women played a key role in supporting the coal miners

The Daughters of Mother Jones were initially involved in the strike because of their husbands. They went into action immediately, forming an informational picket line during the 14-month period before the strike that the miners worked without contract. Had it not been for the efforts of the Daughters, an early picket line would not have been possible as the men were still working.

The story of the Pittston strike is complex, too complex to summarize here, but it is certainly time to remember the strike and what it shows us about Americans and work.

Justice in the Coalfields reminds us of the complicated events and how the forces that led to the strike and increased its length and the level of struggle continue today.

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