Struggling at Camp Solidarity

The Pittston Coal Strikers

CASTLEWOOD, Va.--The soft, rolling, misty hills of southwestern Virginia seem an unlikely setting for a battle. But in Dickenson and Russell Counties, the nine-month United Mine Workers (UMW) strike against the Pittston Coal Company often became as hostile as any war.

The strikers, who insist that they are engaging only in peaceful protest, wear camouflaged combat uniforms to demonstrate their unity. Miners also housed busloads of sympathetic political figures, college students, reporters and photographers at a location called "Camp Solidarity."

But this outpost, set among the mines, was softer than most military bases. Dozens of encouraging banners from universities and labor organizations hung on the walls of the shelter, which provided almost all the amenities anyone could want under the circumstances. A well-stocked kitchen. Warm blankets. Scathing hot showers.

It is not the comforts which bring UMW workers to Camp Solidarity, however. It is the feeling of unity. According to one striker, "the strike was the best thing that could have happened to the union," since it helped bring the miners together.

The Pittston coal strike may have received national and international attention, but the ranks of the combatants are drawn strictly from the local area. The miners are particularly bitter about what they call the biased response of state and local authorities to their protests.

As part of their protest strategy, strikers attempted to slow production by driving very slowly on roads leading to the coal mines. But the state soon responded with strictly enforced minimum speed laws.

The battle may be over now that the UMW and Pittston have reached a tentative agreement to end the strike. But as negotiations inched along in late December, the miners seemed dedicated to preserving the camp as a symbol of their struggle to maintain their way of life.

The camp has become almost a memorial site for the miners. One striker suggested that a chain link fence be erected around the camp to preserve it as a monument to the union's fight, hallowed ground not to be defiled. Another miner said he wanted to see a wedding, a honeymoon, even a birth take place in the camp. Others said they hoped the camp would be used for future union meetings after the strike.

Camp Solidarity was not the only gathering place for miners for the better part of 1989. Picket shacks dotted the Virginia landscape, looking out over the Pittston mining facilities.

Inside, miners discussed the climate of the negotiations and the coal output of replacement workers. They also kept warm, slept and loafed. Some spent their time wittling wooden flowers for spare change.

Life in the shacks is much more healthy than in the coal mines, these strikers are quick to point out. In the mines, sickness is almost inevitable. One striker noted a study which shows that workers who wear masks may reduce their chances of contracting lung diseases, but they also increase the likelihood of suffering from heart ailments.

In the area around Appalachia, however, having a job often seems more important than having your health. Health care benefits may have been the main sticking point between UMW and Pittston, but many of these dour-faced, bored miners said that their greatest concern was job security.

Many strikers said they were willing to take cuts in pay and give in to the company's wishes on health benefits as long as they could be assured of consistent, long-term employment.

But that may be impossible in the mines. The harder and more efficiently miners work, the faster they deplete the coal reserves. And the bleaker their prospects for job security become.