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Kentucky Coal Dispute Still Bitter

Desperate Strike Brings Violence

By Joseph M. Russin

They have a saying in eastern Kentucky-- "Wait 'till the bushes grow green." It is a password, an admonition, and a desperate expression of hope among coal miners fighting for a lost propsperity. For in summer, when the bushes are green, a man can hide with a rifle, and in the rolling hills of Kentucky, a rifle has often had a persuasive effect on coal operators.

Trapped by circumstances they only dimly understand, the miners take a very simple view of their situation One grizzled old miner put it this way at a meeting of strikers: "I'll tell you something boys, and I'm gonna tell you the truth now. There will be blood coming from the mines--not coal--unless we get a union contract. And if you try to get by my picket line you're gonna smell copper and lead, copper and lead."

Last fall roving bands of pickets, protesting starvation wages and the failure of operators to contribute to the United Mine Workers welfare fund, forced most of the mines in eastern Kentucky to close. For three months a state of war existed between the operators and the miners. Then winter, a disastrous flood, and a series of apparent agreements forced a temporary truce. The hills are turning green again, however; prepartions for a renewed struggle are proceding rapidly.

There are no picket lines in eastern Kentucky today. The miners have agreed to suspend open protests until the National Labor Relations Board rules on an injunction request by the mine operators this Monday. But the tension continues. Every week several mines are blown up, and just recently a coal operator's home in Hazard, Ky., was dynamited.

Rumors spread quickly and are embellished extensively in these small coal towns, adding to the atmosphere of distrust and fear. A new man in town is immediately suspected. For instance, during my visit I was widely thought to be a Communist, a Teamster organizer, a management spy, and a conspirator with the strikers.

Perhaps because of these rumors, or maybe because someone thought I knew too much, a sniper took a few rifle shots at me on a moonless night last week. Rolling into a ditch, I crawled to the safety of a tree. The incident was a good warning, and a powerful indication of the seriousness of the situation and the bitterness of the struggle.

Industry Depression

No amount of dynamiting and shooting, however, can win the battle. The striking miners feel oppressed by rich, selfish operators, but the operators, while not poor, are faced with a diminishing market for their coal. A dozen years ago eastern Kentucky enjoyed reasonable prosperity. Now, with heavy competition from oil and the large, highly mechanized coal mines, the operators of the small mines are squeezed; the Kentucky miners have been forced into poverty by the depression in the industry.

In 1950 John L. Lewis and the United Mine Workers, realizing that automation in the mines would be the only way to allow coal to compete with other fuels, signed the National Bituminous Coal Agreement with the large coal producers. The agreement permitted the mine owners to mechinize, but at the same time attempted to force them to share the difficulties which the transition period caused the miners. A minimum wage of $24.25 for an eight hour shift and a 40 cents per ton royalty payment to the union welfare fund were essential parts of the contract.

Owners of large northern mines with wide coal seams who had sufficient capital, found it relatively easy to install heavy machinery and pay their miners the union scale. In eastern Kentucky, however, where the coal rarely comes in veins more than two and a half feet wide, the immediate need for machinery was not clear. Finding it impossible to agree to the United Mine Worker's terms, most of the operators of the rail mines (mines which deliver coal directly to a railroad loading station or tipple) sub-leased their coal rights to smaller operators, often union miners. These men set up small, one-tunnel mines producing from 50-150 tons per day of coal and employing usually no more than a dozen men. Coal was taken by truck from the mine to the railroad loading tipple, which was normally owned by the man who leased the rights to the mine.

Sweetheart Agreement

Working with little or no equipment, the truck mines soon found that they could not pay union wages and still compete with the mechanized mines. While these operators usually signed a UMW contract, the union consented to a "sweetheart agreement," that essentially allowed the operator to pay what he could for wages as long as he paid the 40 cents per ton royalty. But as the market and price for coal dropped, the "sweetheart agreements" turned sour. Deterioration in wages was accepted by the men as long as they retained their welfare benefits. About two years ago, however, the smaller operators began defaulting on their royalty payments.

By last fall practically no truck mine was contributing to the welfare fund and the fund suddenly revoked the welfare cards of all miners working in non-royalty-paying mines. Loss of the cards meant the end of free hospital care, an extremely important benefit for miners. The UMW's Miners Memorial Hospital Association had built four modern hospitals in eastern Kentucky which provided free care for the miners and their families. Access to these hospitals was forbidden to men without the cards. Shortly after withdrawing the welfare cards the fund announced that it was closing the hospitals as of July 1, 1963.

These actions provided the catalyst that released all the accumulated bitterness of the past decade in violent protest. Deciding the union had let them down, the men organized a wildcat strike against both the UMW and the operators. Bands of pickets descended on mines throughout the territory demanding that the men working inside join the fight. Most came willingly, but others, thinking that nothing could be done, were convinced only by threats of violence. Picketers were shot, mines dynamited, homes blown-up, and cold fear swept Floyd and Perry counties.

One truck mine operator in Floyd County described the closing of his mine: "They all came up the gulch, about 200 of them, yelling about how they were going to blow up the mine if I didn't shut down." As the picketers approached, he took his rifle and climbed on top of a hill looking over the valley and told the men to stop where they were. "The next man that takes a step," he shouted, "well right there you'll find him." His men, worried about personal attacks, walked off the job the next day, however.

In late October, with all the mines in Floyd County idle, the major operators--the men who controlled the tipples and the leases--formed a "paper" company which subtracted the royalty, social security and unemployment compensation deductions automatically when the truck mine owners sold their coal at the tipples. Negotiation on wages was left unsettled, but there seemed to be hope that a satisfactory agreement would be reached quickly. In the meantime the mines set their own wages. Although royalties are now being paid in Floyd County, no general wage agreement has been reached; the discontent continues. Many men have gone back to work in order to sustain some kind of living, even though meager. Should enough financial support develop for another prolonged strike, they would unhesitatingly walk off again.

Lee Howell, a short, bulky man, is the leaders of the Floyd county strikers. Firmly convinced that the operators could pay higher wages and that there is enough work in the mines for all the unemployed men in the county, he sees the current struggle as a case of the "big fellow" trying to "get the poor man." The last time he worked in a mine was July, 1962, when he received $23 for three days work. A good union man, he refused to continue under such conditions.

Possessing only an eighth-grade education and wide experience as a laborer, Howell does not realize the complexities of the problem he is attempting to solve: B. F. Reed, the chief coal operator, "should be run out of the county;" the solution of the thirties a strong union, "would solve all this, and that's the truth." He refuses to admit that lack of demand for coal must result in fewer jobs and lower wages.

And he is pathetically ill-equipped to handle the tremendous task of leadership he has assumed. Writing a letter is a difficult task, and he has little idea of what legal means are open to him. He is unguarded in his speech and sometimes reckless in his actions. At the present time he is under several thousand dollars worth of peace bonds on charges ranging from "banding together" to threatening bodily injury with a deadly weapon.

Means Business

But if Howell is not a sophisticated labor leader, he is a dedicated man and a man who is affected deeply by the hardship of his fellows. He refuses to resign his men to a life existing on government subsidies, and he will not tolerate injustices. While opposing violence in principle, he is not afraid to use it. "They're gonna have to see we mean business--and we do, buddy; I'm the man that can see this through." And he thinks his strike is a crucial one for all unions. "If we lose here, they all will go down."

To establish any bargaining position, Howell will once again have to close all the mines in Floyd County. This may not prove easy. Men now working for about $15 dollars a day are afraid that joining a strike will endanger their jobs, and others feel the situation is hopeless. Bernard Howell, president of the UMW local, is one of the men with the later view. Although he worked with Lee to organize the wildcat pickets last fall "because our union let us down," he now thinks it impossible to support another non-union strike. Even if money for a strike could be obtained, Bernard has little faith it could "break the power of the big operators." Tired of fighting what he thinks is a losing battle, he plans to resign his union post and leave Kentucky. "In the end you'll end up working the operator's way," he said bitterly, "or you won't work at all."

As Lee Howell sees it, his only chance of combating this despondency and supporting a strike is inducing the Teamsters to organize the county. Practically every miner in McDowell watched Dave Brinkley's report on Jimmy Hoffa and his union, and to them Hoffa looks like the messiah. "Jimmy could do it," was the general opinion. "He's tough--if we get him in here that will fix things up in short order." Tough men themselves, these miners are convinced Hoffa will understand them and their problem. But a Teamster representative recently studied the situation and reported that it was almost hopeless. The Union has no plans now to intervene.

Perhaps the most hated man in Floyd County is B.F. Reed, the largest operator. To the discontented miners Reed symbolizes the wealth and arrogance of the operators, the fat cat who starves babies. But Reed is not an orge; like Howell and his followers, he is a man held prisoner by circumstances and by his own views. And Reed firmly believes that he is doing all he can to alleviate an intolerable situation.

Maximum Jobs

When the UMW produced its 1950 wage contract, Reed decided he could not meet its terms. Closing his rail mines, he leased his land to truck operators, thinking this would be the best way to produce the maximum amount of coal and jobs. The truck mines, he explains, while not able to pay union wages, "do provide a living for men who otherwise would not have a job." In fact, he is certain that a man shovelling coal in a truck mine is earning better wages than unskilled or semi-skilled workers in other industries.

A self-made man who started out shovelling coal himself, Reed has little patience for "failures." If a man works hard and spends his money wisely, Reed maintains, he will make something of himself. He suggested that about 90 per cent of the unemployed men in the county were "unemployable"--men who couldn't act responsibly or were too unskilled to work. "The poor," Reed feels, "would be poor anywhere."

And he has no use for men like Lee Howell; he will not even talk to him. Howell is a trouble maker, upsetting the normal course of events. "This county would be a lot better off without him in it," because Howell attempts to "set class against class." As far as Reed is concerned, Floyd County should "stop pitying itself and start working together."

There is a huge gap of communication between Reed and his miners. Reed believes, for instance, that every man in his mines is earning at least a living wage--a figure which he sets at $3,000 a year. He cannot believe that Howell has a large box full of pay statements which tell a tale of incredibly low wages. Before leaving their jobs last fall men were drawing around $10 a day, and not working five days a week. And I found few men now working who averaged much more than $12 a day, except in the largest truck mines. Because Reed does not know how desperate the situation is for many miners, he cannot understand their bitterness.

Views Close

The antipathy and lack of understanding that exists between Reed and Howell is tragic, because their views on what should be done are very close. Both accept the fact that payment by tonnage--rather than by hours--is the correct way to run a truck mine. Both maintain that the inefficient truck mines should close, although Reed thinks they will close themselves and Howell feels they should be forcibly shut down. Howell would be willing to settle for a guarantee of around $18-20 a day; Reed would quickly accept $15. And Reed is willing to pay the royalities even though he thinks them "oppressive." While he doesn't think the hospitals need be so elaborate ("This is not Miami Beach"), he recognizes how essential they are to the miner. Unfortunately, neither of them knows each other's thoughts. They rely on rumors for information about each other and therefore grow increasingly alienated.

Meanwhile McDowell waits... and waits. Men sit all day on porches doing nothing, hardly even talking. Lethargy pervades the town and seems to affect everyone in it. Howell tries to keep up enthusiasm with his claim that "if I can get someone to scotch for me we're gonna win," but to many this talk is losing its inspirational effect. The strikers are already deeply in debt for last fall's pickets, and this debt weighs heavily on them.

Further south, in Perry Country, the atmosphere is somewhat different, and the issues are even more confused. Hazard, the country seat, has just recovered from the worst flood since the 1860s, and now it fearfully awaits the return of the fury of the pickets. (McDowell also suffered heavy floods, but destruction was less severe.)

In Floyd country the welfare royalties are being paid and the method of mine ownership is clear. B.F. Reed may be rich, but his money now comes from banking and other investments rather than from coal exlusively. Perry Country is almost entirely non-union, and the operators have used a maze of dodging techniques to avoid signing a contract. In many cases a mine has been organized, only to have ownership transferred or a new "paper" company set up to run the mine without union restrictions. Because of greater injustices and higher unemployment, the picketing was more violent and tempers are quicker than in Floyd country. And the publicity given the town has brought in outsiders who are always distrusted by the mountain people of Kentucky.

The operators and representatives of the business community consider the picketers to be "renegades," "bandits," and "racketeers." They suspect Communist agitation from outsiders, although they think the miners themselves "aren't smart enough to be Communists." To the business community the picketers are irresponsible, men who couldn't be employed. "This is hardly a strike," said one operator, "because the men involved haven't left their jobs--they didn't have any to start with. No one would want to hire these trouble-makers."

Berman Gibson, the leader of the pickets, smiles at these charges. His grin is a confident one, the smile of a man who is sure of victory. A big swarthy man who is gentle with his family but a powerful demagogic speaker with great charisma at miner's meetings, Gibson is actively preparing for a show-down battle this spring. He "knows these operators can pay the money," and several observers agree with him, as many of the mines in Perry country are mechanized.

Unlike Howell, who feels the need of union support and blames the UMW for "letting us down," Gibson thinks he must organize the country without the UMW and then let the UMW assume control. "If the UMW authorized this strike they would be too deep in law suits," Gibson says.

"We have to do it for them." Counting on donations from other unions and individuals for support, Gibson intends to revive the roving pickets of last fall if he wins the injunction case Monday. These pickets, he claims privately will be peaceful, but at meetings he is far more sympathetic to those who advocate violence if necessary. And violence may be needed just to coerce miners now working to join the protest. Many distrust Gibson or feel he cannot win. Gibson knows this, retorting that "we have some of the yellowest men in the world in this country."

There is considerable doubt that Gibson could successfully conduct a country-wide strike. Many of his followers are retired miners, and splits have occured among the striking group. Last week there was considerable speculation that Gibson had lost control to another man who feels some of Gibson's intimates are too prone to violence. But he refuses to admit the possibility of defeat for the strikers. "We can't lose any more than we have already. We'll starve it out if necessary."

Contrasting sharply with the unhappiness and poverty in Hazard and McDowell is nearby Wheelwright, Ky., and perhaps this contrast is a stimulus to the agitation. Wheelwright is owned by Inland Steel, which operates a large, highly mechanized rail mine. Inland miners work under a UMW contract and live in a town benevolently managed by Inland. Except for the fact that a private company rather than a State is the economic planner, Wheelwright closely resembles a model for a socialist city. Comfortable houses are rented to the miners at rates (about $25 a month) which do not even cover maintenance. The company runs stores which compete favorably with others in the area and provides various civic services.

Inland's mines are dramatically different from the truck operations. Safety measures which smaller mines cannot afford have taken much of the danger out of mining, and huge machines eliminate the physical exhaustion. In a typical truck mine a man crawls into a low tunnel supported by timbers, blasts his coal with dynamite, and shovels it out onto carts by hand. There is always the danger of heavy chunks of shale falling on a man from the mine ceiling. The work is tough, grimy, and hazardous. At Inland's mine the roof is supported by long bolts, and the coal is blasted with compressed air. A 35 foot long machine with a giant sword cuts the coal, and another monster resembling a dinosaur, the joy loader, scoops it up and transfers it to a cart. Conveyer belts carry the coal to the tipple for processing. Three strong men in an unmechanized mine can load a ton and a half in 15 minutes; one man with a joy loader handles two tons in 15 seconds.

The coal seams at Inland's mines are similar to those in the truck mines. They are more productive because Inland decided about eight years ago that the only way to compete was to mechanize. That decision has caused the work force to shrink by almost 90 per cent, but the company has let natural attrition rather than firing take care of the depletion. Operators of the truck mines note that Inland was able to mechanize because it was assured a market--Inland's steel plants--and because the company had large capital resources. Regardless of the reasons, though, Inland is now competing directly with the truck mines, as only two-thirds of its production goes to company steel plants. Without mechanizing themselves, the small mines will be forced to maintain low8Inland Steel photoA Joy loader in Inland Steel mine scoops up coal. The machine can load two ton in 15 seconds and transfer it to automated cart for transport to conveyer belt.

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