Coal Miners' Strike Takes Its Toll
As talks resume today between mine owners and unions, a small coal town sees business fall and relationships fray
A DOZEN striking miners mill around the make-shift shacks that sit beneath the white glare of spotlights shining down from the 90-year-old Arkwright Mine. A steady hum comes from the series of blue buildings, stacked one on top of the other against the dark hill.
Inside the mine a skeleton crew of managers works the compressors and conveyor. Outside, Jim Radabaugh shakes his head and points to a processing plant known as ``the tipple.''
``That job, that tipple that's running right now, that's my job,'' says Mr. Radabaugh. ``I should be over there right now doing that.''
Radabaugh is one of 17,000 United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) members in seven states who walked off the job last May after talks with the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA) broke down. The miners are demanding job security and respect for union seniority. The mine operators want the right to select the most competitive work force from union and nonunion labor pools.
As talks resume today in Washington, tensions on the picket line remain high.
``They are taking advantage of our blood, sweat, and tears that make money for this company and then ... giving it to someone else and leaving us right here on the streets where we are today,'' says Alex Pietrowski, financial secretary for Local 5429 of the UMWA in Granville.
Union leaders contend the mine owners are taking the profits from older union mines like Arkwright, where coal reserves are being exhausted, and setting up non-union operations.
They also charge the mine owners violated the 1988 contract that expired in February. It called for 3 out of 5 new jobs created by the BCOA coal companies to go to laid-off UMWA workers, whether or not the jobs were in union mines. ``They're playing a shell game, a corporate shell game on paper. Now they're saying we [can't have access] to some of their new, nonunion mines,'' says Mr. Pietrowski, referring to the corporate restructuring of Consol, Inc. which controls Arkwright and thirteen other mines through various holding companies.
``We reject this notion that somehow the union was hoodwinked,'' says Tom Hoffman, spokesman for both Consol Inc. and the BCOA. ``The union's attempting to turn something that's perfectly legal into a morality play. Companies today often have union and nonunion operations under the same corporate umbrella.''
Mr. Hoffman charges the union is distorting facts to generate support as its membership drops in the new, fiercely competitive coal market. Fifty years ago, UMWA workers mined almost 100 percent of the coal in the United States. Today that has dropped to 28 percent. Union membership, 800,000 strong in the 1940s, has dropped to 60,000.
The coal operators contend the goal of the strike is not job security, but the perpetuation of the UMWA.
``Union workers are getting new jobs at the nonunion mines,'' contends Hoffman, who points out the BCOA's 14 companies represent the unionized sector of the coal industry. ``We are not out to break the union. Our objective is to be sure the Arkwright mine can compete in an increasingly competitive business.''
To be competitive, Hoffman says, the coal companies have to be able to select the best work force. To the strikers on the picket line in Granville, that means selecting union labor. The union is quick to point out that coal production increased 200 percent while costs were cut 50 percent during the last 15 years.
``If you work for Westinghouse and you're productive, your reward for being productive is you get to keep on working,'' says striker Gary Renner. ``Our reward for being productive is we're going to work this mine out and then they don't have to hire us at their new operations they made from our sweat.''
The labor dispute has taken a toll on the town of Granville. The Arkwright Mine is its largest employer. Most of the town's 900 residents are miners or retired miners. People regularly drive by the picket shacks in front of Arkwright and honk and wave to show support. But some in Granville are also skeptical.
``If you aren't there to get your job, somebody else will be there to take it, so you better watch what you're doing and get back to work,'' says Shirley Buzzo, owner of Shirley's Diner, Granville's only restaurant, where business has dropped almost 70 percent. Miners that used to stop by for coffee and a chat now drive by - partly because money is tight on the $175 weekly stipend provided by the UMWA's strike fund, partly because of bad feelings.
Buzzo's husband is a nonunion truck driver who is still hauling coal. ``The [strikers] harass him ..., flatten people's tires,'' Mrs. Buzzo says. ``It's just not right.''
The strike has also taken a toll on Granville's budget. The Arkwright Mine provides more than $100,000 of the town's $250,000 budget. Now that contribution is expected to drop precipitously.
``We wanted to black top this, but since the strike is on we probably won't be able to afford it,'' says City Councilor Junior Rikosi, pointing to a large dirt parking lot between the Town Hall and the baseball field. ``But is the town going to dry up and go broke? No.''
The strike is also affecting the miner's children. Ten-year-old Julie Gamble gets to see her father now when she comes home from school. That both pleases and frightens her. ``I was afraid we were going to lose our house and car,'' says Julie, drumming her fingers anxiously on the dining room table in her family's trailer.
Bill Gamble is a fifth-generation union miner who has been laid off four times. Like other younger miners, he's worried that after working another 10 years at the Arkwright mine, he may find himself unemployed with no pension, no health benefits, no job prospects.
``We'd just like a place to go when they shut these mines down. They don't have a lot of life left to 'em, ten, maybe twelve years,'' says Gamble.