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Strike Ended Their Jobs, Revived Memory of Bloody Labor History : Future Seems Black as Coal to Out-of-Work W.Va. Miners

January 10, 1988|JIM NAUGHTON | The Washington Post

MATEWAN, W.Va. — The road and the railroad are entwined, crossing and recrossing each other as they snake through Hatfield Bottom where the mountain tapers into the Tug River.

A long black line of coal cars rattles across the two-lane route, clotting it with diesel trucks brimming with bituminous. For almost a century they have rumbled in and out of this hollow, the engines of mortal prosperity.

Before the coming of the coal barons this was Hatfield and McCoy territory. A historical marker on Route 49 tells how three of the McCoy boys stabbed Ellison Hatfield during a drunken Election Day brawl in 1882. The boys were later tied to a papaw bush and shot.

Most of what people know about the Tug Valley has to do with coal or killing. Sometimes the former has caused the latter, but that is less well understood.

Close to the Highway

Dave and Joyce Phillips live in the Bottom. Theirs is a one-story yellow house with brown trim. Like many of the homes in this part of the state, it sits close to the highway. When the big trucks whoosh by, you want to curl in your toes.

On an autumn morning, the first weekend of squirrel season, the oldest Phillips boy, William David, 13, has gone upstate hunting with his grandfather. The youngest, Adam Michael, 4, is asleep beneath a blanket at his mother's feet.

He'll stay with a baby-sitter tonight while his parents drive to Charleston for the West Virginia premiere of the recent John Sayles movie that bears their town's name.

Joyce has warmed a tin of cinnamon rolls and brought out some cold cans of Coke. The Phillipses are telling stories about themselves, but the stories begin decades before they were born.

Company Owned Town

"The coal company owned the houses the miners lived in," Dave Phillips says. "They owned the preacher. They told the preacher what to preach. He couldn't preach against capitalism, what have you. They owned the family doctor. They owned the store. It was more or less, 'I own you. You do what I say.' That's how it was back when it first started. That's the way they want it back, I believe."

"I heard my grandmother talk about living in tents and how they (coal company detectives) put kerosene in the milk," Joyce Phillips says. "But I never thought I'd be involved in anything like this."

On Oct. 1, 1984, the United Mine Workers struck the A.T. Massey Coal Co., which employed about 1,100 men in eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia. Dave Phillips has not worked since. After 15 months of angry confrontation, the union called an end to the strike, but fewer than half the strikers were called back. The company refused to rehire anyone who they claim promoted violence during the walkout. That included the union leadership. That included Phillips.

"It's like history repeating itself is what it's been," he says.

The history of Mingo and the surrounding counties is a secret the state's leaders seem intent on keeping. The bloodiest struggle in American labor history took place here in 1920-21 as thousands of miners fought unsuccessfully for their right to unionize.

But generations of West Virginians have left school knowing nothing of the Matewan Massacre or the Coal Wars that followed.

Slowly, though, this is changing. Sayles' engrossing film is a lightly fictionalized version of the events that led up to the massacre. Denise Giardina's moving novel "Storming Heaven" carries the story through to the Battle of Blair Mountain. There, four battalions of federal troops were called in before an army of 10,000 miners agreed to lay down its arms.

Phillips has heard that the movie is terrific, but he's reserving judgment. No one who said so grew up in Matewan with the story as familiar as his grandfather's voice. No one who said so feels trapped in a modern-day sequel.

Three years ago, in the early days of the Massey strike, the miners marched down Route 49 from the business district to the mines. They carried the flag and wore red, white and blue patches stitched into their sleeves. They held picnics and church services across the street from the Sprouse Creek processing plant. The atmosphere was almost festive. The company let strikers use its parking lot and its bathrooms.

"Just before the time of the strike, they had a dinner down at the steak house down in Williamson, and they told us that our mine led the nation in tons per man," Phillips says. "All these mines produced good coal, good work records. The men kept their noses clean, did their jobs, and they worked safe."

A.T. Massey, the nation's eighth-largest coal producer, was the only major company not to sign the 1984 agreement with the UMW. Massey officials argued that each of its subsidiaries was separate and should sign its own labor agreement. Miners saw this as a threat to job security. The company could close a unionized subsidiary, open a non-unionized one and not give union miners their jobs back.

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