HUNTINGTON, W. Va. — Wildcat strikes hit coal fields in four more states Monday, keeping a third of the nation's union miners out of work despite a back-to-work request by United Mine Workers leadership, a union official said Monday.
"Telegrams have gone out," said UMW Vice President Cecil Roberts, breaking the union's long silence on the impromptu strikes that have shut down more than 300 mines. "I'm sure that that has taken place throughout the union."
Despite the order, mines in Alabama, Illinois, Missouri and Ohio were hit Monday for the first time, bringing out 5,000 more United Mine Workers members in a sympathy walkout for striking Pittston Coal Group employees.
That brought to more than 27,000 the number of miners on strike against coal operators in nine states, not including the 1,800 picketing Pittston in a contract dispute. The UMW has about 80,000 active members nationwide.
Roberts said the telegrams were sent because the miners are violating a national contract signed by UMW members. He said the union must enforce that pact.
"It's a serious situation," said Jeffrey W. Weber, a spokesman for AMAX Coal Co.'s mine in Keensburg, Ill., where 655 miners joined the walkout Monday. "If you look at the big picture, it's very counterproductive to the future of these miners."
As has been the case with previous walkouts, the UMW gave companies no official reason for the wildcat strikes, but most presumed they were related to the Pittston dispute.
Roberts said Monday in an interview from Tazewell, Va., that the union presumed the same.
"It's just speculation on our part as to why they're out, but people from the field are very upset on fines that have been assessed against the union" for civil disobedience in the Pittston strike, Roberts said.
Virginia was taken off the wildcat list Monday when 794 Island Creek Coal Co. employees returned to work at mines in Buchanan County. They had been out since Thursday.
"We're back in full swing," said Island Creek spokesman Noel Jones.
Despite the wildcat strike's end in Virginia, other industry officials pointed to the new walkouts and said there was no way to expect an end to the strike.
"I think that's pretty unpredictable," said Steve Anderson, a spokesman for Westmoreland Coal Co., which had 850 workers out last week but only 100--all in West Virginia--on picket lines Monday.
"When you consider the expansion over the weekend, I find it hard to believe (that it's ending)."
The more than 27,000 miners off work included 16,000 in West Virginia, 3,900 in Alabama, 2,500 in Pennsylvania, 1,750 in Indiana, 1,270 in Kentucky, 1,100 in Ohio, 650 in Illinois, 338 in Missouri and 200 in Tennessee.
The unauthorized walkouts began last week after a UMW rally in Charleston, S.C., to protest Pittston's failure to sign a nationwide contract and to protest fines and jail terms assessed against union members in Virginia.
Pittston wants its own contract that would include mandatory overtime, Sunday work and a cut in pension benefits. The UMW insists that the company sign the national contract, which would require Pittston to pay into the national pension fund and keep mines closed on Sundays.
About 1,600 UMW employees walked off their Pittston jobs in Virginia and West Virginia on April 5 after working more than 14 months without a contract. The strike spread to Pittston's Kentucky operations Monday, idling an additional 200 UMW members.