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Rising Violence Feared in Bitter Coal Walkout

June 24, 1989|PAUL HOUSTON | Times Staff Writer

CARTERTON, Va. — As a state police helicopter thumped overhead, a striking coal miner in a camouflage suit shouted, "Welcome to Vietnam!" to a newcomer arriving at Camp Solidarity, symbolic headquarters of spreading guerrilla warfare in Appalachia.

Tents, campers, pickup trucks and cars dotted a sprawling field near this tiny settlement on the Clinch River in the lush green, softly rounded mountains of southwestern Virginia. Bunches of men milled around in fatigues, worn both to show solidarity and to conceal their presence. Others dined on hamburgers donated by McDonald's and Hardee's and drinks contributed by Coca-Cola.

Camp Solidarity has become the base for hundreds of miners who walked off their jobs in 10 states and drove here to support a bitter United Mine Workers strike against the Pittston Co. that began in Virginia coal fields 2 1/2 months ago.

What is happening here--sporadic gunfire, sabotaged non-union trucks, damaged police cars, alleged harassment by Pittston's security forces--is a throwback to labor relations of decades past. And, with the arrival of the strikers from out of state, fears have mounted that full-scale shootings and bombings will ensue.

"Before these people take our jobs, there is gonna be a terrible fight," Pittston miner Guy Skeens vowed as he helped two West Virginians repair a pickup truck used to help blockade coal hauling by non-union truckers.

Tom Copley, boss of a band of 63 non-union drivers whose truck radiators have been punctured by gunfire and tires flattened by "jack-rocks" made of nails, said: "This could erupt into some very violent things."

"It's volatile," conceded Lt. J. B. Willis, commander of a contingent of 200 state troopers dispatched to the strike scene by Gov. Gerald L. Baliles. "So far, we've been able to keep a lid on it."

On Friday, West Virginia Gov. Gaston Caperton invited the heads of Pittston, the nation's largest coal exporter, and the miners' union to the governor's mansion to resume the negotiations that had broken off two weeks ago. U.S. Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. quickly endorsed the proposal.

UMW President Richard L. Trumka, who had called for new mediation after sessions with a federal mediator collapsed, welcomed Caperton's offer.

Pittston Chairman Paul W. Douglas rejected it, however, complaining that Caperton's conditions were "counterproductive." A day earlier, Michael Odom, president of the Pittston Coal Group, a subsidiary of the Connecticut-based firm, declared: "The bargaining is over.

"The union leadership has got to begin acting responsibly," Odom said. "They have got to stop distributing phony contracts and blatant misinformation."

About 1,900 UMW members have been on strike at Pittston mines in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky since April 5 in disputes over job security and health and pension benefits.

Wildcat walkouts in sympathy with the Pittston strike began last week and spread rapidly. By Friday, they involved 44,000 miners in West Virginia, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Virginia, Missouri and Tennessee, according to the Associated Press.

It is the largest coal strike in eight years, sparked when Pittston sought to break away from a tradition of joint pacts negotiated between the UMW and the Bituminous Coal Operators Assn.

Coal companies hit by unauthorized strikes have obtained back-to-work orders from federal judges in several states. Although hundreds of wildcatters have complied, many more have defied the orders.

Creating Traffic Jams

Meanwhile, violence has escalated, particularly at Pittston sites. Strikers here have given up on sit-ins and tried a new tactic to curb production: using slow-moving caravans of cars and pickups to create traffic jams.

Charles Vaughan, spokesman for the Virginia Highway Patrol, said that two unoccupied non-union coal trucks had been struck by gunfire in the early morning hours Friday. "There were seven shots into the windshields and radiators," Vaughan said.

Strikers were the first to throw jack-rocks--two nails welded together with their heads cut off--onto highways, puncturing the tires of non-union trucks and state patrol cars. "We've had to have 400 tires replaced or repaired," Vaughan said of the patrol cars.

But now, according to the strikers, non-union miners and security agents hired by Pittston have begun throwing the four-pointed jack-rocks into the paths of the strikers' vehicles.

Strikers charge that Virginia state troopers roughed up more than 2,000 strikers and supporters who were arrested during sit-ins for blocking mines and plant gates. They protest that troopers have unfairly ticketed caravan drivers for impeding traffic while ignoring violations by coal truck drivers.

"Our government will stand up for the rights of people in Poland and China who cry for democracy," said a West Virginia wildcat striker who said that he is afraid to give his name. "But, when it comes to the coal fields of Appalachia, they turn their backs on us."

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