by Tom Bethell
Early in 1861, the coal miners of southern Illinois walked out of the pits, out on strike against operators who persistently cheated them by shortweighing their coal at the tipple. It was not the first strike in the coalfields, and there were thousands more yet to come. But this strike had something new; the miners won it with the help of public relations.
They took their battle to a moderately sympathetic press and a moderately sympathetic state legislature, and if there was one single turning point, it was the day when the Belleville Democrat published Daniel Weaver's letter.
Weaver was a miner like the rest - but different. He knew that the strike would not hold together solely over the immediate issue of short-weighing; he knew also that short-weighing was not the type of problem that the public at large would identify with. He never even mentioned the problem in his letter to the Democrat. Instead, he wrote of a philosophy.
"Union," Daniel Weaver wrote, "is the great, fundamental principle by which every object of importance is to be accomplished."
For clarity, content, and brevity, that sentence can stand with the best efforts of 1776. But Weaver had more:
"Man is a social being," he continued, "and if left to himself in an isolated condition would be one of the weakest creatures; but associated with his kind he works wonders. Men can do jointly what they cannot do singly; and in the union of minds and hands, the concentration of their power becomes almost omnipotent.
"Nor is this all. Men not only accumulate power by union, but gain warmth and earnestness. There is an electric sympathy kindled, and the attractive forces inherent in human nature are called into action; and a stream of generous emotion, of a friendly regard for each other, binds together and animates the whole....
“To accomplish this, we must organize. Our remedy, our safety, our protection, our dearest interests and the social well-being of our families, present and future — all depend on our unity and our regard for each other."
The words were irresistible; they inspired the miners, they established Weaver as an extraordinarily shrewd strike leader, and they touched a sympathetic chord where it counted — among the public and in the Illinois legislature. Moreover, the strike was notably well timed: the Civil War was imminent, the coal operators could already smell the profits to be made from fueling the engines of war, and they were not in a mood for a protracted shut-down. The strike ended with Illinois adopting the first state law requiring the use of impartial checkweighmen at the tipple. The miners gained their immediate objective largely by elevating it to the level of a crusade for a principle.
Jump ahead now 112 years to Harlan County, Kentucky, in the summer of 1973, to the coal camp at Brookside, where the mine supplies coal to Duke Power Company's plants several hundred miles away in the Carolinas. Six months ago, the leadership of the United Mine Workers of America changed hands. Tony Boyle is on his way to jail, soon to be convicted of ordering the murder of his opponent in the union's 1969 election, and Arnold Miller has won election to the presidency of the union on a platform promising sweeping reform. He has promised, among other things, to dust off the union's grand old slogan — "Organize the Unorganized!" — and carry it proudly to the portals of every scab mine in America.
Harlan County is full of such mines, Brookside being one of the bigger ones. In the collapse of the coal industry after the boom years of World War II, a long depression had swept across the Kentucky coalfields, and in a flood of joblessness and mine closures and tumbling prices, the United Mine Workers had lost its grip on the mines. Some men said the union was gone forever. When, in the midst of depression, a mine goes down and a picket line goes up across the road; when the operator puts the word out that jobs are available; when, in that county, ten men are out of work for every man working; when those ten men have families to feed and no prospect of another job in sight — when all that happens, you do not do much organizing of the unorganized, not without inspired leadership and a lot of help from your friends.
The leadership of the 1960s in the UMWA was not inspired, and the friends were not there — not in government, and not in the press, and only very thinly scattered through the rest of the labor movement. Within the union there was restlessness, men here and there willing to take a chance to salvage what they and their fathers had spilled so much blood to win. The leaders of the union told them, on the one hand, to go out on the limb — "Boys, you gonna lose your medical cards unless you sign them operators" — and then, when they were all the way out at the end, the leaders lopped off the limb, refusing to commit the International's resources to the fight.
But now, in 1973, everything had changed.
Coal, the long-forgotten fuel, was in demand again, and in a few months would command the highest prices in history, thanks to the Arab oil embargo and the machinations of the oil industry. Old mines were expanding, new mines were opening. The new leadership of the UMWA had promises to keep. Miners at Brookside, chafing under the notably hard-nosed management of Duke's subsidiary, Eastover Mining, sent word to Washington that they wanted to join the UMWA. They had switched from the Southern Labor Union by a vote of 113- 55, but Duke would not sign the UMWA contract. A month passed and the picket lines could not keep the scabs out. The men needed support.
The union was in no position to deny them. But it was not, in fact, fully prepared to help them. The transfer of power from Boyle to Miller had been bitter and chaotic; reform leaders with no previous administrative experience were already stuck fast in the molasses of bureaucracies old and new, discovering with horror that it was hard enough to get the mail answered and the dues processed, let alone launch new programs for an uncertain constituency.
Miller's 1972 mandate had been by no means unanimous (45 percent of the vote had gone for Boyle) and he shared the leadership of the union with an executive board divided against itself: some of its members were old Boyle men, some were reformers in spirit but not in practice, some were neither, some liked Miller personally, some resented his quick sprint to power while they were taking a more laborious, painful and traditional route through successive levels of the hierarchy. The UMWA's outward image of shiny reform masked a troubled interior — whole departments such as safety and organizing were in turmoil; policies, to the extent they existed at all, were subject to change without notice.
Under such circumstances the union would not have won the strike at Brookside without the benefit of public relations. Eastover Mining could have withstood the union for a long time, backed up by the Harlan County Coal Operators' Association — the same association which had fought the UMWA in Harlan County, generally successfully, for half a century.
But these things had changed: first, the coal operators could no longer settle the strike with sheriff's deputies and machine guns, could not count on the governor of Kentucky to send in the National Guard, could not effectively intimidate the reporters and television crews; second, the UMWA as a matter of honor had to pour in millions of dollars, if necessary, to sustain the strikers, and did; third, and far and away the most important, Duke Power was vulnerable in its home territory. Duke could be and was subjected to a barrage of propaganda in the newspapers of North and South Carolina about conditions at Brookside — conditions that gave the lie to Duke's carefully nurtured image as "your friendly neighborhood power company," whose linemen were so busy rescuing kittens from trees that you hardly even noticed when your rates went up. Proposed rate increases came in for new publicity, thanks to the UMWA; citizen groups joined forces to oppose them. Duke found itself fighting an unfamiliar kind of war on too many fronts at once.
The lines deepened and hardened in Harlan County; there was bitterness to spare, and violence, although the violence was nothing in comparison with the battles of thirty years before. Duke Power could keep its plants running with coal from other mines, but gradually the company came to realize that the UMWA was not going to let go of its ankle — as long as the strike continued, there would be citizens' commissions holding hearings, reporters asking awkward questions, embarrassments on the evening news, full-page ads over the breakfast table, bad times in front of the commissioners deciding rate increase applications.
It was not worth it.
When finally, the violence brought the inevitable result — the death of a striking miner, Lawrence Jones, shot to death by a mine foreman — Duke had already been defeated. The company had already been forced to the bargaining table, and a contract with the UMWA was still being resisted but was in fact inevitable. The murder was too much; there was too much blood on the coal and the UMWA had been too successful in getting that fact across.
That was 1974. The members of the new UMWA local at Brookside posed proudly with their banner — “Local Union 1974" — and were photographed for posterity, looking confident. To the outsider, it seemed clear that the UMWA had regained its foothold in Harlan County, that it would not and could not be driven out again. It seemed equally clear that decades of injustice were over; miners denied their pensions by Lewis and Boyle would receive their checks now, signed by Miller; the slaughter of men in the mines would end as the UMWA brought new vigilance to mine safety committees and the rank-and-file.
It has not worked that way. In Harlan County most of the mines that were non-union in 1974 are non-union today. Old miners still watch the mails, waiting for justice that does not come. More men died in the mines of Kentucky last year than the year before. And the union's most recent organizing effort, at the Scotia mine where 26 men had died in two explosions earlier this year, went up on the rocks and sank within weeks after it was launched.
What has happened? The situation baffles and bewilders. There is a tendency, both within and outside the union, to seek a scapegoat—to say that UMWA reformers have lost their zeal for reform; to say that they have sold out; to say that the union's much-publicized in-fighting has drained it of purpose and robbed it of a sense of direction. All of which may be true to some extent. But there are circumstances far more profound which have much more to do with the UMWA's seemingly stalled drive to re-organize the non-union mines of Kentucky, and these circumstances ought to be looked at carefully by union members and outsiders alike before any more judgements are passed or myths perpetuated.
Harlan County is still Harlan County. For every miner who looks to the UMWA for his protection, there are two who are older and remember being abandoned. Men who gave the best years of their lives to the mines and to John L. Lewis are not so easily stirred again now. The union owes them something; it owes them a commitment to come back to the mountains, not just for one organizing drive or even a dozen drives, but to stay to put down deep roots, to settle in for the long winter of building better houses and schools, making its resources available to finance mortgages, using its muscle to clean out corrupt county courthouses.
It owes the younger miners something too. It owes them its support and a chance to climb upward through the union hierarchy on the basis of merit rather than who-you-know. It owes them education in their history — the history of their union as a central part of the labor movement and the history of the coalfields they grew up in. The schools don't teach this history; if the union doesn't, who will?
The coal operators of Harlan County are denied their machine guns now, but they have an equally powerful weapon: money. They have it to burn. They have lived all their lives in a never-ending cycle of boom and bust, and these days it is all boom, and they can pay wages high enough to keep the UMWA at bay. A union miner's paycheck is, in effect, diminished by the amount his employer pays into the UMWA Health and Retirement Fund — a high-cost insurance plan, which pays out a million dollars a day in benefits. His employer pays that cost, along with the cost of numerous other contractual benefits, and it is no difficult thing for the coal operator down the road to calculate the cost of the union's benefit package and offer the equivalent to his workers up front, in their paychecks, to keep them happy and the union out. It happens all the time; with a younger and younger workforce — miners who are 30 or 40 years away from worrying about a pension — cash up front turns out to be a better union-busting weapon than a gun.
Thus the dilemma: the union, struggling with internal problems, must deliver on past promises, while the operators are uniquely equipped to divert the attention of miners who are less and less part of a union tradition. For the union, the odds are rough. The spirit of union democracy is very much alive in the UMWA, but it is less dramatic and visible than dissension. The dedicated mine safety committeeman, taking time to learn a bewildering array of federal regulations and then enforcing those regulations in the face of company threats, is far less obvious to the world than the pensioner denied justice by the narrow interpretation of eligibility regulations.
They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there.
You 'll either be a union man
Or a thug for J. H. Blair!
Sheriff Blair is gone; the coal operators remain, well armed. The union men, arrayed against them, are still strong; the same battles remain to be won, although tactics have changed and will change; but the UMWA, like most of the rest of the labor movement, still moves uncertainly, needs more blood, must still find the key to what Daniel Weaver understood so well in 1861.
"We Had A Victory"
interviews by Bob Hall
The Brookside strike, coming on the heels of the insurgent Miners For Democracy campaign, enjoyed more press coverage than perhaps any strike of its size in history. It was no accident. Planning events to attract favorable publicity was itself part of a sophisticated union strategy that brought national pressure against an insignificant electric utility in the Carolinas. The Duke Power Company had thought getting into the mining business would be a good investment for the second largest private consumer of coal in America. Its subsidiary, the Eastover Mining Company, had signed a sweetheart contract with the Southern Labor Union (SLU) a few days after purchasing the Brookside mine in 1970. Everything seemed to be going smoothly for the company — until mid-1973 when the Brookside miners voted 113-55 to throw out the SLU and bring in the UMW, setting in motion the innovative, yet little analyzed strategy which ultimately brought the country's sixth-largest utility to its knees. These excerpts of interviews conducted by Bob Hall outline that journey to victory; other works offer a fuller portrait of the miners and their wives during the strike (see particularly, Bryan Woolley and Ford Reid, We Be Here When the Morning Comes, University of Kentucky Press, 1975).
Darrell Deaton, vice president of the Brookside UMW Local: We went out because we wanted a better future, you might say. Coat looked like it was going to be good for the next 15 or 20 years, and we wanted a good future. Mostly for security reasons. The UMW is a good organization for a coal miner. For the health and safety program, for better working conditions. And job security is what I really was after. Without a union, a company can move you around. They can put you on any shift they want to. Or any job. Or lay you off.
And then, too, I been raised in the union, in my family. My dad retired at Brookside — this same mine, under different owners — as a United Mine Worker. I was always what you'd say a pro-union man. Then we worked under the Southern Labor Union for about three years, it wasn't really nothing. We had no future working through them. It was what you call a company union, a yellow-dog union. So we voted them out.
We had a couple meetings with the company after we won the election. They looked encouraging, so we kept working even without a contract. Well, it became pretty obvious what they was doing. They had no intention of signing the UMW contract, it wasn't anything to do with specific issues, really, in my opinion, the company just didn't like the idea of the union having any say in how to run the mine. To a certain extent, the union can dictate a whole lot to them. I mean as far as where you can place a man and such as that. They wanted it all under their control and the SLU let them do it.
James "Goat" Thomas, UMW organizer: I had read about Harlan County. I'm from southern Illinois and in the mines 8 years. My dad and granddad were miners. I was active in the Miners for Democracy, and so some of the people I knew in the union asked me to go down and take an organizing job there. Brookside was my first campaign; it was a real experience, you know. It brought me in contact with lots of different types of people and things which I never did understand before. You could read about it, but you really couldn't believe that people lived that way in Appalachia, and I went down there and seen and it's still kind of hard to believe. The coal camps, they've been non-existent around this part of the country for 35 years. Company house, company stores, things like that, you just don't realize it's still happening.
People were really looking for something to help them out. Of course, that Brookside mine was very, very bad. It had bad top, and no safety at all in the mine. There was no ventilation. They was under SLU which they never really got to vote on anyway — it was just a set up deal, more or less forced on them. There was two generations there. There was the younger ones who wanted change. And there was the older ones who had been there in '64 when the UMW pretty well abandoned them. They had gone out on strike, but the union only gave them $25 a week for relief, and the district office kept part of that. Harlan County had been 90 percent UMW in the 1950s, but after that there was a lot of mistrust toward the leadership. That was one thing the new UMW had to combat. When the union sent organizers in, half the miners were out on strike and half were in scabbing and it wasn 't working. So the first job for Houston Elmore and Tom Pysell, the organizers, was to get that stopped. Things started moving, and the pensioners, they saw how the union was keeping up the families, and they got on board. It became a real revival sort of thing. You know, "The United Mine Workers is back."
Things really picked up momentum in the county. But I believe that the outside work was what made the difference. That was the big thing that got them to sign a contract. I don't think that as big a company as Duke Power is, that the little pressure that we could apply to them at the mine would have much effect.
Bernie Aronson, UMW publicity director and top strategist for the Duke Power Campaign: It became clear that if we were confined to Harlan that we were at a real disadvantage given how insignificant the production of that mine was to Duke's overall needs (only 4-5 percent) and given how militantly anti-union the coal operators in the county were. It was the bastion of independent coal operators. More than a third of the non-UMW coal mined each year comes from eastern Kentucky. And the anti-union forces had plenty of resources: money, political officials, in some cases the police, the courts...So that began us looking at Duke Power Company and trying to figure out where they were vulnerable.
We started by going to Charlotte, North Carolina, where Duke was headquartered. We set up picket lines there and began to get publicity in North Carolina. Then in researching the company, we found they had a 17 percent rate increase pending before the N.C. Utilities Commission, so I did up thousands of bumper stickers saying "Stop Duke Power's 17% Rate Increase" and we started handing them out in the state. We took out full page ads in the Charlotte Observer and other papers which talked about two points: One, the conditions miners worked under, emphasizing the medical, safety and housing conditions and showing what they were actually fighting for, so that even in a state like North Carolina, which was not friendly to labor, the issues would be understood. It wouldn't be seen simply as a union trying to gain more power but as individual people, coal miners, working people, trying to do something for their families, trying to better themselves. The second point we made was to suggest to people in North Carolina that they too were being victimized by Duke Power in terms of the pending rate fight.
We also began speaking to groups around the state. We went to Duke University, which was largely supported from money earned by stock in the Duke Power Co., and miners spoke to students there, and they in turn started pressuring the university officials and trustees. And we contacted groups that were fighting the rate increase, the Institute for Southern Studies and N.C. PIRG, and they began to see us as an ally and offered their support. We ran more ads as the increase case came up that more directly tied in what was happening in Brookside with the rate increase. Then we put coupons in the ads urging citizens who wanted to learn more about fighting the rate increase to write in to Carolina Action, which was a citizens' organization formed in Durham initially around the rate fight. So we began recruiting for Carolina Action, basically. And when the case was held in the Utilities Commission, they won the right to have a series of hearings around the state, and from those names, they were able to organize huge public meetings against Duke Power.
We expanded the fight to Wall Street because as a utility, Duke was continually trying to raise more capital. Disrupting their ability to sell stocks and bonds was serious business to them. We had miners go to Wall Street and pass out leaflets at the New York Stock Exchange. We used full page ads in the Wall Street Journal to warn any potential investors against Duke Power. We went to their annual meeting of stockholders with miners and consumers and made the Brookside strike the issue to be dealt with. We urged various institutions to boycott the stock and got commitments from 66 union pension funds that they would not buy any Duke bonds or stocks. We found out that the seventh largest stockholder of Duke was the Ohio Public Employees Retirement Fund, and we made a presentation of our case to them. We went there and found the Duke Power people in the hall with their slide projector to present their case. But the directors of the fund in fact voted not to buy any more of Duke's stock. We kept that kind of pressure up, and the stories kept appearing in the business and general media about Duke's "problems."
It was described by Forbes recently that that year was the worst year of Duke president Carl Horn's life. What we had done was make an obscure strike in an obscure coal mine that probably none of Duke's directors knew much about into the most pressing issue that confronted them. We forced them to move from their original position — which was that Eastover ran its own affairs and they couldn't interfere — to taking the personal initiative to end the strike. So all these tactics were a way of giving our home base in Harlan leverage and making Duke Power feel it. When the negotiations were going on at the last day, the Harlan Co. Coal Operators still wanted to fight it out, to not settle, but it was Duke Power that gave the word that they had to settle. The real decisions were made outside the county and we had the job of making them be accountable for what was going on locally....
The experience of the Miners For Democracy movement helped in that it had set the precedent for going outside the narrow lines of traditional labor tactics and involving other constituencies. In fact, most of labor resisted the MFD movement, with the exception of the UAW and the AFSCME. We had separate funding and volunteers and journalists and young public interest researchers all involved in that campaign, too, and they were critical to getting the MFD candidates elected. These same skills from the MFD were used in Brookside — reaching miners, organizing, press relations, literature, photo documentations. The parallel also works in that we used both public relations and organizing, keeping both sides strong. That was essential. In Harlan, the traditional organizing work continued, keeping the picket lines up, dealing with the courts and the law, keeping the mine dosed, keeping spirits up, doing community work. Then coupled with that, we had the Duke Power rate fight campaign. Neither substituted or diluted from one another. The campaign outside was an extension of the miners' base in Harlan. It translated their power into something that the company could feel. It also helped to keep morale up in Harlan at the same time that it generated national publicity. They would come to Charlotte and meet with people and see people they didn 't even know saying "We're with you." They saw their press; they got a sense of their own power, that Duke Power couldn't sit back, but was vulnerable.
Darrell Deaton: I would say the publicity played the biggest part in winning the contract. We got so much publicity; that kept the men kind of interested. It built morale up, made them want to do things they probably wouldn't have done. If it had been a low key thing, with no publicity, it would have been hard to win, I guess. Normally, people in small towns and in counties can't get away with too much like you can in these cities, like a lot of demonstrations and things that wouldn't be tolerated in a place like this. But this thing got so much publicity that it turned the tables, you might say. Instead of all the pressure being on us, the company had to watch out what it did. It was put on the defensive, and anything it did could be blown up. We had a lot of press coverage and television people coming through all the time.
Some of the press got a little out of hand, I think. All the references to the 1930s and Bloody Harlan, and saying things were coming back like then. But it never really got that bad. Back in the '30s, it was just a do or die thing. They weren't making nothing, starving to death. They didn't have no choice. They had to do it. We did have a choice, as far as wages and benefits. Most of us chose to come back here. This is a fine place to live. Of course, I might be a little partial. I was born and raised within 100 yards of where I live now. I've been all over. I've been to Korea and Japan. I worked in a shipyard in Norfolk just before I came back here. I've worked in Detroit and Dayton and Cincinnati. But I wouldn't give up here for nothing I've seen nowhere.
Goat Thomas: The publicity was overall very important. It did cause a little friction between the men, some petty jealousy over who was covered, but I think you would more or less find that anywhere. They were thrown into the spotlight for the first time in their lives and had cameras in their face all the time. But when it came to the nut cutting, they were always together. They held together exceptionally well, really. The spirits were very high throughout in Harlan. We had local meetings every week. We 'd have rallies and bring people in. We'd publicize things around whenever anything good happened. You could go up to the courthouse and you talk to people and the word would spread and in two hours you could have a meeting of everybody.
Harlan is like the hub, with all the towns in the hollers out from it. You've got like 5500 pensioners in the county. They have a really strong union spirit, probably more so than anyplace in the country. It was giving them something to do to spread the word, and they did it. It was a really county-wide type of organizing. We had a very strong base, and it was with the old and young, the women as well as the men — which was very important.
You see, Byrd Hogg, the Harlan County judge, put out an injunction to limit the number of pickets per entrance to two men, and as soon as he done that, the next day Duke scabbed the mine. The women got together and they just went up there and put up their own picket line. They weren't covered by the injunction against the mineworkers, you see. Well, they carried dubs and sticks up there, and when the scabs came through, why they beat the hell out of a couple of them. And that turned the tide. The men had done what they could. It's a hard thing when you're on a picket line and the law's there, to know how far you can go without bringing too much trouble on yourselves. Well, those women they just didn't give a damn. They just took it over and that fired the men up. I never seen anything like it. That stopped the Eastover people. The second time they tried to bring scabs in was February, 1974, and the women came out in full force. They trapped twelve scabs who had gotten through in the mine and wouldn't let them out. They chased them back in the mine. And then when we had Eastover's Highsplint mine out, they came out again. And the pensioners were there, too, helping keep the mine shut down.
Bessie Lou Cornett, treasurer of the Brookside Women's Club: We kind of organized ourselves and got to talking to each other about how these scabs were crossing the picket line. The first weeks of the strike, the miners — you know, our husbands, sons, our fathers — were able to stop the scabs, but then Duke Power got an injunction against the miners and it limited the miners to three pickets on an entrance. So, with two entrances at Brookside, that was six miners and as many as seventy-five scabs were crossing every day. Six miners couldn't do that much. And the six that were going down there, they were taking shifts, and the scabs were spitting on them and cussing them and calling them names, and they would come home and they'd be talking about taking their shotguns down to the picket line. How they were going to stop the scabs and that was the only way to do it.
We wanted to be able to help the men stop the scabs and get a contract without all that violence. And so what we did was we talked to each other. We had a march and said, "Why don't we just go down to the picket line ourselves. We can stop the scabs. The court don't have an injunction against us. " We saw that as a tactic for getting around this injunction. So, that's what we did.
We didn't stop them by asking them not to cross the line. We whipped them with switches and with whatever we had. At one point, we laid on the picket line. That was when there was so many state police there that the state police were ready to escort the scabs through. We had tried all tactics, but we didn't want to get arrested. So, we thought if we were peaceful —by laying down — instead of whipping them as usual, then we wouldn't get arrested. But as it turned out, several women were arrested — my sister, my mother, and a couple of other women. But the scabs were stopped. They turned on back because the police could see they were going to have to arrest everybody there if they let the scabs in. So what they figured they'd do is they'd get off a few key people. Take them to jail. And the rest of us would leave. But we didn't. We stayed and stopped them. Some friction developed because the men started saying, "Well, our women belong at home." But overall, the men were pretty good. They could see that their hands were tied. They were a fraid that we would get hurt. But as long as we were stopping them, there was no violence. There wasn't that much friction over it. We kept going down there. We were organized and together for the duration of the strike. There were times when Duke Power would just give up, when they couldn 't get enough scabs to come through. Then we would just stay home. We set up fundraisers and ways to make extra money to help buy children Christmas presents, to help pay for the medicines the strike benefits couldn't cover. And we did those things while we weren't on the picket line. But as soon as the scabs would start to cross, we'd go down there.
Darrell Deaton: The women was a real important factor. Women can get away with more than men - as far as the law is concerned. Course they got manhandled a little bit, but they came out real well. We had real good women on the picket line. They was brave women. They weren't necessarily mean women. They was pushing their luck a whole lot. They done a real good job. It could have possibly saved some violence. A lot of times when the women came to the picket line, the men were better off. Every time you get men confronting each other, there's a danger that somebody'll get hurt. There was a lot of guns carried during that period, too. Of course, there was men there to back up the women. Men would be all up and down the road or railroad track. But the women took it on themselves to keep down the violence.
It did get hot when we picketed at Highsplint, Eastover's other mine there in Harlan. We had it shut down for awhile. That's where the scabs from Brookside was working. Tempers did get pretty hot there. That's when Lawrence Jones got shot. One of the bosses from Brookside who knew Lawrence, he lived near him, he shot him down. And he died. That brought things to a climax. Things were building then, and I think Arnold Miller and Carl Horn were already meeting, but that got them down to business. That's when Duke signed the contract.
Bernie Aronson: The shooting was in a way proof that our strategy was right. Miners have been killed in organizing drives for 40 years in Harlan County, but this time it was different. Had not there been a year of organizing, of publicity and pressure tactics, of bringing the strike to North and South Carolina, had not that all happened, the death of Lawrence Jones would have been just one more miner killed, and nobody would have heard of it. But Duke felt it was one more level of pressure that they would feel directly. They were told by the UMW that we would bring Lawrence Jones' casket to their doorstep in Charlotte. And bring the miners with it, and hold a national ceremony there. It would be another escalation of pressure on them. We had just had a march with 4000 miners in Harlan after declaring a week's memorial that dosed down all the union mines in the nation. We finally had the President's top labor negotiator at the negotiating sessions, for this obscure coal mine, and here he was twisting the arm of Duke Power to settle.
No single event turned Duke Power. They saw constant escalation, a series of events, from pickets to intervenors at their rate increase requests, then interference in their stock sales, then increasingly bad publicity and a damage to their image and demands on their time to answer more and more of the charges, then the pickets moving on their other mines, then there were lawsuits threatened from stockholders. They knew they had to step in and settle it.
It was a very important, historic victory. It helped the people at Brookside and really changed everybody who was involved in it. It showed that there can be a real, effective, working and productive alliance between groups which are not traditionally viewed as allies—consumer, students, church groups, and labor, in this case all worked together. It helped give life to an organization in North Carolina — Carolina Action — which is still going, and helped other organizing for people there in the Carolinas. It had the immediate effect in the rate increase case of forcing Duke Power to restructure its rates in such a way that the large corporate users got the burden of the increase. And it helped the union's credibility throughout the mine fields, although we couldn't turn that into election victories easily.
We actually believed that once the Brookside mine fell, that all the other mines in Harlan County would just capitulate and wave the white flag, but like some other domino theories, this one didn't seem to be true. In fact, in some ways, the victory had the opposite effect. It stiffened the resolve of the coal operators. They recognized that the union was going to stick it out, and they had to develop their own sophisticated techniques. They formed an organization called Keep Informed Neighbors, and they started using our tactics. They started taking out ads, and using public relations techniques against us. So in addition to the standard practice of buying off people and intimidation, they got tougher. We lost some important mines in Harlan County as a result.
I think we learned how difficult organizing is. We have won more victories in the last three years than this union won in the last 30 years. We've won over 35 mines. But organizing is very, very hard. And the NLRA and the way it is enforced makes it easier for companies to beat unions than the other way around. I think these non-traditional techniques overall will be increasingly used because the companies are larger. They're able to withstand the economic effects of a strike. Take the Clothing Workers against Farah. They moved into the boycott. If the struggle was confined to a strike at the plant; they didn't have a chance. They had to get the labor movement to deal with Farah as a giant corporation, to countervail the pressures that it had. With Duke Power, the rate case fight and the investment strategy were partly dictated by the nature of that company. And I think that will be increasingly necessary: to identify the kind of company that the labor movement faces, determine its weaknesses where it can be pressured, where consumers and support efforts can make a difference, and go after those areas.
In developing these strategies, I think there are a number of lessons we learned from Brookside that are helpful. One thing to remember is that it's very. important to humanize a strike to people. People don't respond simply to terms like wages, pensions and cost of living, they respond to people. So if you're trying to run a boycott or whatever, it's important to put your people out front— not the New York officials, but the rank-and-file people themselves, the people you want others to identify with, to get to know and appreciate and want to join. Pictures of people, quotes, get them on TV and the like. It's too easy for people to hate the union as an institution, but when you see Joe or Mary Jones and get to know their story, then people can respond to them individually.
Secondly, you should take your case to the public and learn how to attract the press, how to develop picket lines and demonstrations that can be media events, how to use the press in the same way that a politician does to get your message across. Sending a press release is not enough. We would always have the miners dress in their mine caps and knee pads because that caught the press' attention.
Third, you have to adapt to the peculiar characteristics of the company you're dealing with, the way they feel pressure. It may be how they raise money for their expansion, or who their suppliers are, or their public image, or their management's sensitivity to community pressure, or a consumer boycott.
Fourth, the union should be involved in fighting for other issues that are not directly related perhaps to bringing in membership. For example, with the textile workers, it would be very important for the union to organize around the issue of brown lung, not to get them in the union, but to do something concrete for textile workers. If they saw the union as the only organ or institution that was caring about protecting their lungs or seeking legislation to keep dust down, or getting them compensation, then they would understand concretely what the union was about, rather than simply having it continue to be a situation where the union came in and said we 're going to win you a contract. They would respond better if they had already seen what the union could do. We need to publicize the fact that unions are not a narrow type of institution. In fact, unions are doing many things like tax reform and getting benefits for the unemployed and civil rights and lobbying for senior citizens. All these things labor is doing, but it's not getting the message across very well.
Tom Bethell is research director of the United Mine Workers. He is the author of a book, The Hurricane Creek Massacre (Harper & Row, 1972), an investigation into the causes of the Finley Coal Company mine explosion that killed 38 Kentucky miners in 1970; edited Coal Patrol, a newsletter, until he joined the UMWA in 1973; and has been a contributor to The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Kentucky, since 1963. (1976)
Bob Hall is the founding editor of Southern Exposure, a longtime editor of the magazine, and the former executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies.