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Remembering Pittston

After a year of revolutions, strikes, and protest occupations, a new era of struggle has shifted the political landscape. Workers and the poor have taken to the streets, occupying public squares and striking across the globe – from Egypt to Greece to cities across the U.S.

In particular, the Occupy movement in the U.S. has helped to mainstream radical critiques of the capitalist system. The movement’s bold tactics have terrified the ruling one percent, which has lashed out violently to protect its power and wealth from the fury of the 99 percent.

When it comes to breaking the rules of the one percent, a natural yet complicated alliance between Occupy and the labor movement offers today’s new struggle against economic inequality historical lessons written by the organized working class. Long before Occupy, the labor movement shaped a tradition of militancy in the United States – a tradition of factory occupations and civil disobedience in the fight for justice and workers power.

But these lessons are by no means limited to the great labor upsurge of 1930s. One of the most militant labor battles since the post-war strike wave took place in 1989 when mineworkers at Pittston Coal fought what at times could be described as a guerilla war against their union-busting employer.

Similar to today, the Pittston strike was waged in a period of unrelenting anti-worker attacks. Beginning with PATCO and Ronald Reagan’s success in breaking a strike of 12,000 air traffic controllers, the 1980s saw the full force of the law used to snuff out the power of unions. Labor was cornered, facing a coordinated employers’ offensive enabled by Taft-Hartley and a whole body of laws decidedly stacked against workers.

When Virginia-based Pittston Coal refused to sign onto an industry standard contract covering the health and retirement benefits of 2,000 mineworkers, the United Mine Workers of American (UMWA) set out on a corporate campaign to pressure the company. After 14 months of working without a contract, Pittston remained intransigent, threatening to force its own contract on workers as it began hiring scab labor.

In April the workers struck. The UMWA declared that the strike was in response to unfair labor practices – in particular, the hiring of replacement workers. Standard picketing soon gave way to more aggressive tactics after Pittston won court injunctions that limited pickets. The company also used state troopers to escort replacement miners and coal trucks passed picket lines.

A phase of civil disobedience ensued as workers conducted sit down strikes and formed blockades to stop scab trucks on the roads leading to the mines. The Daughters of Mother Jones, a group formed by miners’ wives and other supporters, organized a sit-in at Pittson’s headquarters, occupying the building for over 30 hours. At its height, the strike involved over 500 women who led strike activities, including road blockades and slow-moving convoys to delay coal trucks.  

Pittston went to court and won millions of dollars in fines against the union and strike leaders were briefly jailed for purported vandalism associated with the civil disobedience campaign. In the meantime, strikers established Camp Solidarity , a recreational park used to accommodate people from across the country who came to support the strike. During the course of the Pittston struggle, up to 50,000 supporters traveled to southwest Virginia.

In September, an action referred to as “Moss 3” became one of the defining moments of the strike. The UMWA secretively planned a takeover of Pittston’s Moss 3 Preparation Plant. Dressed in camouflage, a group of 99 strikers moved in on the plant, supported by thousands of strikers and supporters who gathered outside. The 99 mineworkers peacefully sat down inside Moss 3 and halted production. After occupying the plant for four days, the workers walked out when word spread that Pittston had called in the National Guard to eject the strikers. 

Following the sit-down strike, a wave of wildcat strikes characterized by more violent activity took hold. At its peak, nearly 37,000 wildcat strikers across eight Appalachian and Midwestern states joined the fight in solidarity with Pittston workers. Strikers used jack rocks and plastic pipes studded with nails to disable trucks and threw rocks at company vehicles.

In addition to camouflage that was used as the official clothing among strikers, individual supporters wore masks and set up picket line at other mines in order to spread the strike. Felled trees were used to block coal-hauling roads and some trucks were reportedly hit with bullets.

After a car bomb exploded outside of Pittston’s headquarters, the union asked workers engaged in unauthorized strikes to temporarily return to work. But mineworkers also claimed that some of the violence and vandalism was being committed by Vance Security, Pittston’s security force, in an effort to vilify the union.

Although the wildcat actions were illegal and not authorized by the union, UMWA officials did not explicitly condemn them or their tactics. In total, over 4,000 people were arrested during the struggle.

In February 1990, having successfully defeated Pittston’s union-busting drive, the mineworkers ended the strike. The workers held on to their employer-paid healthcare and retirement benefits and even won a wage increase.

Union negotiator and author Joe Burns notes that the UMWA was able to buck the anti-labor trend of the 1980s by using strategic flexibility and militancy at Pittston that went well beyond the bounds of the law.

“Led by Richard Trumka, before he went on to become president of the AFL-CIO, the Pittston struggle would ultimately show how a committed and unified international union with a militant membership and workers willing to disregard the restrictions of the system of labor control could fight back against a union-busting company.”

Indeed, few remember that today’s head of the largest labor federation in the U.S. stood at the helm of this rebellious struggle.

“If we give in to what Pittston wants, it’ll set a pattern for other companies that will cause further erosion and finish us,” Trumka told the New York Timesduring the strike. “People keep asking how long we can hold out. The answer: one day longer than Pittston.”

Trumka’s words could be repeated today in the Occupy movement, only protesters might say that we will hold out one day longer than the one percent. Today Trumka stands at the helm of the union movement where, among other things, he helps to channel labor’s political weight into the Democratic Party – the same party whose mayors have been leading the charge against Occupy protesters.  

But the Occupy movement can learn a great deal from past struggles in the labor movement, even looking back no further than 2008 to Republic Windows and Doors. Like mineworkers at Pittston, some 200 laid-off workers in Chicago occupied their shuttered factory for six days demanding severance pay – and won.

The Occupy movement has now twice shut down West Coast ports during days of action that have combined Occupy and the power of labor at the point of production. The idea of a general strike, if not yet its actual realization, is back on the table.

Across the street from McPherson Square , the site of Occupy DC , a seven-story building with luxuriant arched windows stands at the corner of 15th and I Streets. A plaque on the side facing the square reads, “Associated with the American Labor Movement since the 1930s, this building served for over two decades as organized labor’s command post under the stewardship of the United Mine Worker of America President John L. Lewis.” 

The roots of Occupy lie in the foundations of working-class struggle built by organized labor. From the 99 strikers at Pittston to the 99 percent movement today, the tradition of disrupting the profit system of the one percent is alive and well.   

Brian Tierney is a freelance labor journalist in Washington, DC. Read more of his work at Subterranean Dispatches.    

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