Reflections on a 4-Year Labor Strike
by writerscramp, Fri Mar 03, 2006 at 07:31:18 AM EST
When I was a freshman in high school in a little town in northern Wyoming, my stepdad, one of 200+ union mine workers at a nearby mine, voted to strike at 12:01 AM on October 1st, 1987. It was a strike that would last four years and in the process, change our family, our town, and our futures forever.
From the day he started working in his first mine, he'd been a union member. He believed in unions as surely as he believed in the Bible, and preached the virtues of the labor movement like it was the Word of God. By the time he met my mom, he was a strike captain in the United Mine Workers of America, Local #1972. He was also a hardcore Democrat and as far as he was concerned, union and Democrat were one and the same: they both championed the little guy, the one who didn't have the advantage of wealth or power or fame; they both valued the integrity of hard work; they both trusted in the power of the ordinary to do extraordinary things...they both believed that together, we are mighty.
Labor is the great producer of wealth: it moves all other causes. -- Congressman Daniel Webster, 4/2/1824
My stepdad worked at the Decker Coal Plant in Decker, Montana. It was a surface coal mine located about 60 miles north of Sheridan, Wyoming. Most everyone who worked at the mine lived in Sheridan. Decker Coal was only one of several coal mines in the area and was actually composed of two plants, or tipples -- my stepdad was a fill operator in the East Tipple. His job was to sit in a booth that straddled a set of train tracks while train cars lined up underneath the fill chute near his booth and he'd work the machinery that drew the coal through the chute and down into the train car. Once a car was filled, the train moved forward so the next car was lined up and he'd do it again, over and over, until all 110 cars in the train were full. It was a highly skilled and specialized job that required a lot of concentration and practice; cars had to be filled precisely so the weight was evenly distributed and so that all the coal was funneled into the car and not on the ground around it. Mistakes could be costly, slowing the whole operation down for several hours.
He started out in coal mines back East, near the small town in Southern Illinois where he grew up, working underground where it was dark and dirty and dangerous. It was a good opportunity for a kid just out of high school who'd barely graduated: good benefits and a decent wage he couldn't get flipping burgers. But when the chance came to take a surface mining job out in Wyoming where he wouldn't have to spend 14 hours each day underground, he leapt at the opportunity and moved out to Sheridan, a small town of about 15,000 people nestled in the arms of the great Bighorn Mountains. Over the next 15 years, he worked his way up the ladder until he became a fill operator.
It was hard work. Long hours, with the rotating shifts -- day, swing, and graveyard. But it had good benefits, the pay was decent, and with the copious amounts of required overtime, he was able to provide for his new family (us) as well as the two children from his previous marriage. Between his job at the mine and my mom's job as a bookkeeper, we were solidly in the middle of the middle-class.
That all changed in the fall of 1987. Contract negotiations were stumbling, mostly over proposed reductions in medical coverage and drastic changes in pensions. Peter Kiewit & Sons (PKS, the company that owned the mine) refused to negotiate in good faith, withholding documents the union requested and had legal right to, and talk of a strike became more frequent. My parents were worried, but hopeful that it'd never come to that. "It's a game of chicken," my stepdad said. "We're waiting for the other guy to blink, and so is he. Thing is, we're not gonna."
The deadline approached and PKS refused to cooperate with the negotiators; a few days before the end of September, the union members crowded into the union hall. All of us kids were playing at the miniature golf course across the street when they voted to authorize the leadership to strike if it came to that. From across the street, the roar after the vote was taken sounded like a sporting event.
Even then, a lot people thought it'd all work out before the deadline. On September 30th, the last day of their contract, people cleared out their lockers, just in case. Most of them griped on the way home that they'd just have to haul it all back out there the next day when they returned to work. But by the end of that day, there was still no contract; at 12:01 AM on October 1st, 1987, the strike began.
Despite the unanimous vote, some people did cross the picket line. And I have to say up front that I've never been comfortable with vilifying the people who do. The decision to strike in the first place is a hard choice for anyone to make and the consequences either way are extremely difficult. But my way of thinking on this subject certainly puts me in the minority in most union households, especially my parents'. I was forbidden from continuing friendships with those whose mom or dad crossed over, which would lead to some of the biggest rifts in my relationship with my parents while I lived at home. As well as my refusal to address the replacement workers as "scabs". Which earned me my share of punishments from my parents for not being (they felt) zealous enough in my support. It's not that I couldn't see where they were coming from -- I could -- but it just felt...wrong. It seemed so inconsistent with the lessons of tolerance that my normally progressive parents were so intent on ingraining in us. I'm still conflicted about it.
PKS brought in Pinkertons, the security company with a very long and brutal history of union-busting, harkening back to when being in a union was a risk to your health, when people were shot during labor disputes* and had their houses burned down by thugs paid by the company. Their tactics might've changed since then, but not much. They harassed both the miners and their families constantly, following them home from the picket lines, intimidating wives and children on their way to jobs and school, and shouting obscenities at the people walking the picket line. Mysterious vehicles drove by union members' houses late at night, back and forth, sometimes screeching tires or revving engines so you'd know they were out there. Sometimes there were petty acts of vandalism, too: broken windshields, tire tracks across the lawn, busted fences, graffiti on the concrete. We had our tires slashed repeatedly, broken glass sprinkled in the front yard, threats scrawled on our driveway in red paint. The day after my brother and his friends were followed to school by a dark blue van with a scary-looking man at the wheel, my parents started driving us to school.
(* The movie Matewan tells the story of the 1921 massacre of UMWA strikers in Matewan, West Virginia during a standoff with a security agency hired to bust the union. Ironically, the movie came out in 1987, the same year our strike started. It didn't show in our small town with its two-screen theater; we traveled 150 miles to Billings to see it.)
And since Sheridan was, for all intents and purposes, a company town, Pinkertons' job was also to discredit the union and their cause with the town's residents, to strip away whatever meager support we might have. They littered the driveway where the buses that drove the replacement workers from the PKS offices in Sheridan to the mine in Decker with something called a "jumping jack", two nails bent and twisted into a crude jumping jack shape meant to pierce tires when cars drove over them, and then union members were accused of putting them there. Stories of union members jumping replacement workers and beating them up circulated in town, along with accusations that they'd been seen vandalizing company property or breaking into the replacement workers' vehicles and stealing property inside.
This is what we were up against. The company posted a $250,000 reward for information on striking miners participating in "strike-related" activities. Most of the union officers and strike captains were brought up on charges resulting from such "information", including my stepdad. Nothing ever came of it -- charges were dismissed as frivolous and unmerited -- except, of course, harassing the people being charged and branding them as troublemakers. But I guess that was the whole point.
Not that the town needed much convincing that the union and its members were a bunch of lawless miscreants who were just trying to blackmail their employer into giving them more money and benefits. After all, union miners had some of the best jobs in town, with benefits and pay scales most other jobs in town couldn't offer, and they ought to be thankful for what they had, right? So signs that said "Union NO" started appearing in the front windows of local businesses and we quickly learned where we were welcome and where we weren't. Only a couple of grocery stores in town allowed us to shop there, one drugstore, a couple of banks. Everyone in town had an opinion about the strike, and the vast majority of the opinion was virulently anti-union.
And if you were a striking miner's kid, school became a microcosm of what was going on with your parents. Kids have a tendency to spout their parents' trash talk on the playground and in the school hallways and when there's a group of people to be vilified for being different, kids leap at the opportunity. And of course, the kids on the union side did the same, repeating all the stuff they heard over the dinner table. Did you hear about this kid's dad (judge on that picket line vandalism case) who's a fascist rat bastard and who wouldn't know the law if it bit him in the ass? Or about that kid's dad (union crane operator whose unemployment check didn't even cover the mortgage, let alone buy groceries) who's nothing but a lazy cheat who wants to get paid for sitting on his butt all day?
Yep, we learned pretty quick about the ugly undercurrent in a town like Sheridan. We learned that the small towns so idolized as the very essence of god-blessed Americana are quick to turn on their own when there's a company with lots of money to defend. But in the face of all this opposition from every quarter, the union held together. The rallies every Saturday were packed to the rafters and we all ate the same half-cooked chicken and rubbery Jell-O salad week after week while singing songs like "United We Stand, Divided We Fall" and "Solidarity Forever". There were usually fiery speeches by the union officers with reports on the latest developments, even though we already knew the latest developments about an hour after they developed.
Every so often there'd be a guest speaker, usually someone from another Local somewhere nearby -- one of the UMWA Locals in a nearby mine maybe, or the president of the IBEW Local in town. Sometimes there'd be a headliner, someone like Cecil Roberts (VP of the UMWA, now the President) or Richard Trumka (who was the UMWA President at the time, now the Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO). These people were celebrities in the union hall. I remember them eating dinner at my house often, because my stepdad was a strike captain and my mom was a good cook.
Gerry Spence even spoke at one of our rallies. He grew up in Wyoming, the son of a union railroad engineer. This was before the OJ trial and his TV gig as an expert commentator, but he was still pretty famous even then. And even though he lived in Jackson Hole, and drove cars that cost more than our houses, his "jes' folks" routine that'd made him famous with juries played pretty well with us, too, and he had the crowd laughing and cheering. But Gerry Spence wasn't the big speaker at that rally. We didn't recognize the name of the person he'd come to introduce, but when he told us a little bit about her, that she was a union organizer from South Africa who was now in exile, the room became very, very quiet.
She was working to end apartheid in her country, something that seemed impossible at the time. But she'd studied history and she knew that some of the biggest revolutions in history had been fought and won by the working class. And she and the other labor organizers knew they must be doing something right, because the South African government was doing everything in its power to stop them from organizing.
These were the same things my parents had told us over dinner each night, about how labor fought for things like better working conditions and a living wage and an end to child labor. Coal miners in West Virginia and factory workers in Ohio had fought for workers' rights decades earlier and in the process, revolutionized the country. Over in Poland, Lech Walesa, who'd been risking his life to organize dock workers since the 70s, was in the middle of what would become the (relatively) peaceful overthrow of the Communist dictatorship in his country. And as our speaker related through her own experiences, in South Africa, unions were helping people fight for the equality that was theirs by right.
(My stepdad had been the first to laugh at racist jokes (to our eternal shame and embarrassment), a remnant of the racism where he grew up that didn't quite go away despite his conversion to progressive values when he got older. But he stopped laughing at those kinds of jokes after listening to this courageous black woman recount her work in her country, where her government said she was less than a person. He stopped laughing at Polish jokes, too.)
Eight months later, June 1988, the strike ended. Except not really. PKS announced they would come back to the negotiating table, but wouldn't reinstate anyone who participated in the strike. So even though the strike was ended on paper, nothing changed. As strike captain, my stepdad still filled out picket schedules, my brother and I still spent Sunday afternoons fixing signs and making new ones, my mom and the rest of the Ladies' Auxiliary still spent Friday nights getting ready for Saturday's rally.
In between union activities, we spent that summer volunteering at the County Democratic Headquarters. My mom had decided that the only way to get politicians to support union issues was to get union politicians elected, so she talked people in the union (and their spouses and relatives) into volunteering and even running for local races: school board, county commissioner, sheriff. The woman was far ahead of her time. So my brother and I spent our time collating mailings and putting together name tags and all the other little jobs that are the standard fare of political volunteering. Including making signs, at which we were now seasoned professionals.
Mom was nominated (or volunteered? I'm not sure how it works, exactly) to the state convention as a party delegate, which means she got to meet the other ten democrats in the entire state. Okay, so that's an exaggeration, but not by much. They say that in Wyoming, the sheep outnumber the people ten to one, which means they outnumber the Democrats forty to one.
Other unions from all over joined us in solidarity, coming from miles away to march on our picket lines and attend our rallies. At Christmas, they came from places like North Dakota and Colorado bearing money and food, and gifts for the kids. There was even a group of the Campus Democrats from the University of Wyoming. These were college kids, most probably putting themselves through school by working part-time jobs waiting tables. They had any number of causes and issues to support, but instead, chose to drive 350 miles on ice-covered highways early on a Saturday to bring us a check, money they'd raised on our behalf, and to make a speech that voiced their support of our strike.
When the unemployment ran out, my mom took a second job, and then a third. My stepdad had been applying at mines out of town, but the striking miners had all been blacklisted, and not just with coal mines and not just in the region. A uranium mine in Montana, a gold mine in Nevada, a copper mine in Utah...all of them turned him down even when they desperately needed qualified people. Some of the interviewers were honest with him and told him about the blacklist, some of them just said they'd "gone with someone else", most of them never called back at all. But the effect was the same. My mom was working constantly, my stepdad couldn't find work anywhere, and money got tighter and tighter.
My stepdad was a very proud man who defined himself almost solely by his ability to provide for his family. He'd worked hard his whole life and coal mining was the only thing he knew how to do. He was barely literate, struggled with simple mathematics, and too proud to admit either one. When my mom was the only one bringing in a paycheck and my brother and I started to go without, first, the extras, and later, the necessities, his self-esteem plummeted. He was angry all the time, my mom was tired, and they were both worried. The elk he got every hunting season became our sole source of meat during the winter, and trout our only source in the summer. (So I guess it's a good thing we loved elk and trout so much because heaven knows we ate a ton of each.) My brother stopped going out for sports because we couldn't afford the fees and equipment and travel costs that are all required to participate. I stopped taking piano lessons and classes for gifted kids at the community college. My mom started cutting all of our hair to save money and we started buying clothes at Salvation Army. My brother and I weren't allowed to work during the school year -- our "job" was to focus on doing well in school - so I would save the money my mom gave me for lunch money and put it back in her purse every so often so she could buy gas. Maybe she was too tired to question why $20 seemed to sometimes appear in the detritus of her purse, or may she thought she'd forgotten she had it, but four years is a long time and I think she figured it out after awhile, or maybe she knew all along. She never mentioned it, though, and I pretended I needed money for a lunch ticket every two weeks.
Sometime during the second year, we qualified for the government food program where you stand in line early on a Saturday morning in a church parking lot somewhere and someone drives up in a big van and starts handing out large wheels of cheese and big white boxes of powdered milk. We were thankful to have that stuff available, but watching your mother start crying while she's putting food in the refrigerator tempers that gratefulness with shame and sadness.
We worked hard to stand strong and unwavering, but rallies weren't enough after awhile. Bill collectors were calling more often, the money got harder and harder to stretch, and it became more difficult each Saturday to stand up and cheer at the same old slogans when we needed things like eyeglasses and dental checkups and there was no way to pay for them.
By the third year, rallies were infrequent affairs. There wasn't much to celebrate. Divorces became more common, and people started moving away, following the rare job offer even though they'd be making half what they'd made at the mine because at least it was something. Or they'd go live with relatives somewhere until they could get back on their feet, most likely because the bank had foreclosed on their mortgage and they'd lost their house.
My senior year began the same way most kids' last year of high school does...ACT and SAT tests, a flurry of college applications and scholarship submissions. For fun, my mom and I filled out an application for a scholarship offered by Decker Coal and since I'd kept my father's last name, they didn't realize when they awarded me the $500 that they'd just helped to finance the college education of a striking miner's kid. We felt like we'd taken a small measure of revenge on the company that had such a drastic effect on us, and it amused us. But when the time came to write a thank-you letter to all the organizations that had given me scholarships, I seriously considered giving it back. My parents talked me into keeping it, but it was the dirtiest $500 I've ever gotten.
It was one of several scholarships I received, and I was accepted to every school I applied to, but even so, my parents couldn't meet the parental obligation required by financial aid, couldn't even afford the plane ticket to fly me to most of them, let alone the other miscellaneous costs that scholarships don't cover. So I chose a community college nearby to alleviate the burden on my parents. It was cheaper and could be covered by the scholarships I'd gotten and the way I saw it, at least I could still go to college. But I think my parents always felt ashamed that they couldn't have helped me more.
That summer, in the midst of summer jobs and getting ready for college and the last hurrahs with friends before we all went our separate ways, four years of inertia suddenly ended and there was news of a settlement. The strike was...over? We dared not say the words.
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled in favor of the Union, affirming that PKS was guilty of unfair labor practices, and ordered them to immediately negotiate with the Union to a settlement. The battle we'd fought so hard, the victory that had eluded us so long and been the only thing sustaining us through four years of hardship and sacrifice had finally arrived.
The NLRB decision can be found here (warning: long...like, 22 pages long).
It goes into extensive detail about the specific contract disputes; the juicy details about the start of the strike itself (as well as a mention of my stepdad, just as a point of interest), starts on page 16. It's odd...in researching for this diary, and reading through this document in particular, I find the 14+ years since the strike ended have come rushing back in a flood of memory -- names I'd forgotten, people who were regular visitors at my house, whose kids I babysat, who were my parents' best friends -- and one of the most defining events of my life, filtered through the intervening years of experience and perspective, takes on an even bigger significance to me than it did at the time.
It took several months, but on September 30th, 1991, exactly four years since first going on strike, the United Mine Workers of America, Local #1972 and Decker Coal Company reached a negotiated settlement.
Look up the phrase "Pyrrhic victory" in the dictionary and you'll no doubt see our contract settlement as the definition. The NLRB was on our side, sure, but PKS had substantially accomplished its main goal and in effect, busted the Union. People had been suffering for four long years, languishing through joblessness and debt and all that entails, and the Union lost the advantage it'd had in the beginning -- our solidarity. PKS had us over the ropes. And they knew it.
I found the actual terms of the settlement quoted in a later state court case, of all places:
On June 27, 1988, the UMWA made an unconditional offer to return to work, effectively ending the strike; however, Decker did not allow the workers who had participated in the strike to return to the mine. Finally, on September 30, 1991, the UMWA and Decker reached a negotiated settlement. The terms of the settlement agreement provided: "All strikers except those noted below, shall be entitled to $35,000 in backpay [sic], less tax withholdings, for the period of time since their June 27, 1988 unconditional offer to return to work until reinstatement."
 The settlement agreement classified the workers who had participated in the strike into several categories. The material categories included: (1) the strikers who were legally entitled to be reinstated to their former positions would be reinstated by Decker and would receive $35,000.00 in "back pay"; (2) the strikers who were legally entitled to be reinstated to their former positions but not reinstated by Decker would receive $100,000.00 in "back pay" and a "severance payment"; and (3) the strikers who were not legally entitled to be reinstated to their former positions would receive $35,000.00 in "back pay". The settlement agreement included specific mathematical formulas to calculate the amount of "back pay" or the amount of "back pay" and a "severance payment" for each category.
The majority of the strikers fell into category (1), which meant that they would get their old jobs back. Category (3) strikers' positions had been eliminated so they were entitled to return to work, but would be restored to different positions than they'd had before the strike started.
PKS refused to reinstate those classified in Category (2), however, and as part of the negotiations, the union representatives had conceded that point in exchange for the offer to the majority of the workers. After all, only 15 union members comprised Category (2), and I suppose it was only logical to trade the good of the many over the good of so few. However, all 15 workers had to agree to the terms -- which included agreeing not to challenge the terms in court individually -- and take the buyout in order for the settlement to take effect. In other words, if even just one of the 15 refused to sign, none of the other striking miners would get their settlement deals (jobs/pensions/buyouts).
The 15 Category (2) strikers had been targeted early on by PKS; some were the officers of the Local, some were strike captains, and the rest were the most vocal of the union, the ones who kept everyone standing together not just during the strike, but in all the years before, when management had tried to violate previous union contracts and thought no one would challenge them. These were the "troublemakers and rabble-rousers". This was Decker Coal's opportunity to rid itself of the strongest members of the union and in so doing, to weaken the Local permanently, from the inside.
My stepdad was one of the 15. I'll never forget that day, when he and my mom came home from the union hall, fresh from the announcement of the terms presented to the union membership. We had been so excited that it was finally over, that we could get back to normal again. But when he walked through the door, he looked so tired and old to me. There was no smile, no pride of victory, no confirmation that his fervent belief in the power of unity had prevailed. Just a wearied, beaten man with the fate of his union brothers and sisters on his shoulders.
He and my mom sat us down at the dinner table (they'd called me home from college 150 miles away) as soon as they got home and explained what the union had negotiated. The union membership hadn't yet cast their vote and he was asking us to make the decision together on what his vote would be. We already knew what it was going to be, that there was only one way for him to vote, but we decided together as a family just the same.
That night after the vote, union people gathered at our house for what I guess you would call a celebration, though only in the sense that everyone was celebrating not a victory, but an end. It was the one and only time in my life that I ever saw my stepdad drunk.
What was left of the $100,000 settlement after taxes paid a couple of the biggest debts my parents had accumulated in the four years he'd been out of work, though there was still quite a bit of debt leftover and they had to cash out the pension that was part of the severance package to keep from losing the house. We were luckier than some, even some of the strikers who'd been classified as Category (1); their $35,000 "backpay" was too little, too late for some of them, and they lost their homes or had to sell them to pay their debts. Considering that most of them made about $70,000/year after overtime, and they were getting backpay for only six months out of four years of unemployment -- and all of it taxable -- it's hardly any wonder.
Things were never the same after that. Some of the union members went back to work, though most of them left within a few years. Some people, including my parents, moved away from Sheridan not long after the strike ended, trying to make a fresh start, trying to find work now that that their names were off the blacklist, trying to make up for lost time and wages since retirement was now four years closer and they were four years older.
Some years ago, my husband and I had dinner at a friend's house whose other guest was a visiting law professor teaching a 6-week summer class at her law school. He was one of the attorneys who'd worked on the union's case before the NLRB. He was excited about the opportunity to speak directly to one of the people who'd lived through it. He recognized my stepdad's name immediately and we talked about the brazen tactics of the coal company during those four long years. My friend, a staunch Republican, had a lot to think about while we talked, learning first-hand that big business is no friend to its employees and that yes, unions are indeed a necessity. The professor told me that our strike is now studied in law schools around the country and that it set major precedence for labor law. I told him that I wasn't sure my parents would find much solace in that.
I think sometimes, especially in the first couple of years after the strike ended, my parents and the rest of the striking miners and their families probably looked back on the strike and wondered what they'd been fighting for, considering how it all turned out. What had they accomplished, really? All that sacrifice and heartache...for what?
For the future, is the answer. Watching my parents' struggle, this fight that seemed so impossible, we learned first-hand just what it really means to stand up for what you believe in. The words are easy to say, and talk, as they say, is cheap. But when it comes down to it, to gambling your future, your family's future, on a principle and a trust in the people who share your beliefs, the actual act of standing up, fist held high, is one of the most courageous things you can ever do.
They had no guarantee that the rest of the people in the union wouldn't chicken out at the last minute, when push came to shove. There was no certainty they'd win. It wasn't money or benefits or anything else that made people like my stepdad vote to strike that September night in 1987. And principle, though laudable, doesn't pay the bills.
But he voted anyway.
I knew at the time that this experience was shaping me and my beliefs. Looking back, I realize just how deeply they shaped me. My parents, always Democrats, always politically active, believed in the responsibility of citizenship, that the price of freedom means participation and vigilance and standing up for what you believe in, no matter who else stands with you. When the unions in Poland and Czechoslovakia and other countries behind the Iron Curtain stood up to their government oppressors, and when that South African woman told us about her union's fight against apartheid, my parents stressed to us, over and over, just how much of a role the labor movement played in upholding democracy. "It wasn't the companies who fought for democracy in this country," they'd say, "it was people like us -- farmers, miners, factory workers. And you see it is this way in these other countries, too."
I've always been an activist at heart, either because of the way I was raised or the way my DNA lined up or a combination of both. But in the years since the strike, my natural tendency to tilt at windmills has been tempered by the understanding of what it means: you fight every day, not because of what you hope to achieve, but because it's the right thing to do. You'll never be guaranteed a win, no matter how righteous your cause; fighting the good fight doesn't mean you get a happy ending. But you fight for what's right anyway, because it's what's right. And if you're very, very lucky, others will stand to fight alongside you.