The miners’ strike of 1977–78

Resisting the employers’ offensive

It’s my feeling that right now the operators are making an all out attempt to break the strength of the United Mine Workers. And if they can break the strength of the United Mine Workers, they’re going to break the strength of every other union in this country. I can’t understand people taking sides with the corporations and the government and to me the corporations and the government are one and the same. And if they’re able to break down the UMW, it’ll affect labor right through the country.”
Dave Forms, a 29-year-old miner and president of UMWA Local 1759 (December 1977)1

The neoliberal turn
The late 1970s marked a major turning point in the recent economic and labor history of the United States. A general turn toward neoliberal economic policies entailed an all-out assault by capital on labor. As United Auto Workers (UAW) president Douglas Fraser put it in 1978, “I believe the leaders of the business community, with few exceptions, have chosen to wage a one-sided class war today in this country—a war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society.”2 In subsequent years unionization rates declined and the economy was restructured in the interests of big business.

However, it was not automatic or inevitable that capital would be successful in waging its “one-sided class war.” There was widespread resistance even though it failed to cohere on a national level. One of the most important of these battles was the 1978 national coal strike. In late 1977 and early 1978, 160,000 coal miners3 from West Virginia to southern Illinois, waged a 111-day strike—a strike often led by the rank and file and in opposition to the national leadership of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA)—against the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA). As labor historian James Green wrote at the time, “The 1977–1978 coal miners’ strike must be viewed in the context of an overall offensive by the capitalist class.”4

Today, coal mining is often synonymous with devastating mine accidents and environmental catastrophes such as the 2008 coal ash disaster in Harriman, Tennessee. That disaster flooded three hundred acres of land with more than a billion gallons of toxic slurry.5 As of this writing, forty-one U.S. miners have already died in mine accidents this year, including twenty-nine in Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine following an explosion in April.6 These miners have been sacrificed as employers relentlessly increase coal output without increasing safety measures or hiring additional workers.

In the 1970s, however, coal mining was also synonymous with class struggle. In 1977 alone—prior to the start of the national strike—strikes cost the industry 2.3 million days of work lost—ten times the rate of work stoppages in other industries.7

This is all the more impressive because the 1970s were a decade of wildcat strikes (unofficial strikes not approved by the union leadership) in several industries—fueled in part by the employers’ relentless drive for productivity, but also by the general radicalization in society reflected in the opposition to the war in Vietnam and the rise of other social movements, and by the turn of Black Power and New Left radicals toward socialism and the working class in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

During the postwar economic boom, the trade union bureaucracy made an unofficial pact with the employers to maintain labor peace in exchange for rising wages and benefits. “Unionized industrial workers in particular experienced dramatic improvements in their living standards,” writes Sharon Smith, “but they paid the price of a drastic rise in the rate of exploitation. Output per worker more than doubled between 1947 and 1967.”8

Official strikes, called usually only when a contract expired, became staged affairs with token pickets, and bargaining was conducted in secret by an increasingly bloated union officialdom. Under these conditions workers began to take unofficial action on the shop floor. The number of wildcat strikes doubled from one thousand to two thousand in the course of the 1960s, capped by a strike wave in 1970 in which forty thousand miners demanded disability benefits; and postal workers, though legally prohibited from striking, organized a successful two-week national walkout.

While 1970 was the high point, the rank-and-file upsurge continued for several years after that. The 1978 strike was the culmination of a decade of class struggle, but it was also potentially the first wave of resistance to the burgeoning “employers’ offensive.”

Miners for Democracy and the UMWA
The late 1960s and the 1970s were a period in which coal mining became politicized and miners took part in thousands of wildcat strikes. In 1969 thousands of West Virginia coal miners engaged in a “political strike” largely led by the Black Lung Association (BLA) and Disabled Miners and Widows—not the official union leadership. That strike forced the state legislature to pass legislation protecting victims of Black Lung.9 That same year, “Jock” Yablonski, the reform candidate in the UMWA presidential elections, was assassinated on the orders of then-president—and “old guard” union leader—Tony Boyle.10

In the wake of Yablonski’s assassination, union dissidents formed Miners for Democracy (MFD). In 1972, with Boyle under indictment, a coalition led by the MFD and the BLA—with retired miner and black lung victim Arnold Miller at the top of the slate—won union elections and instituted democratic reforms inside the UMWA, including the membership’s right to vote on its own contracts.11 The Miller administration, however, couldn’t stem the tide of wildcat strikes in the coalfields despite (and because of) Miller’s impulse to compromise—at all costs—with the coal bosses. Importantly, Miller dissolved the MFD soon after coming to office.

The coal operators
By 1977, the BCOA—which was formed in 1950 specifically to bargain collectively with the UMWA—was increasingly comprised of some of the largest corporations in the United States.12 The BCOA included major corporations like Continental Oil, Occidental Petroleum, U.S. Steel, and Bethlehem Steel.13 Even though coal profits doubled between 1970 and 1974, the BCOA wanted to restore “discipline” to the coalfields and speed up output, which given the nature of coal mining would result in serious hazards for miners. The BCOA aimed to get rid of contract language that allowed strikers to walk out (strike) over safety concerns and made demands that would have undermined the UMWA health and retirement plan.14 In the 1960s mechanization of coal mining—while dramatically increasing output—put miners’ lives at greater risk and increased the rates of black lung.15 Moreover, with mechanization largely complete, increasing output necessarily meant speeding up the work rates of miners themselves. The BCOA saw such concessions as absolutely central if it was to continue to increase its rate of profit in the coming years, years in which it expected President Jimmy Carter’s energy policies—which emphasized energy independence from Middle Eastern oil—to boost demand for coal.16

By the time of the strike the two sides were headed for a showdown. On the one hand, the BCOA saw no other way to increase profits without undermining miners’ key recourse to prevent dangerous conditions—the right to strike. “There’s nothing mysterious about our proposals,” a coal company spokesperson argued, “we’re going to get stability one way or another.”17 On the other hand, the rank and file of the UMWA—if not the leadership—had grown stronger after ten years of militant organizing in the coalfields. When the BCOA set out to finally end the coalfield militancy of the 1970s, they mistook the divisions within the UMWA for overall weakness. As Kim Moody and Jim Woodward argued, “when the coal operators set out to smash the power of the UMW, in the 1977 contract, the apparent weakness and disunity of the union was a major reason they thought they would succeed.… They did not understand—perhaps they could not—that the seeming chaos in the coalfields was not a sign of disintegration of the union but its very opposite.”18

The coal operators’ confidence was also buoyed by an October 1977 ruling by the Arbitration Review Board (ARB) that concluded owners had the right to fire workers who participated in wildcat strikes.19 Of course this was just the latest instance of the government and courts siding with the employers over miners. Such rulings had further put a wedge between the union’s top leadership and it’s rank and file. The leadership was cowed in the face of injunctions. The rank and file became more determined. The BCOA “accurately assessed the weakness of the [UMWA] leadership,” James Green wrote, “but they underestimated the strength and determination of the rank and file.”20

Wildcats and “stranger pickets”
Over the course of the 1970s there were thousands of wildcat strikes in the coalfields—strikes that usually began in a single mine, often over safety issues, but through solidarity and the ingenuity of miners spread from West Virginia to as far as southern Illinois in just a few days.21“Taming the coal wildcats” became a major concern for big business. As the Economist observed of a major wildcat in 1975:

More coal, almost twice what is being mined at present, is said to be needed by 1985 if the United States is not to remain at the mercy of foreign suppliers of energy. But in the past few weeks that goal has seemed further away than ever as 65,000 miners of soft coal, about half the members of the United Mineworkers Union, have taken to the picket lines or decided to honor them, in defiance both of the courts and the orders of their union leaders. The walk-out started four weeks ago over the suspension of a single miner in West Virginia and spread to seven states.22

Similarly, Business Week argued, “High absenteeism and frequent wildcat strikes have denied the coal operators the stability they thought they had bargained for with the United Mine Workers. The UMW, poorly led and divided by years of political turmoil, has failed to deliver a disciplined work force.”23

These strikes were spread through the practice of “stranger picketing.” Striking miners would set up a picket line at another working mine, often the “next mine over.” Tradition held that miners shouldn’t cross a picket line even if they didn’t know who was behind it—thus the expression “stranger picketing.” The process could then repeat itself over and over—expanding a local fight over safety issues or other grievances into a regional or even national struggle, as the Economistsorely noted.24

Wildcats and “stranger picketing” escalated in the 1970s. During the period of mechanization in the coalfields in the 1950s and 1960s there were very few wildcats—fewer than two hundred a year.25 In 1970 the number of annual wildcats jumped to five hundred. With miners’ lives hanging in the balance—and with a grievance procedure that miners viewed (rightly) as slow and ineffective—the wildcat strike was increasingly seen as a miner’s most powerful weapon. In 1977, wildcat strikes cost the coal industry 2.5 million “man-days” lost.26 As Terry Abbot, a 25-year-old coal miner and president of UMWA Local 1866 said at the time:

The grievance procedure takes so long. If you get a grievance to an arbitrator and back in eight to ten months you’re lucky. The companies don’t mind paying the arbiters. They’ve got the .money… And with about 90 percent of the grievances, there’s no penalty on the company not to do it anymore. It doesn’t hurt them any.”27

Dave Forms similarly argued:

We’ve got a situation right now where we have to arbitrate safety. We might decide that we don’t want to go underground because we don’t feel it’s safe. So they fire us and send it to arbitration.28

The growth of wildcats in the 1970s was bound up with the companies’ use of arbitration as a weapon against miners as well as the speed-up of production and the life-and-death questions it raised. However, there were other factors that fostered coalfield militancy.

First of all, there was a generational turnover in the mines. Younger miners, many of whom were Vietnam veterans, came to work in the coalfields. Their experiences in Vietnam seemed to have predisposed them to be suspect of authority.29 As Terry Abbot put it at the time, “Some of the older coal miners feel like they owe the company something for giving them a job. Hell, I don’t feel like that. I work my eight hours and I want everything the contract says I get.”30 The BCOA tried to use this gap between younger and older miners to their advantage during the strike when they cut off retired miners’ pensions. This largely backfired leading many retirees and older miners to play a more active role on the picket line.

In addition to generational turnover, many of the UMWA locals were relatively small. Since they were comprised of a few hundred miners—and most local union leaders were also full-time coal miners—they were more responsive to the rank and file than most paid staffers.31 Lastly, the widespread (if incomplete) democratization of the union following the 1972 MFD victory created more space for miners to have control—at the local level if not nationally—over the UMWA.32

Dynamics of the strike
In many ways the 1977–1978 strike was a continuation of the 1974 contract negotiations. The Miller leadership had lost a great deal of credibility with rank-and-file miners when it brought back a contract miners felt was substandard following the monthlong strike in 1974—a contract that also flew in the face of votes made at the 1974 UMWA convention, the union’s first truly democratic convention in decades.33That contract conceded on several company demands to curtail wildcat strikes, including cutting off benefits for strikers and changes in how pension eligibility was calculated. If a miner missed work due to a wildcat strike, he put his pension at risk. The 1974 contract also included a provision that allowed companies to suspend miners for refusing to cross a wildcat picket line. This undermined the tradition of “stranger picketing.”34 As the Nation quoted an outraged miner from Virginia, “God gave me the right to strike! Arnold Miller doesn’t have anything to do with it.”35

The 1976 UMWA convention again voted for a list of demands—many of which defended the right to strike—for the 1977 contract negotiations, essentially repudiating Miller’s handling of the 1974 contract. Arnold Miller, by all accounts, felt completely trapped between the mounting pressures from below—expressed in both the wildcat strikes and the 1976 convention—and the growing pressure from the BCOA. According to one participant in the 1977 negotiations, “he was a tower of indecision… It must have been someone like Miller who represented the Indians when they sold Manhattan for $24. He would have settled for $23.50.”36 Sensing weakness, coal operators provoked the strike in the hopes of taming the wildcats and the UMWA rank and file once and for all.37

The central issues in 1977 remained the “right to strike”—usually in response to health and safety issues—and the structure and solvency of the miners’ health care plan.38 While Miller was willing to surrender on the first issue, and cede ground on the second, rank-and-file miners were prepared for a long battle.39 Throughout the strike, Miller repeatedly brought back negotiated deals that miners rejected. These deals usually included some version of what miners called the “wage trick.” The BCOA would offer wage increases in return for more costly concessions. On February 6, Miller accepted most of the BCOA’s demands on “labor stability” in exchange for a widely touted 37 percent pay raise.40 The top union leadership tried to keep miners in the dark. “Miller hired a damn public relation firm. We only get to hear what they have to tell us,” Dave Forms said.41 At one point Miller even organized—with the help of then-Governor Rockefeller—“prayer rallies” across West Virginia to resolve the strike. “The rallies attracted a good number of preachers,” Socialist Worker newspaper observed, “but not too many coal miners.”42 In fact, the miners—having learned from the 1974 fight—got their hands on copies of the proposed contract, distributed leaflets explaining why they believed it was a sellout, and burned the contract proposal in public demonstrations.43

As Kim Moody and Jim Woodward argued:

Had the BCOA looked past Arnold Miller they would have understood that they were still in for a fight. The strike was solid. Not only had miners shut down all of the coal mines by the UMWA, but they had shut down a good deal of non-union coal mines as well. Car caravans, sometimes numbering by the hundreds, roamed the eastern coal fields shutting down non-union mines. Some non-union companies, like Mapco in West Virginia, hired gun-thugs to keep the strikers away. It didn’t work. Shots were exchanged and the mine stayed closed.44

By 1977 only 50 percent of U.S. coal production came from union mines—but the strike had succeeded in shutting down 63 to 75 percent of production.45 As the strike continued stockpiles of coal—accumulated in anticipation of the strike—began to dwindle as weekly output fell from 14.7 million tons to 5.4 million tons of coal.46 With a solid strike on the ground and a rank and file unwilling to accept concessions, the union’s bargaining council voted down Miller’s “compromise” by a vote of thirty to six.47

The employers’ united front began to crack—particularly between the large steel corporations that owned mines (because they needed the coal for steel plants) and the operators who sold coal on the open market. Among BCOA members, it was Big Steel that had the hardest line on the UMWA. Moreover, the steel companies were able to schedule around the strike in order to avoid disruptions in steel production. Market operators didn’t fare so well. Business Week and the New York Times reported several major coal operators were entering a possible crisis and projected that the industry would lose money in 1978.48 These operators realized that Miller didn’t have the respect or credibility to convince miners to sign on to a concessionary contract. They concluded that some sort of compromise would be needed to get the miners back to work. On February 21 there was a coup on the BCOA board—pushing the steel companies aside—and putting the market operators in charge.49

Miller, however, failed to see the prospects for pushing back BCOA demands even farther, and he quickly signed on to another concessionary deal. Three days after the BCOA coup, President Jimmy Carter announced a new agreement between the BCOA and the UMWA.50 Carter’s proposal dropped some of the more draconian measures meant to dissuade wildcat strikes, such as fines for strikers, but companies retained the right to fire “instigators”—meaning anyone who stood up to unsafe work conditions. It was a mild improvement from the previous offer, but most miners still saw it as a concessionary contract. Miller avoided a no vote on the bargaining committee—by ignoring the committee—but he couldn’t avoid a membership vote. Two-thirds of the miners voted Carter’s proposal down by a vote of 74,957 to 32,541.51

Who organized the strike?
From the beginning, the top union brass—and Miller in particular—wanted to avoid the strike, and when it couldn’t be avoided, they tried to bring the strike to a close as quickly as possible. Their main problem in doing so was that they weren’t actually organizing the strike in the first place. The rank and file conducted the strike, in much the same way as it had organized the wildcats throughout the 1970s.52 This was both a source of strength and a weakness. It was a weakness in that there was not a “central leadership” for the strike. It was a source of strength that the strike was almost completely solid at the grass-roots level and across geographic distance—from southern Illinois to West Virginia.53

Most of the strike’s strategic questions also fell to the rank and file. In particular this included the question of strike relief—how do you survive without incomes?—and the question of shutting down non-union or “scab” coal production.54

Relief committees were set up in the coal-producing regions by miners and their supporters. These committees could provide aid in the worst-case scenarios such as mortgage foreclosures or preventing bankruptcies after medical emergencies, but were unable to do much more than that.55 Other unions—such as the UAW—sent upwards of $4 million to support the strikers, but UMWA officials sat on the money during the strike and didn’t distribute it to members. Many miners believed this was cynical manipulation on the part of the Miller administration. “Miller thinks that if we are denied the benefit of these donations,” one miner argued, “we will be more likely to vote for his contract.”56 Much of the relief that did make it into miners’ pockets came from union locals and rank-and-file workers in other industries. Socialists within the unions played an important role in this rank-and-file solidarity. For example, one group of Michigan autoworkers collected $860 at their plant gate during a day’s shift change.57 Thousands of miners were also forced to seek public assistance. More than 1,500 miners in southern Illinois applied for food stamps during the strike.58

Likewise, when it came to stopping non-union or “scab” coal production, it was rank-and-file miners and local union officials who took the initiative, often gathering a caravan of a few hundred miners in a local parking lot and heading out to shut down non-union mines or the shipment of non-union coal. These pickets sometimes produced armed confrontations—striking miners were even shot and killed by armed employees of the coal companies.59

Several of these confrontations took place in southern Illinois and Kentucky—the western frontier of UMWA organized mines. Around fourteen thousand of the coal miners that took part in the strike worked the fields of Illinois—most in southern Illinois.60 Many of the non-union mines were located in western states61—and a good deal of that coal was sent by train to Metropolis, Illinois, where it was transferred onto barges and sent up the Ohio River. The Metropolis terminal moved twenty thousand tons of coal per day.62 Initially, terminal managers told miners they planned to shut down for the strike, but the terminal remained open. A mass meeting of striking miners was held in the City Park in West Frankfurt, Illinois.63 Following the meeting, three hundred miners drove to Metropolis and stormed the terminal, overwhelming the fourteen state and local police guarding it and climbing over a railroad car that terminal operators had placed to block the entrance.64 The terminal was shut down.

In Kentucky and southern Illinois judges issued injunctions against pickets. When the Massac County Sheriff distributed a hundred copies of a court order to the miners who stormed the Metropolis terminal, they responded by throwing it on the ground. Dumping of non-union coal was also a major tactic employed in Kentucky and southern Illinois.65

Confrontational tactics and direct action were widely used to disrupt non-union coal mines east of the Mississippi. For example, theWashington Post reported on January 6:

An estimated 600 striking United Mine Workers, armed with ax handles, hunting knives and guns, tried to block resumption of coal mining in eastern Tennessee yesterday. Non-union mines were attacked in Indiana.

In Washington, negotiations to settle the five-week-old strike by 183,000 soft coal miners remained recessed with no date set for resumption of talks. Each side blamed the other for the collapse of negotiations.

Anderson County Sheriff Dennis Trotter estimated that 200 cars carrying out-of-state pickets moved in convoys around the New River and Windrock areas of east Tennessee.

Trotter said he had all available men on the roads keeping an eye on the situation, but his men were outnumbered 40 to 1.66

In January, Socialist Worker reported:

In Kentucky, the nation’s largest coal producer, miners are picketing non-union mines. In Pike County, nearly 1,000 miners were attacked by state troopers, who broke up the pickets with tear gas. In Wise, VA 100 picketers were arrested.

In Indiana, 500 striking miners stormed a loading dock on the Ohio River, where coal is shipped from three non-union mines. 200 miners were arrested by Indiana state riot police and marched to the Spencer Country courthouse.67

In Pennsylvania, one hundred miners held up thirty-four thousand tons of coal on the Allegheny River. In Alabama, five hundred coal miners picketed mines in the northeastern part of the state.68 Shutting down this scab coal was central. Bill Worthington, a retired African American miner and a regional chairman of the Kentucky BLA, described one incident:

The state police don’t let us talk to the drivers. But once we followed the trucks to the Virginia line and when they crossed the line the Kentucky police couldn’t follow. The pickets beat the trucks to the line, crossed and stopped the trucks, [and said] “back right in here buddy and unload!”69

Key to stopping scab coal was the organization of rank-and-file miners. Mass meetings—like the one in West Frankfurt—were regularly held in the coal regions to democratically plan the strike. These meetings were usually initiated by local officials, pensioners, rank-and-filers, and even members of far-left (socialist) organizations (in a few cases).70 It was at these meetings where miners discussed and came to have a united point of view of the different iterations of the contract as well as other issues facing the strikers.71 For example, in Marmet, West Virginia, fifty coal miners met to discuss the threat posed by the growing number of non-union coal mines in the Western states.72

Miners vs. the state
After miners voted down Carter’s proposal, the president invoked the Taft-Hartley Act.73 Taft-Hartley was an anti-labor act passed in 1947 meant to curtail the labor radicalism of the 1930s and 1940s. It gave the federal government the power to intervene in labor disputes and made solidarity strikes—often called secondary boycotts—illegal. Carter’s plan was not to break the UMWA strike all at once—but to use Taft-Hartley to break off mines one at a time, and then demoralize miners into accepting a deal along the lines of the one he had already proposed. A local union official summed up the feelings of many coal miners, “Taft can mine it, Hartley can haul it, and Carter can shove it.”74 Carter’s plan to “balkanize” the strike failed—and the president seemed to be wary of a direct (and likely armed) confrontation with one hundred and sixty thousand miners. Carter backed down and the UMWA and BCOA returned to the negotiating table without the president.75

The strike ends
As negotiations resumed in March, operators dropped their demand to be able to fire strike instigators as well as their plan to fine workers’ health and pension plans for absenteeism. Other anti-wildcat provisions were scaled back (but remained in the contract). The Miner’s Health Fund, however, was dismantled. This was a major setback. But after months on strike, the miners finally voted to accept a contract. The outcome was essentially a stalemate. With a weak national leadership—at best—and under immense pressure from the bosses and the federal government, miners essentially “held the line” against the growing employers’ offensive.76 Miners did not, however, return to work enthusiastically. As Socialist Worker argued at the time:

The coal miners… fought the government, and Jimmy Carter, who was even prepared to cut off food stamps from the families of strikers. They made a joke of Taft-Hartley, the “slave labor law,” which has been used for a generation to subdue and chain American workers.

In the end, only hunger forced them back. “The men voted with their stomachs, not their heads,” Ken Wagnild of UMWA Local 1810, Powhatan Point, Ohio, told Socialist Worker.77

The Washington Post noted in a March 26 editorial:

The United Mine Worker’s membership has ratified its new contract by a rather close and reluctant vote. There are hints and murmurs from all quarters that the major issues have not been resolved, but merely postponed. You will notice that no one seems to be claiming a triumph.78

Without a clear victory, the militancy of the miners eventually started to wane. As early as the summer of 1978 the coal operators saw they had put a dent in the combativeness of the rank and file. Business Week exercised capital’s bragging rights in an editorial appropriately titled, “The Coal Wildcats Have Stopped Snarling”:

Miners always work more regularly after an industry strike to make up their losses, but this time the improvement is extraordinary. During April, May and June, coal companies lost only 35,000 man-days of work because of wildcat strikes, down from 317,202 man-days in the 90-day period after a one-month strike in 1974. The current rate translates into a loss of 140,000 man-days annually, compared with 1.9 million lost days in 1976 and 2.4 million last year.79

The decade of rank-and-file rebellion came to a decisive conclusion three years later when President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981 (represented by PATCO)—signaling a new era in which business and government were to be even tougher on organized labor.80 In the context of the overall shift in the labor movement and economy, the stalemate in the 1978 strike ultimately proved to be a victory for the coal bosses.

Conclusion: “They knock us down one by one”
The 1978 coal strike was emblematic of the transitional period in both the capitalist economy (from a post–Second World War liberal corporatist model to neoliberalism, free-market dogma, privatization, and so on) as well as an historic shift from a relatively combative labor movement in the 1970s to the passive labor movement of the 1980s. But the setbacks that followed the heroic efforts of the coal miners were not inevitable. The rank and file showed immense solidarity and creativity in waging the strike (a militancy that they had exercised with increasing frequency in the previous ten years through thousands of wildcat strikes). Unfortunately, the union leadership telegraphed weakness in negotiations from the very start. The stalemated 1977–1978 strike allowed the coal operators to restructure and reorganize the industry, further marginalizing the UMWA—and shift more coal production to the non-union Western coal fields.81 Worse yet, much of the leadership of organized labor more broadly took exactly the wrong lessons from the miners’ strike, becoming even more timid as Corporate America sharpened its teeth.

Regardless, the 1977–1978 strike remains the greatest expression of resistance to the neoliberal turn at that time. Miners were at the forefront of the rank-and-file struggles of the 1970s—and what they sought to defend in that strike are those things that we must recapture today: solidarity, militancy, and a willingness to use the strike weapon and shut down production—by force if necessary. As Dave Forms argued thirty-two years ago, in words that still apply today, “I think people better realize it’s not just the UMWA, It’s the entire labor movement under attack and it’s just a one by one deal. They knock one of us down and then they go after another. And it will affect everyone.”82

  1. Cal Winslow, “Two miners talk about why they are striking,” Socialist Worker(U.S.), December 1977.
  2. Cited in Sam Gilden, “Viewpoint: one-sided class war: The UAW-GM 2007 negotiations,” Labor Notes, October 29, 2007,
  3. Reported numbers seem to vary—in both the left-wing and mainstream press—from 160,000 to183,000 miners.
  4. James Green, “Holding the line: miners’ militancy and the strike of 1978,” Radical America 12, no. 3, May–June 1978, 4.
  5. “The Three-Mile Island of coal,” Socialist Worker, January 16, 2009, .
  6. Adam Turl, “Death and the Willow Lake Mine,” Socialist Worker, July 20, 2010 and Alan Maass, “When miners lives’ come last,” Socialist Worker, April 7, 2010.
  7. “The right to strike,” Socialist Worker, December 1977.
  8. Sharon Smith, Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006), 208.
  9. Kim Moody and Jim Woodward, Battle Line: The Coal Strike of ’78 (Detroit: Sun Press, 1978), 28–29.
  10. Paul Clark, The Miners’ Fight for Democracy, New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations (Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 1981), 1–3.
  11. Moody and Woodward, Battle Line, 33. During the long reign of UMWA president John L. Lewis, miners had lost the right to vote on their own contracts.
  12. Moody and Woodward, Battle Line, 17.
  13. Ibid, 19.
  14. Green, “Holding the line,” 4–5.
  15. Moody and Woodward, Battle Line, 29.
  16. Ibid, 20–21. See also Chris Seltzer, “A strike that ended an era,” Nation, May 6, 1978. Also important (see Moody) was the large number of steel companies that had controlling interest in the coalfields. As the U.S. steel industry collapsed in the late 1970s (and died in the 1980s) they sought desperately to keep costs down in the coal industry, which remained profitable throughout the same time period. In addition, steel companies felt they had a superior safety record and resented wildcats starting in other coal mines and spreading into their concerns.
  17. “Rank and file miners can still win coal strike,” Socialist Worker, January 1978.
  18. Moody and Woodward, Battle Line, 27.
  19. “The right to strike,” 3.
  20. Green, “Holding the line,” 6.
  21. Moody and Woodward, Battle Line, 14–15.
  22. “Coal; wildcats rampant,” Economist, September 6, 1975.
  23. Cited in Mike Yarrow, “What the miners really want,” Nation, March 4, 1978, 232.
  24. Moody and Woodward, Battle Line, 15–16.
  25. Admittedly, that seems like a lot by 2010 standards.
  26. Green, “Holding the line,” 14–16.
  27. Winslow, “Two miners talk,” 3.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Green, “Holding the line,” 15.
  30. Winslow, “Two miners talk,” 2.
  31. Moody and Woodward, Battle Line, 54–56.
  32. Kim Moody, Struggle in the Coal Fields (Detroit: Sun Press, 1974), 2–6.
  33. Yarrow, “What miners really want,” 233.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Cited in Moody and Woodward, Battle Line, 38–39.
  37. Ibid. See also Green, “Holding the line.”
  38. Ward Sinclair, “To the miners, it boils down to medical cards and wildcats,”Washington Post, February 20, 1978.
  39. Moody and Woodward, Battle Line, 27–35.
  40. Helen Dewar, “Tentative coal pact is reached,” Washington Post, February 7, 1978.
  41. Winslow, “Two miners talk,” 2.
  42. “Pray for the dead, but fight like hell for the living,” Socialist Worker, February 1978.
  43. Moody and Woodward, Battle Line, 46–50.
  44. Ibid, 39.
  45. “Coal output cut more than expected,” Southern Illinoisan, December 30, 1977; Moody and Woodward, Battle Line, 39; and Yarrow, “What miners really want,” 232
  46. “Coal stocks dwindling,” Chemical Week, January 11, 1978.
  47. Moody and Woodward, Battle Line, 39 and Yarrow, “What miners really want,” 230. There seems to be some confusion here. Moody reports a vote of twenty-three to thirteen while Yarrow reports a vote of thirty to six. Regardless, the council was “considered pro-Miller” so its rejection of the deal signals the immense pressure from rank-and-file miners against the agreement.
  48. Moody and Woodward, Battle Line, 46.
  49. Ibid., 47 and Helen Dewar, “Coal industry softens stand in strike talks,” Washington Post, February 18, 1978. The newfound mood for compromise was probably furthered by the strike’s growing impact on capital more generally. The Globe and Mail reported on February 15, 1978, that the strike had contributed to losses on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). See “NYSE posts sharp decline as effects of strike spread,” Globe and Mail (Canada), February 15, 1978.
  50. Moody and Woodward, Battle Line, 48.
  51. Ibid, 49–50.
  52. Ibid.
  53. Ibid.
  54. Moody and Woodward, Battle Line, 53.
  55. Ibid.
  56. Moody and Woodward, Battle Line, 40.
  57. Ibid., 38–41.
  58. Barbara Schechter, “Miners line up for aid,” Southern Illinoisan, December 21, 1977.
  59. Moody and Woodward, Battle Line, 53.
  60. “Not much chance coal strike can be averted now,” Southern Illinoisan, December 4, 1977.
  61. See Yarrow, “What miners really want,” 232 and “They’re mining coal at Sarpy Creek,” Southern Illinoisan, December 21, 1977.
  62. Barbara Schechter, “Striking miners damage docks,” Southern Illinoisan, December 27, 1977.
  63. Barbara Schechter, “Miners set mass meeting,” Southern Illinoisan, December 26, 1977.
  64. Barbara Schechter, “Striking miners damage docks,” Southern Illinoisan, December 27, 1977.
  65. “Talks recess; miners dump coal,” Southern Illinoisan, December 20, 1977, and Robert Grupp, “Vandals dump some coal from train near Sesser,” Southern Illinoisan, December 22, 1977.
  66. “Strikers attempt to block E. Tennessee coal mining,” Washington Post, January 4, 1978.
  67. “The bitter fight in the mines,” Socialist Worker, January 1978.
  68. “Retirees lose pensions, but miners fight on,” Socialist Worker, February 1978.
  69. Cal Winslow, “Bill Worthington wants a new movement,” Socialist Worker, February 1978.
  70. Important here was the “Miners’ Right to Strike Committee” (MRSC), which was spearheaded by members of the Maoist Revolutionary Union (RU). The MRSC organized some important meetings and helped expose the contract sellouts. However the MRSC was fairly small and sometimes the RU’s Maoist policies alienated some miners. See Green, “Holding the line.”
  71. Moody and Woodward, Battle Line, 54–55 and Green,“Holding the line,”12–14.
  72. “District 17 miners discuss the threat of Western coal,” Socialist Worker, February 1978.
  73. George Wilson and Dan Morgan, “President invokes Taft-Hartley Act,” Washington Post, March 7, 1978.
  74. Moody and Woodward, Battle Line, 43.
  75. Ibid.
  76. Green, “Holding the line,” 24–25 and Moody and Woodward, Battle Line, 69–73.
  77. “The lessons of the miners’ strike,” Socialist Worker, April 1978.
  78. “After 109 days,” Washington Post, March 26, 1978.
  79. “The coal wildcats have stopped snarling,” Business Week (Industrial Edition), July 31, 1978.
  80. See Joe Allen, “PATCO’s twenty-fifth anniversary: Return to work or you’re fired,”International Socialist Review 49, September–October 2006.
  81. See Jeff Goodell, Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006) and Adam Turl, “The Saudi Arabia of Coal,”International Socialist Review 56, November–December 2007,
  82. Winslow, “Two miners talk,” 3.



Issue #76

March 2011

Revolt in the Middle East: Another world is possible

Issue contents

Top story



Critical Thinking


  • The crimes of occupation

    Jim Ramey reviews Aftermath: Following the Blood of America's Wars in the Muslim World by Nir Rosen
  • Gaza’s nightmare shows the truth about Israel

    Hadas Thier reviews Midnight on the Mavi Marmara: The Attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and How It Changed the Course of the Israeli/Palestine Conflict by Moustafa Bayoumi and Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel's War Against the Palestinians by Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappé
  • The planet and the profit system

    Chris Williams reviews The Ecological Rift: Capitalism's War on the Earth by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York
  • Ways of resistance in Latin America

    Jason Farbman reviews Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America by Ben Dangl and Bolivia's Radical Tradition: Permanent Revolution in the Andes by S. Sándor John