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Vol. 80/No. 33      September 5, 2016


‘Coal Miners on Strike’ shows how miners fought
and won

In 1977 thousands of members of the United Mine Workers of America went on strike. They stood up to the government and the bosses and forced the coal companies to back down.

In 1981 once again the coal bosses tried to force the miners to make major concessions and once again the miners went on strike. As part of building solidarity, the Socialist Workers Party campaigned with the pamphlet Coal Miners on Strike, with articles reprinted from the Militant, selling hundreds of copies to workers and young people from coast to coast. Today miners face many of the same questions that were central to both strikes. Below is an excerpt from the chapter “The 111-day 1977-78 Coal Strike.” Copyright 1981 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

This was their [coal bosses] first attempt in more than thirty years to break the power of an established industrial union.

They believed the UMWA was a ready target. Its “unruliness,” as the coal operators saw it, stemmed in large part from the measures of union democracy the miners had won when they ousted the corrupt regime of Tony Boyle in 1972 and elected a reform leadership. The miners union not only stood in the way of profits from the projected coal boom, but it also provided an undesirable model of rank-and-file insurgency for the members of other unions. …

Growing numbers of working people agree that such things as:

the right to a job,

the right to free education,

the right to free medical care,

the right to a secure retirement,

the right to a clean and safe environment — that these are just and necessary if we are truly to enjoy “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in today’s world.

The miners had won some rights in previous battles — such as free medical care — that set an example for other workers.

Worst of all from the bosses’ point of view, the miners were fighting to defend these rights. And that example made it harder to take away the rights of others.

Health care

The incredibly high cost of decent medical care — or any medical care at all — is one of the biggest problems facing workers throughout the country. But through hard-fought strike battles in the 1940s, the UMWA laid the basis for the most comprehensive health-benefits plan of any union.

Miners and their families received a medical card. It entitled them to free services at any clinic or hospital that was part of the system. No forms. No paperwork. No insurance company. No “deductibles.”

All costs were paid from a UMWA benefits fund, which was financed by payments from the coal companies based on the amount of coal mined and the number of hours worked.

Not only the miners benefited. With the aid of the UMWA fund, new clinics and hospitals were built throughout Appalachia. Health care for the entire region was transformed, since these facilities provided low-cost care to all.

From the beginning, however, the health-fund system suffered from one fundamental weakness — just like every other pension or health benefit that is limited to a single industry or union rather than provided for all by the government as a social responsibility — it tied the miners’ benefits to the well-being of the companies.

When the industry was in decline, as it was throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, benefits were cut back. Thousands of miners, widows, and pensioners had their cards taken away.

The coal industry recovered during the 1960s and has been booming in the 1970s — ever since oil prices went up 400 percent and coal became a more attractive energy source again. But despite soaring profits for the industry, payments into the fund did not keep pace with the even steeper increase in health-care costs.

The companies, however, blamed the fund’s financial crisis on wildcat strikes. In July 1977 — hoping to weaken the miners before the national strike — they engineered an unprecedented slash in the medical benefits. These couldn’t be restored without “labor stability,” the bosses claimed.

Then when negotiations opened, the coal operators set out to cut their costs even more by abolishing the UMWA fund and the free medical-card system altogether. …


The plight of UMWA pensioners stemmed from the same source as the attack on health care — inadequate funding by the companies.

Under the 1974 UMWA contract a separate pension fund was set up for miners who retired after January 1, 1976. This was supposedly necessary to comply with a new federal law regulating pension plans.

Retirees covered by the old fund — about 80,500 at the time of the strike — got a maximum of $250 a month. Some 6,500 who retired later got more, an average of $425.

Miners bitterly opposed this inequity. They demanded equal pensions at a level that assures a decent livelihood for all retirees.

In addition, the 1976 UMWA convention voted to fight for cost-of-living provisions for pensions, so that retired and disabled miners would no longer see their benefits eaten away by inflation.

The coal operators hoped that the pension issue would pit older miners and retirees against the younger miners. To their surprise and dismay, the young miners fought militantly against any settlement that wasn’t fair to the pensioners.

“If they can take away the pensions and benefits of the retirees, they’ll do it to us when our time comes,” a Black woman coal miner in Pennsylvania told the Militant.

Such solidarity is the opposite of the “just look out for yourself” attitude that is fostered by capitalist society. And it’s the opposite of “business unionism,” which aims to secure gains only for a select group of workers, to the exclusion of others. It points toward the union movement adopting a broader social outlook and putting its muscle behind the demands of all the downtrodden and oppressed.  

Related articles:
Buses ready to roll for miners’ Sept. 8 rally to defend pensions, health care
On the Picket Line
Chilean workers demand gov't-guaranteed pensions
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