By Don Hylton
October 6, 2018 - News detailing a federal judge’s decision against President Trump’s executive order changing rules concerning federal unions reminded me of my first encounter with the UMWA as an employee for U.S. Steel in Gary.
The summer of 1977, I had just graduated from Bramwell High, and obtaining a temporary union mining job meant being financially able to start that fall at Bluefield State.
During one of my first two summers at No. 14 Gary, a short-lived wildcat strike spread throughout Gary Hollow. Three of us summer employees arrived at work the day the strike began.
A day’s pay helped tremendously toward college tuition so we decided to work instead of striking.
We surmised no one would notice since we were only summer “red caps”. It wasn’t like we could actually mine coal. While other miners left, we three went to work.
At shift’s end, the UMWA local president gave us a stern lecture about the grave error in judgment we demonstrated by working.
He warned us as he departed angrily, when you leave you’re on your own.
After we exited the bathhouse, a group of irate strikers shouted statements threatening to beat the h*** out of us, or shoot us going across the hill.
Speeding away, I kept the pedal to the metal all the way home. I didn’t return until the strike had ended.
Fast forward to my third and last summer, 1979, at U.S. Steel No. 10 where another disruption in the schedule occurred while working the midnight shift.
The night before, an employee was discharged for allegedly sleeping as observed by a foreman. After confirming a strike, I left. Lesson learned at No. 14.
The next night was a repeat except a few day shift employees worked as did part of the evening shift.
The midnight shift chose to continue striking and home I went. The following night most of us returned to work due to a lack of solidarity between all shifts. The discharge case went to arbitration.
The UMWA and the miner won because the foreman didn’t have a witness to confirm his accusation.
Later I was called into the office. I was informed a written reprimand was placed into my file for participating in an illegal work stoppage. A reprimand for striking, or threatened for crossing the picket line—some choice.
Between 1981-82, I was employed at Olga Coal. As a trainee salary employee at Olga, the superintendent, Dwight Strong, twice had me join him to argue grievances by UMWA members. The coal mining business was in recession.
Union representatives refused to police its members even as mines were closing in the early 80s.
The majority of the workforce was conscientious, diligent and hard-working but remained silent while a few employees filed questionable grievances during the downturn. Olga reduced its workforce at the end of ‘82.
I spent 29 years, the last 19 as a supervisor, working at a non-union operation.
Many were previous UMWA members but we selected not to organize.
We ran a profitable mine and remained loyal employees, hourly and salary, to Consol only to be betrayed in the end after retiring. Consol reneged on its promise of medical benefits for retirees and spouses.
Congress rightfully funded defaulted UMWA member’s retirement health care but ignored those without union representation in similar circumstances.
What message does that send to workers considering unionization, or to voters who remain non-union?
Or what message is sent by the president’s executive orders to the two million-member federal workforce?