Miner's Life Tough in Appalachia With BC-UMW-Strike Waiting
MARTHA BRYSON HODEL
Jan. 31, 1988
PINEVILLE, W.Va. (AP) _ The most precious commodity in West Virginia these days is a job, and Fred Decker knows what he has to do to hang on to his.
''They're always hollering 'production - we got to have more production or we'll have to close this mine down.'
''It's not that they tell you to do this, or that thing that's not safe,'' said Decker, a lifelong coal miner and ardent organizer for the United Mine Workers union. ''But after a while, miners take it on themselves to cut corners. They know it's production or it's your job.
''Even I'm doing things I wouldn't have done five years ago.''
The United States produced an estimated record 910 million tons of coal last year. But while production goes up, employment continues to fall. In 1979, the nation produced 776 million tons of coal with 224,000 miners; by 1986, the number of miners was down to 163,000 while production had climbed to 887 million tons.
To Fred Decker and other people where the mine economy is the only economy, that means one thing: Do what you can to keep your job.
He now works for Black Horse Mining, a small independent comsion, was diagnosed as active again two weeks ago and he has restarted chemotherapy.
''They talk about retraining people, and I guess they could retrain me to be a jet airplane mechanic if they wanted to,'' Decker said. ''But there aren't any jet airplanes in Wyoming County.''
Like most West Virginia coal miners, Decker has seen spells of unemployment since the heady days after the oil embargo in the 1970s when coal was selling for as much as $100 a ton and there were hardly enough experienced miners to go around. Coal now sells for about $24 a ton, and operators regularly produce more than they can sell.
The UMW's contract with the Bituminous Coal Operators Association sets the standard for coal industry wages, now about $15.50 an hour, excluding benefits, for top classifications in the nation's most hazardous work place - underground mines.
But those standards mean little at the small, independent non-union operations that have sprung up with hard times. A miner at one such operation in Nicholas County says he's paid about $12 an hour, but the company does not provide any kind of medical insurance or benefits for employees.
''And there are a lot of operations up here that don't pay (but) $6 or $7 an hour for underground work,'' said the miner, who said he feared losing his job if he allowed himself to be identified by name.
''I've got to work, and in Nicholas County once they get your name as a troublemaker, you'll never get a job. There just aren't that many jobs in the coal business right now, and the coal business is all there is.''
Decker and other miners compare their situation to that of the miners of the 1920s, when West Virginia coal operators put on a drive to break the fledgling UMWA.
The operators hired armed strike breakers to intimidate union miners and protect the outside workers brought in to replacee them. In the southern West Virginia town of Matewan, the practice led to a violent confrontation in which three townspeople and seven agents of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency were killed.
Decker filled in a 1986 jobless spell with a role in ''Matewan,'' last year's critically praised movie that recounted a fictionalized version of the incident. His stocky, powerful build won him a role as a Baldwin-Felts ''gun thug''; his experiences in the 1984-85 UMW strike against Massey gave him first-hand experience with modern strike breakers.
''The only difference between then and now is that they used to bring the scabs in on trains and now they use helicopters,'' said Decker.
Life isn't easy even for miners working for major corporations that try to maintain a good relationship with the UMW.
Floyd Cox works for U.S. Steel Mining Corp., a subsidiary of USX that has already signed a letter of intent to adopt the new national agreement between the UMW and the BCOA. Even there, however, miners find themselves under pressure. Rather than call back laid-off miners, who earn a new round of unemployment benefits if they work as much as 30 days, the company is requiring large amounts of overtime, Cox says.
''It used to be voluntary, but then people stopped signing up because they got tired,'' said Cox. ''Now they're drafting people to work six days every week. And if you try to fight it, it'll be used against you in the absenteeism policy.''
That policy, Cox said, allows miners to miss only 22 workdays a year - for whatever reason - before discplinary action is taken.
''That means you can miss two days of work a month until December, and then you're in trouble if you get sick,'' Cox said.
End Adv Sunday Jan 31