The Debs-Thomas-Harrington Address
Cecil Roberts, Vice President
United Mine Workers of America
We realized early on that Pittston didn't
want a contract because they didn't want to meet their economic
and social responsibilities. But, we didn't strike initially.
That's what the bosses wanted us to do. We've got to stop doing
what the bosses want us to do. Instead, we were busy for fourteen
months: traveling, studying at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Center in Atlanta, trying to deal with the grievances piling
up. Pittston was busy too: they cut off our health care, their
pension contribution, violated health and safety rules.
Pittston wanted a strike, so after fourteen
months, we gave them one. Not the one they wanted, though. They
didn't think that a predominantly white rural work force would
follow the teachings of Dr. King. But we did. We sat down.
That's when we really saw our tax dollars
at work. The Virginia State Police came running to haul 300 pound
coal miners out of the road.
Our main tactic was nonviolent civil resistance.
This requires men and women of courage. Men and women who don't
need weapons. But who might need bail.
It was hard to see the enemy directly in
this strike. It was not just a strike against the company, but
a strike against the Federal and State governments, the courts,
against Pittston's many subsidiaries that would try to produce
what we weren't, against the power of money. Pittston used their
money to try to hire every scab who could crawl across into Virginia.
Whatever money the UMWA has had is for the social good of the
people of this country.
We had many friends to support us during
this strike. But one in particular really stands out. Someone
who was willing to stand with us from the very beginning, before
there were many-- that's Jesse Jackson. Jesse was at the first
rally when I used a phrase in my speech that was to become the
slogan of the strike, "We won't go backwards. NO, we won't
There was no greater courage shown in this
country than that of the civil rights activists of the '60s.
They gave us an invaluable lesson: that we can derive strength
from one another; replace hate with love. There 'ain't nobody
gonna turn us around.'
These days there is a sure recipe for defeat
in the labor movement. It goes like this: A judge issues an injunction;
the union leadership says, let's obey that injunction; the company
hires scabs. The end. Defeat.
We decided we weren't going to obey the
injunctions handed down to us. We decided to test something that
Dr. King had tested. He said, "I read somewhere of the freedom
of assembly, the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press.
What we were engaged in was class warfare.
When I first started using that term, there were a lot of questions.
I answered it this way for the miners. 'If you don t know which
side you're on of this class warfare, look at it this way. You
work and they don't. You're on one side, they're on the other.'
We had 4O,OOO UMWA miners across the country walk out with us
for six weeks. What was started in Pittston was a people's movement.
We wanted and want more than a contract. You know, the solidarity
during the strike was tremendous. It makes me think that we ought
to have one big union. During the civil rights struggles there
was another saying about solidarity. "I can't be what I
ought to be until you're what you ought to be."
We had to build Camp Solidarity to hold
all the people trying to be what they ought to be. It was a place
to eat and sleep when people came to Virginia for the fight.
And people came by the thousands.
They sat in the road with us. But by now,
hundreds of our miners and family members had been arrested for
sitting in front of coal trucks. People were going to jail. So,
we decided, okay, we won't sit. We'll drive. And we put 2000
cars on those little winding coal roads. Sightseeing, we called
it. We slowed things down pretty well. But another twenty-two
of our leaders went to jail. Myself, Tony Kujawa, Jackie Stump,
a lot of others. The funny thing is, the judge didn't really
want us in there. There comes a point when the jails just won't
hold all the people who are fighting for what's right. So, we
After that, we got to thinking about who
paid for this mining operation anyway? In particular, who paid
for the cleaning plant, for example? We figured it was as much
ours, the miners' and the union's, as it was theirs. So we took
it over. One Sunday there were 2000 people outside that plant
and 99 miners and a minister inside. A Virginia judge and hundreds
of State Police behind him said, "you better get out of
there." U.S. Marshalls ordered us to leave. We were being
fined $60,000 a day per miner. But we wouldn't leave until we
decided to leave-which was 3-1/2 days later. And we left the
plant to walk into a rally of 5000 camped outside.
Three weeks later, Elizabeth Dole, Secretary
of Labor, was standing outside that plant. Ironically? Coincidentally?
I don't think so. . .
Another consequence of this peoples movement
was the election of Jackie Stump to the State Legislature. In
three weeks, we succeeded in a write-in campaign against the
longtime incumbent, the daddy of our Virginia fining judge. So,
Jackie went from the jailhouse to the State House.
We paid our strikers, ignored the injunctions,
ignored the fines, used militant, direct action, all of which
united the labor movement.
I said before that the movement that was
begun at Pittston was not about a contract. What was it about?
It was about each American having national health insurance.
About abolishing the Taft-Hartley Act. About equal opportunity
in education. A place for every American to live in the richest
country of the world. It was about equal rights for women.
Dr. King said in one of his most unforgettable
speeches that he "had been to the mountain top and seen
the promised land." We feel that we got a glimpse of the
promised land during the Pittston strike. And if we fight to
get all that we've talked about today, we will be in the promised
land. "Free at last, free at last, thank god Almighty, free