Ambush at Keystone: Inside the Coalminers' Gas Protest

[PDF pamphlet of this essay]

Ambush at Keystone: Inside the Coalminers' Great Gas Protest of 1974

By Mike Ely



Part 1: No Gas? No Coal.

Speaking Bitterness in the Courthouse Meeting at the Welch Bypass Roving Pickets and Wildcats The Unexpected Color of Pickets

Part 2 The First Picket

Home, Briefly A Reckless Morning in Eureka Holler

Part 3: Injunctions and State Police

The Fight Local by Local Imagining Communist Work A Flyer: Controversy Inside and Out The Argument Against Explanations Fishing at Midnight

Part 4: Things Start to Crack

Bucket or Suitcase! Keystone's Outlaw History A Darkly Revealing Moment

Part 5: Bullets of Hidden Gunmen

Waiting in Virginia Ambush from Company Property "Let Him Die" Springing the Jailhouse Doors Afterward

For the author's Introduction to this series >



Coalminers in Appalachia waged a fierce 10-year movement of illegal walkouts called wildcat strikes, starting in the late 1960s. Tens of thousands of miners repeatedly confronting the federal and state authorities, the courts, the police, the mine owners, the media, and their own top union officials. Most strikes involved individual mines and local grievances – and lasted a day or two. But especially after 1974, some strikes started to spread from mine to mine, county to county, state to state – challenging government policies and court repression. The hard fought strikes lasted for weeks. The leadership of these strikes was entirely at the grassroots, among the working miners and sometimes the local elected leaders at their mines.


This was one of greatest upsurges of working class struggle in modern U.S. history. And yet it is virtually unknown. [1]

And there is a second story here that is also unknown: A small cadre of Maoist activists worked within that wildcat strike movement to promote revolutionary politics among the coal miners. Radical activists had been sent to the coalfields by the Revolutionary Union (RU) to get jobs in the mines and connect with the militant networks among the workers– both to help organize a distinct self-conscious pole of revolutionary struggle among the miners, and to connect them to larger plans for a socialist revolution in the U.S.

Histories of the coalmines or 1960s radicalism barely mention that strike wave and the RU's Miners Right to Strike Committee, if at all. If you want a sense of the power of this wildcat strike movement, you still have to go burrow among the records of the federal courts and the coal operators themselves. Or you can leaf through the yellowing archives of the local newspapers -- where the strikes were denounced in livid redbaiting tones.

The Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA) reported that miners launched an average of 1,500 wildcats in each year from 1971 to 1974. Then the rate doubled for 1975-76 to more than 3,000 strikes per year. [2]

Files for federal restraining orders of the Charleston's U.S. District Court note that 2 locals were restrained for striking in 1970. In 1971, it was 20. Then: 1971, 69; 1972, ; 1973, 127; 1974, 267; 1975, 295; 1976, 188. [3]

Often during the 1970s, the nightly local news was cut short, so that these federal court orders could be announced over TV – one after another --threatening specific mines and local officials with prison if they did not return to work.

Gina B. Fall and I were part of the revolutionary communist organizing project among coalminers during the 1970s. She was one of the writers and distributors for our local communist newspaper, the Coalfield Worker, and a leader in the local Black Lung Association. I worked in the mines from early 1973 until I was fired and blacklisted at the end of 1979. And during that time I was one of the core activists of the Miners Right-to-Strike Committee – a communist-led organization of coalminers that helped lead the biggest wildcats that broke out, in 1975 and 1976 challenging injunctions and demanding the right to strike.

There is new interest these days in the work of connecting revolutionary politics with working people. This essay explores one experience in service to that discussion.

This is the story of the first major strike that RU comrades participated in -- shortly after we arrived in the coalfields. The strike erupted before we were widely known as communists and atheists. These were days when we were first learning the lay of the land and first meeting the main players in the rank-and-file struggle. In the raw experiences of this strike, new perceptions collided constantly with our own preconceptions.

Mao Zedong talks about how perceptual knowledge is the doorway to conception and insight. He describes how practical experience accumulates and makes leaps in our understanding possible. [4] Those leaps from experience to insight are ongoing, and all around us, right now, are signs of new leaps demanding to be made.

This essay will not sum up the full arc of our communist work over the 1970s. That may come later. This is a description of events and people for the much more limited purpose of giving the reader a sense of the times and those struggles.

Gina, my close partner and comrade through those days, died not long go, and so this report will not benefit from her sharp memory and insight. Thanks to Judy,  Mike and Khia Branch for help in writing this piece. I welcome questions and criticism. [5]

Notes: [1] Fire in the Hole: Miners and Managers in the American Coal Industry, Curtis Seltzer, University Press of Kentucky p 136-138

"Wildcat strikes defined the three years following the 1974 contract, logging more than 5.6 million lost workdays, or almost 6 percent of all workdays in this period….The Revolutionary Communist party, through its Miners' Right to Strike Committee, played an important role in shaping several wildcats between 1974 and 1976…."


[2] Wildcat strikes in Bituminous Coal Mining, Jeanne M. Brett and Stephen B. Goldberg, in Industrial and Labor Relations Review, July 1970, Cornell University.

[3] Seltzer, p. 138

[4] Mao Zedong, On Practice,

[5] Abbreviations are given in the place of people's names for obvious reasons.

People in this conversation

  • Guest - J.B. Connors

    Hey Mike,

    This is a fun read. I am thinking of it as a polemical memoir, because it has a communist approach to a subject often discussed with leaden stupidity (the "economic struggle of the workers"). And it's done in a non-economist, non-dogmatic way, which will no doubt prove controversial. It also works as an interesting reflection on the people and times of that period in the coalfields.

    Thanks for taking the time to share this hidden history.

  • Guest - Dr. Zaius

    I second the comment above. This is a great piece Mike, thanks for writing and sharing it, and I can't wait to read the rest.

  • Guest - land

    This is so interesting.

    Been wanting to know more about this time in the coalfields.This history is a hidden history.

    In South Africa I think or maybe China there was a quote about a youth who since he was around 9 had never seen the light of day.
    He went down before sunrise and came up after sunset.

    Looking forward to discussion and the further articles.

  • Guest - Radical Eyes

    [<strong>Moderator notes: </strong>The first notes by Radical Eyes were posted <a href="/" rel="nofollow">on another thread.</a>]

    I'd like to have seen a more concrete and detailed treatment of how exactly you (or others in the field) worked to bring a consciousness of the dynamics of imperialism (particularly in relationship to petrol-politics) into the conversation with workers and others in the community. Presently you assert that despite your major breakthroughs as a grassroots strike activist, you encountered limited success in getting workers interested or involved in supporting or taking up more specifically socialist or communist activity (May Day celebrations, defense of the Iranian Revolution etc.)...Ok. But I would like to see a more developed analysis of HOW you or other rev-com minded activists tried (or in retrospect, might have tried) to draw militant (but not--yet--advanced) workers into a conversation about the causal framework of capitalist-imperialism that was integral to bringing on the OPEC oil embargo and the consequent gasoline rationing...Might there in other words have been a missed mass line approach here, that could have successfully achieved some sort of working synthesis (a synthesis of "bringing out" and "bringing to" as I think you put it pithily at one point) to bridge what may in retrospect appear as an antagonistic contradiction between the immediate gas-coal strike struggle, and the international struggle of the proletariat?

    This is to say, that while I find the distinction you draw between the militant and the advanced to be a crucial one, and one that needs to be born in mind when orienting towards either group, I am not quite satisfied by your assertion that one aspect would always eat up the other....It very well may have gone this way, as you describe, but did it HAVE to go this way? In other words, what were the determinants that allowed the contradiction between supporting the strikers' struggle and developing socialist or communist consciousness to the workers to develop into an antagonistic contradiction...Was it fated to become one due to overwhelming objective-historical determinants? Or did the subjective forces play determining a role in allowing this antagonism to harden...I'd love to hear more in this vein--and even to read the texts of those old leaflets that you mention at a number of points...Any chance that you can in fact dig these documents out of your files. I for one at least would be interested in seeing them up close.

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