- Category: History
- Created on Sunday, 26 July 2009 09:10
- Written by Mike Ely
[PDF pamphlet of this essay]
Ambush at Keystone: Inside the Coalminers' Great Gas Protest of 1974
By Mike Ely
Speaking Bitterness in the Courthouse Meeting at the Welch Bypass Roving Pickets and Wildcats The Unexpected Color of Pickets
Home, Briefly A Reckless Morning in Eureka Holler
The Fight Local by Local Imagining Communist Work A Flyer: Controversy Inside and Out The Argument Against Explanations Fishing at Midnight
Bucket or Suitcase! Keystone's Outlaw History A Darkly Revealing Moment
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. 
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. 
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. 
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.  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. 
Notes:  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…."
 Wildcat strikes in Bituminous Coal Mining, Jeanne M. Brett and Stephen B. Goldberg, in Industrial and Labor Relations Review, July 1970, Cornell University.
 Seltzer, p. 138
 Mao Zedong, On Practice, marxists.org
 Abbreviations are given in the place of people's names for obvious reasons.