Richard A. Brisbin, Jr. A Strike Like No Other Strike: Law & Resistance During the Pittston Coal Strike of 1989-1990. Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. 368 pages. Hardcover, $44.95.
By Gordon Simmons
Readers of Professor Brisbinís account and analysis of the contentious Pittston strike will be rewarded whatever their level of involvement or awareness of that nearly eleven-month struggle might have been. This protracted strike by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), began in 1989, lasted nearly a year and engendered sympathy strikes which spread across the coalfields of Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky. In terms of the account itself - what happened in what sequence - Brisbin does an admirable job not only of conveying the historical events and their context, but also of making explicit the evolution and development that occurred on both sides of the struggle. Two conflicting narratives, one from the perspective of the miners and the other from that of the company, emerged, and the interpretations advanced by the courts and government matched the latter.
David Corbin (Life, Work, & Rebellion in the Coal Fields 1981; The West Virginia Mine Wars 1990) and Lon Savage (Thunder in the Mountains 1984) have demonstrated the distinction in values and attitudes on the part of coal miners and their communities on one hand and those in authority on the other, whether that be corporate, political, or even an entrenched union bureaucracy. If that class autonomy was present in the early twentieth century period analyzed by Corbin and Savage, its existence at the end of the twentieth century is demonstrated by Brisbin. He is consequently critical of any Ďfalse consciousnessí thesis, arguing that the miners clearly "are conscious of their subjection."
But it is a focus on laws and courts and the "legal complex" that further distinguished Brisbinís book. One could even read it as a sequel of sorts to Richard Luntís study of the earlier period in Law & Order vs The Miners (1979). In Brisbinís account, "as the judiciary gradually but inexorably limited the strikersí protests by injunction and millions of dollars in fines for contempt of court, some individuals, to resist Pittston and the judiciary, turned to what they regarded as the only satisfactory alternatives." A conflict that began with the legal mechanisms of bargaining and the National Labor Relations Board transformed into a strike characterized by acts of civil disobedience- sit-ins, road blocking, wildcat sympathy strikes, and jackrocks to halt the movement of coal trucks. In one dramatic episode, strikers occupied the Moss No. 3 plant. The operators proved adept at the use of courts to retaliate against the union miners, even obtaining legal sanction for the use of replacement workers.
Brisbinís conclusion asserts that miners are in need of leaders who can "breach the dual boundaries that legalism and the institutions of the legal complex impose on workers." Yet two of the most notable instances of Appalachian mine workers acting autonomously demonstrate that dependence on leadership is precisely the opposite lesson. The solidarity and victory of miners in the Paint Creek/Cabin Creek strike of 1912-13 was achieved over the opposition of the union hierarchy (Corbin, 1981). And it was the absence of leaders that most markedly characterized the Armed March on Logan in the Twenties, described as an instance of "working anarchy" (Savage, 1984).
An objection to the lessons Brisbin draws in no way diminishes an appreciation of the significant contribution he has made to the history of Appalachian coal miners and to labor history overall. This book will remain a valuable reference to many.