Kathryn O’Donnell Howard Besser

The Videos & The Excerpts

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The Videos & The Excerpts

Drawing the Line at Pittston (1990, 28min)

Drawing the Line at Pittston chronicles the yearlong miners strike against the Pittston Mine Company in Virginia, West Virginia and eastern Kentucky in 1989. Though a landmark event in the history of labor (one of the largest labor disputes in the last fifty years), this working people's strike garnered little attention in the mainstream media. Using interviews with striking miners and their families, members of the clergy, labor leaders, students, and others affected by the strike this program documents the gradual political awakening of a community whose livelihood is threatened by corporate greed. This strike proved to be a dramatic symbol for unions everywhere as supporters from around the world rallied behind the United Mine Workers” (Paper Tiger TV).

When I chose the video sequence for this exhibition, I kept in mind an audience quite like myself: students who might not know much about the labor movement but who are interested in learning more about labor issues. Therefore, I chose to open the exhibition with Drawing the Line at Pittston because I personally found the image of miners’ striking in Appalachia to be one of the more familiar images of the labor movement.

In the beginning of the video a voiceover announces: “The Bituminous Coal Operators’ Association, the BCOA, currently represents sixteen coal companies that jointly negotiate labor contracts with the United Mine Workers of America. Since 1950, BCOA members have paid into pension and benefit trusts that provide for mine workers and their families in the event a company ceases operations” (“Drawing the Line at Pittston”). Interviews with mine workers and their families quickly reveal, however, that one of the companies, Pittston Coal Company, did not renew its contract with the United Mine Workers of America when it expired in Feb. 1988, and had left the BCOA. Amongst other setbacks, the health care for retired workers and their wives was cut off (“Drawing the Line at Pittston”).

Without a contract, they were sometimes forced to work more than eight hours a day. The miners refused to sign the new contract Pittston offered because Pittston wanted the miners to agree to flexible work hours, which would allow Pittston to hire more workers and make each worker work under 40 hours a week, so they could avoid giving workers benefits. Pittston also wanted to be able to lease their mine to other companies when they wanted, thus leaving Pittston miners out of work. The workers stayed on for 14 months in the hope that they could negotiate a fairer contract (“Drawing the Line at Pittston”).

Drawing the Line at Pittston reveals who is on the side of Pittston and who is on the side of the UMWA miners. The line is drawn between those who support the labor movement and those who do not. On April 5, 1990, the miners successfully negotiate a contract that they are happy with. But the fact that it takes them almost a year of striking shows how difficult it is for labor to win against corporations. Pittston has more power because it has more money than the union and they have the support of the state behind them. Both the state police and judicial system crack down on the strikers. In addition, for the most part the mainstream media does not cover the strike. When they do, they show the miners in a negative light by saying that they are violent. The miners are not only fighting Pittston, they are fighting the government, and they are fighting the media’s representation of them (“Drawing the Line at Pittston”).

Fortunately, they do have some support. They have the support of the UMWA and other unions as well. Without the union, these men would not have been able to organize and gather support as quickly and successfully as they did. The union and the “union” of unions sets up a system of solidarity. The importance of the women’s auxiliary, Daughters of Mother Jones, is stressed. They started protesting over a year before the miners went on strike and they notified the community about the upcoming strike well in advance. Therefore the people were galvanized to support the miners from the get go instead of being saturated with the media’s point of view (“Drawing the Line at Pittston”).

At the exhibition I will screen the following excerpts:

00:32-14:26: This excerpt shows the historical strike footage, reasons for the Pittston workers strike, the efforts of the Daughters of Mother Jones to galvanize the community, peaceful protesting, oppression by state police and courts, and ends with the UMWA International President stating, “You take the damn treasury, but you won’t take us, and you won’t break our strike. We won’t quit until we win at Pittston” (“Drawing the Line at Pittston”).

24:47-28:02: This excerpt shows a man talking about the need to change laws so that this doesn’t happen again, a woman speaking about how great it is that the people are standing with the miners, and that the UMWA and Pittston agreed on a contract on Feb. 20 1990 (“Drawing the Line at Pittston”).

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