Conference on Women Miners

Charleston Gazette
June 23, 1984

Life underground is improving for women miners with jobs

By Debbie Sontag

Life in the mines seems to be improving for that 60 percent of women miners that has not been laid off from underground jobs.

Life as women, that is. Life for the employed coal miners as a group has been getting tougher these last few months.

At the sixth annual Conference on Women Miners, which started Friday, there seems to be a consensus among miners on at least one point: Coal companies have been speeding up production to stockpile coal in preparation for a breakdown in contract negotiations with the United Mine Workers Union. And as the only happy result, men and women miners are pulling together, realizing they all face the same problems.

"The companies are shafting everybody. They give you this, 'You should be glad you're working' attitude,'", said Georgine Sacchini, who works in the Bethlehem mines in southwestern Pennsylvania.

"Right now, our union brothers are more open to what's happening to us, because they're getting the ax, too," said Kipp Dawson, who works in the same mine.

Emily Spieler, a lawyer who handles sex discrimination cases, told a group of miners at the conference, "I see a growing sense that an attack on women could become an attack on blacks, or an attack on all workers."

There are now 3,773 women miners, with the greatest number, 1,231, in West Virginia. About 260 women from twelve states and Canada are expected to attend the three-day conference.

Those women at the conference Friday applauded the efforts of the pioneer women miners, those who started working underground in late 1973, according to federal records.

"Those first women had a big responsibility. If they didn't do well on the job, it was because they were women. If they performed outstandingly, they were an exception to the rule. They were the ones who really faced the harassment," said Betty Jean Hall, director of the Tennessee-based Coal Employment Project, a sponsor of the conference.

Sexual harassment becomes less and less of an issue for women as their male co-workers see they can do the job, the miners said: "I run my shuttle car just as good and hard as my man shuttle buddy, so they don't give me any trouble," said Shirley Holcomb, who works in the Central Appalachian Co. mines in Montgomery.

But sex discrimination in hiring and harassment on the job are not yet a thing of the past, Hall emphasized. Companies continue to resist the movement of women into the mines, and work to undermine their acceptance by the men, she added.

"The best way to get hired, if they ever start hiring again, is through persistence," Hall said. And there's strength in number, she added, suggesting women apply en masse for mining jobs.

The Coal Employment Project says harassment on the job takes different forms. "It may mean that you are put shoveling at the mudhole because you refused the sexual advances of a supervisor. It may mean you were denied training opportunities given a less qualified male. It may mean that you are made uncomfortable at the dinner hole by remarks about women," a CEP brochure tells miners.

Sheila Ostrow, a belt shoveler in an Illinois mine, says that while there is much less open harassment now, "there are still subtle things, like the men's magazines. And comments like, 'Oh, I'd never let my wife work in a mine.'"

Some women said men accepted their presence more as they got involved in the activities of their union local. (This is the second of the six women miners' conferences that has been endorsed by the UMW). And lawyers at the conference suggested women miners turn to the union with their harassment complaints, before getting involved in time-consuming and costly lawsuits.