Conference on Women Miners

Charleston Gazette-Mail
June 24, 1984

UMW officers encourage women

Roberts urges unity among all miners

Debbie Sontag

In a rousing keynote address at the sixth annual Conference of Women Miners Saturday, Cecil Roberts, international vice president of the United Mine Workers of America, placed himself squarely behind the full-fledged participation of women in the UMW. And, in later remarks, UMW Secretary-Treasurer John Banovic went ever further, calling women miners "the cement that binds our organization together."

No one knows just how many women miners there are and how many have been laid off during the coal industry slump. But federal records show that 3,773 women work underground, and it is estimated that 40 percent of them have lost jobs. More than 200 women miners, and about 50 men, came to Charleston from 12 states and Canada for the three-day conference sponsored by the Tennessee-based Coal Employment Project.

The first woman miner went on the records in 1973. But, "women had an important place in building the UMW, and the sacrifices women have made down through the years are enormous," Robert said.

He spoke of Mother (Sara Rebecca) Blizzard, who gave land and food to miners driven from their jobs and homes in Cabin Creek by coal operators in 1912, and of Mother (Mary Harris) Jones, who led the same miners in a bloody strike.

"Eventually, because of Mother Jones's and Mother Blizzard's efforts and because of the suffering of women and children, the strike won. And in large part because of them, you're visiting the state which is the most unionized per capita in the country," he said.

The coal companies are playing men against women in the mines in an attempt to divide the work force, just as they played different immigrant groups against each other in the early 1900s, Roberts said.

"If we allow management to play us off against each offer, we'll never win . . . If one group of workers can be discriminated against, all workers can be enslaves . . . Coal is not male or female, it's just coal," he proclaimed to resounding applause.

While there are presently only two women on the staff of the UMW international, Robert encouraged women to run for local, district and international offices. Most women at the conference seems to believe the union is really behind them. And they stressed the need to unite with their union brothers, especially in the face of the expected strike against coal operators.

Many miners spoke of the overtime demanded of them as the coal companies pushed for production to stockpile coal before the strike. Lotus Montgomery, a miner at the Montcoal mines in Boone County, told of how women and men at Montcoal got together to resist the overtime work.

"We talked among ourselves in the dinner hole. We said, 'A lot of our brothers and sisters have been laid off from mines that have been shut down. They're needing jobs, and we're knocking them off.' So we refused to work overtime. Then, the company ended up hiring about 30 of those miners that needed jobs. They were these men with like 25 years' experience underground," she explained.

Some women cautioned against putting specifically women's issues on the back burners in the rush to overcome differences with men. Bobbi Regan, who has worked for 10 years for Eastern Associated Coal Corp. near Morgantown, said this has not been a good year for women.

Regan, and others, pointed to last Tuesday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling which said cities must protect workers with seniority when forced to cut payrolls, even if it means laying off newly hired minorities. "The last-hired, first-fired policy hits women and minorities first and hardest . . . I'm afraid that through the layoffs, attrition, accidents and no more hiring, that women won't be in the mines 10 years from now.

"Not that we won't want to be. We need our jobs. It's really scary. And I'm not sure the international is really that aware of what women go through. Women are going to lawyers, not to the union. Partly that's the union's fault. Partly it's because women have come from non- unionized jobs and don't understand unions," Regan said.

According to Roberts, Mother Jones summed it up best. She said, "Organized labor has not yet learned the lesson of lining up with women. Let working women realize what they can do, they will join with men, and industrial troubles will soon be over."