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STRIFE IN COALFIELDS HITS CLOSE TO HOME


Publication: THE CHARLESTON GAZETTE
Published: Sunday, August 08, 1993
Page: P1B
Byline: Ken Ward

SHARPLES _ James Tompkins slammed his pickup to a halt, shattering the quiet on the picket line.

The burly, bearded miner hopped out of the cab. He stomped over, stuck his head under the blue canvas lean-to, and glared at five or six fellow United Mine Workers.

"There's going to be a lot of trouble on this picket line over this," Tompkins said, pointing across the bridge to a square particle-board sign.

Black spray-painted letters spelled out, "Scab of the Week." Poster paper taped to the sign identified Local 2935's latest target "We've got boys whose fathers and sons and brothers are bosses up there, and it's better just not to talk about it," he said.

"This is all kin here." Tompkins' own son, James Derrick, is a coal company engineer.

Every day on his way to work with other salaried employees, James Derrick crosses the UMW picket line.

"If they put his name up on that sign over there, there's going to be trouble," Tompkins vowed later. "Because he's my son before he's a boss.

"Your kin people are your kin people before they're bosses or scabs or anything else," he said. "And we don't need to be fighting with each other." Tompkins and 17,000 other UMW members are already caught in the fight of their lives with the nation's largest coal companies, the Bituminous Coal Operators Association.

And Tompkins knows how relationships are strained and battle lines blurred during labor disputes.

He knows that two weeks ago, a non-union contractor named Eddie York was shot dead crossing a picket line. He knows that could easily have been his son.

"To me, family comes first," Tompkins said. "And I didn't blame him for being up there.

"You've got too many people that think too much about the dollar and not enough about raising their family and keeping their self-respect." Charges of strike violence have plagued the UMW since the strike began May 10. After York's slaying, federal mediators rushed to try to bring the two sides back to the bargaining table. But at week's end, there was no word on when - or if - negotiators might meet.

The operators have refused to give union members first crack at all or most of the jobs created when BCOA parent companies open new, non-union mines.

Without that, UMW President Richard Trumka says, his miners face mass unemployment over the next decade. The average UMW member is 44 years old. The average UMW mine will run out of coal in seven years Now as the strike wears on, coal company executives complain in press releases about mounting financial losses, of damaged equipment, and of coal orders lost to other operators.

Coalfield families tell a different story.

Staying close to home|M Eighteen-year-old Tabby York planned to go to West Virginia University this fall. She had a full academic scholarship, a free ride. This bright, outspoken Tug Valley High School graduate was going to be a nurse.

Then her father was killed.

On July 22, 39-year-old Eddie York of Lenore was shot in the back of the head after he crossed a picket line at Arch Mineral's Ruffner mine near Logan.

Tabby decided she can't go to WVU. She needs to stay home. She needs to help her 17-year-old brother, who is angry, and her 7-year-old brother, who doesn't understand, and to be there for her mother, who can't bring herself to talk publicly about her husband's murder.

Last week, Tabby signed up for classes at Southern West Virginia Community College - four hours closer to her Mingo County home.

She plans to take courses at the Williamson campus for a year, then transfer to Marshall University in Huntington.

"I had scholarships to WVU, but didn't want to go that far away," she said. "Everything's happened, so I didn't want to leave my mom and them.

"Really, I didn't want to go to college, but my daddy has always pushed it, and now he's gone, and I'm going to do it to make him happy," she said. "He didn't want me to depend on anybody.

He wanted me to be my own person and make something good of myself." As Tabby spoke, 7-year-old Ed rushed into the room. He had been playing in the rain. His wet T-shirt clung to his chubby belly.

He stared at the strangers, teased his sister with a quick round of "Tabby likes boys, Tabby likes boys," and hustled back out to play some more.

"He says "Why? It's not fair. Why did it have to be our Daddy?

There are so many mean people in the world,' 1/3" Tabby York said "The night it happened, he wanted to know when Daddy was coming home, and I had to tell him he got killed," she said. "Most of the time, I tell him God is trying to fill up heaven and he always takes the good people first." Just feeding his family|M For the last eight years, Eddie York worked for his brother-in-law, Russell Deskins, at Deskins Contracting of Holden.

He operated the bulldozers and other heavy equipment used for maintenance work in and around coal mines.

On the morning he died, York crossed the UMW picket line to clean sludge and gook from a drainage pond at the base of the Ruffner strip mine.

That evening, York, other contractors and company guards drove out of the mine in a convoy of four trucks. They were met by a dozen UMW pickets. Police said the pickets pelted the trucks with rocks.

Suddenly, York's truck lurched forward and ran into a ditch. By the time the other guards got to him, he was dead. A single bullet fired from the wooded hillside went through the back window of his cab. Police haven't arrested anyone, but they believe a UMW member pulled the trigger.

"I've always had a fear about him getting hurt, but never thought I'd come home and they'd tell me he was killed," Tabby York said. "He wasn't really trying to take anybody's job. He was trying to put food on the table for his family.

"My daddy wasn't against the union," she added. "He was for the union. He looked at it like he was doing his job, and they were doing theirs. These men are like my Daddy. They're just trying to put food on the table for their families. I can't hold anything against them." Turning father against son|M Sharples is about an hour's drive from Tabby York's home in Lenore. Take the four lane and cross over Blair Mountain along winding W.Va. 17.

More than 400 Local 2935 members work for Sharples Coal Co. and Hickory Coal Co. They mine coal from deep mines and strip jobs that make up the huge Dal-Tex Coal Corp. complex.

Their local is one of the oldest in West Virginia, just as Dal-Tex is one of the biggest mining operations in the state.

James Tompkins has worked at Sharples for 25 years. He started as a young man in 1968, long before Ashland Coal Inc. bought out Dal-Tex last year.

His father worked in these same mines, and Tompkins grew up in this hollow. "My dad retired here, and just about all my people retired here," he said.

But when Tompkins turned 18 in 1959, he couldn't find a job in the mines.

Machines had taken over the mines, throwing half the nation's miners out of work. In West Virginia alone, 72,000 miners lost their jobs in 10 years. Between 1950 and 1960, the number of miners dropped from 120,000 statewide to only 48,000.

So like many young men, Tompkins left his coalfield home to find a job. He went to Chicago, where he built cars and joined the United Auto Workers.

Then in the late 1960s and early 1970s, more mining jobs opened up in West Virginia. More people were getting their electricity from coal. National leaders were pushing to reduce dependence on foreign oil.

Tompkins returned to Logan County to take a job in the mines.

Now he lives in Sharples. He relaxes by playing guitar and collecting antique whiskey jugs.

But mining jobs are getting scarce again. The miners are waging their first national strike since 1981. And Tompkins' son crosses their picket line.

Tompkins pulls picket-line duty as a strike captain. He tosses horseshoes and shares a sandwich with fellow miners, but he doesn't yell "scab" at people who cross the picket line.

"Me working non-union is like trying to live in a communist country," Tompkins said. "I just couldn't do it. But I don't see the need of hollering at the bosses and calling them names.

They're just doing their job like I am." He said his son only crosses the picket line because he couldn't find a union job.

"They're making a habit of not hiring employees from around here anymore, and they hire them from as far away as they can get," Tompkins said. "What makes it so bad is, all the revenue from these mines goes out of state and the taxpayers of West Virginia are the ones that are hurt by this strike.

"They turn brother against brother and father against son, just like the Civil War," he said. "But the bosses up there are stuck with it, just like we're stuck with it.

"To me, family comes first and I don't blame them for being up there. They've got families to take care of, too," he said.

Paying the price|M Coal trucks rumble along the rain-slickened road that passes by Eddie York's house. It's a red brick house next to an Exxon station just off the four-lane between Logan and Williamson.

Inside, the house was tidy. The boxes of clothes in the back of the hall were Tabby York's not her father's. Before he was shot, Tabby cleaned out her room to get ready to go to Morgantown.

Prom pictures and Tabby's graduation photo decorate the living room end tables. In a boyhood shot, Eddie York wore a cowboy hat and a red bandana. As a grown-up, Tabby said, her father didn't like to have his picture taken.

Little Ed burst into the room again. This time, his white T-shirt was covered with mud.

"You go right in there and get cleaned up," Tabby York said Her brother asked, "Help me," then hopped on the couch to hug her, rubbing a bit of the mud onto her shirt.

"I've always been the strong one," Tabby York said. "My father was a hard worker, and he would want me, I think, to take over our family and work as hard as I could. So I'm going to do my best to please him.

"We can't really put this behind us until the man who did this is put away," she said.

"If I could put an ad in the paper, I would tell people the strike cost my family our father, and that's more important than any amount of money in the world."

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