Ambush at Keystone No. 1

Inside the Coal Miners’ Great Gas Protest of 1974

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By MIKE ELY

Coalminers in Appalachia waged a 10-year movement of illegal walkouts called wildcat strikes, starting in the late 1960s. Tens of thousands of miners repeatedly confronting the federal and state authorities, the courts, the police, the mine owners, the media, and their own top union officials. Most strikes involved individual mines and local grievances – and lasted a day or two. But especially after 1974, some strikes started to spread from mine to mine, county to county, state to state – challenging government policies and court repression. The hard fought strikes lasted for weeks. The leadership of these strikes was entirely at the grassroots, among the working miners and sometimes the local elected leaders at their mines. This was one of greatest upsurges of working class struggle in modern U.S. history. And yet it is virtually unknown.

This essay  is a personal recollection of the first major strike that comrades of the Revolutionary Union participated in — shortly after we arrived in the coalfields. The strike erupted before we were widely known as communists and atheists. These were days when we were first learning the lay of the land and first meeting the main players in the rank-and-file struggle. In the raw experiences of this strike, new perceptions collided constantly with our own preconceptions.

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