Academic journal article Journal of Economic Issues

The Importance and Implications of Women's Participation in the 1989-90 Pittston Coal Strike

Academic journal article Journal of Economic Issues

The Importance and Implications of Women's Participation in the 1989-90 Pittston Coal Strike

Article excerpt

No nation is greater than its women-women are fighters.

- Mary "Mother" Jones

On April 5, 1989, some 2,000 members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMW) walked off the job at Pittston Coal Group mines in southwestern Virginia and West Virginia in what has been described as the longest and most militant labor dispute in that region in the second half of this century. When the parties failed to reach a new agreement by contract expiration at the end of January 1988, UMW members continued to work without a contract. Pittston immediately cut off all health benefits to retirees, their spouses, widows, and the disabled. After 14 months of unproductive negotiations, the UMW finally struck in early April 1989. Pittston continued production with replacement workers and supervisors. The UMW, in turn, began a campaign of civil disobedience to bring public attention to the dispute. In November 1989, Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole asked former labor secretary William Usery to mediate the dispute. His efforts produced an agreement that both parties signed in February 1990. Although the settlement had its drawbacks for the union, the dispute's outcome was unusual in an era of declining union bargaining power. Often such confrontations with employers end with the decertification of the bargaining agent and the permanent loss of union members' jobs. Moreover, as a result of the strike, national attention turned to the crisis of health care in the coal industry, and eventually federal legislation was enacted to resolve the problems of the beleaguered multi-employer health care funds. The question this paper asks is how this outcome is to be explained.

It is recognized [Levinson 1966] that neoclassical bilateral monopoly models provide no insights into the determinants of the relative power of either the employer or the union in collective bargaining. Historically, institutional labor economists and industrial relations experts have attempted to fill this theoretical void. Chamberlain [1951] developed a framework where relative power at the bargaining table was determined by comparing the costs to each party of agreeing or disagreeing with the other's terms. This framework allowed consideration of a number of economic and political variables, the importance of which Ross (1948) and Dunlop [1950] had explained earlier. Levinson [1966,9] however, pointed out that Chamberlain's framework failed to allow investigators to identify "those variables that were dominant in affecting the power position of the parties in actual bargaining situations."

The focus in most analyses of collective bargaining has remained on a narrow range of economic and political factors that inform the behavior of one or more of three parties - the employer, the union leadership, or the rank and file. However, as Craypo [1992] demonstrated in his "ability-to-pay/ability-to-make-pay" framework for analyzing relative bargaining power "other" actors and/or forces can be extremely important to relative power, bargaining strategies, and final outcomes. The ability-to-pay/ability-to-make pay framework requires the investigation of a broader set of institutional actors and forces in analyzing relative bargaining power, processes and final outcomes. Among factors that determine the employers' ability to meet the union's demands are (1) the firm's relative market position and power; (2) spatial limitations in the geographic distribution of production; (3) public policy that affects product market conditions and productive operations; and (4) forces that affect the productive efficiency of the firm such as significant changes in the technology of production. The extent to which the relevant work force is organized, the influence of competing unions on the union's organizing success, and the nature of the bargaining structure within which bargaining takes place determine the union's ability to make the employer meet its demands.

When this framework is integrated with a productive systems framework [Wilkinson 1983; Tarling and Wilkinson 1987], additional actors and/or forces that interact with those already considered in Craypo's framework are included in an analysis of bargaining strategies, relative power and final outcomes. …

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