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Ron Whitehead

Ron's bio

Excerpts | Companion CD | Marathon Tour

Western Kentucky: late 1960's

What was your experience organizing coal miners in western Kentucky?

Well, my life was threatened. I worked for Peabody a couple times and then I worked for Kentucky Reclamation. I worked with a group of friends-- hard workers, hard-assed workers. This company had been formed to go in a reclaim-- (according to) the new la ws that had been passed, the land had to reclaimed after it had been stripped. We had bulldozer operators go in and make hills-- you didn't have to flatten it out. Some of the steep cliffs we just had to terrace. And on the terrace there would be enough width that you could back one of these huge trucks like a dump truck-- and I drove them-- you'd back it all the way down this long wall, some twice as long as a football field. You didn't have an inch to spare on the side and it was a straight drop down. Then you'd turn on your fertilizer. Then you'd fill up with seed and spread seed-- to grow grass, this real thick kind of fescue grass which was real strong and wouldn't rinse away and kept the ground from eroding. I'd do this all day-- just back up and d own this damn cliff.

"If you're thinking about bringing in the union, you best be getting on out of here right now."

This company was not unionized, absolutely no benefits. It reminded me of chain gang labor. The foremen were complete jerks. They'd talk to their employees like they were worse than animals. I'm sure they treated their dogs much better. I'd never really seen anything like this before. I'd heard about it, I'd seen it in the movies. I was infuriated by it and I wanted to do something about it before I left. I did various jobs, drove these huge tractors that looked like monsters, that pulled ploughs and di sks behind them. I did that, sowed seed, drove the big trucks, and did numerous other things. They also had tree planting crews. I finally decided that I had to begin a process towards unionization by getting all of the workers to agree to sign a petition asking for benefits like, for instance, over-time pay which they hadn't received up until then.

We'd go in sometimes at 4:30 in the morning and work until you couldn't see. The next day you'd go in, it'd rain and they'd send everybody home. No over-time, so you didn't have anything to depend on. I found out through one of the bosses how any chan ges might possibly be made. They said there was an annual meeting of the board of directors in St. Louis and any changes would have to be taken by the head of this local reclamation group. They had been doing this several years, no changes had been made, they weren't gonna make any changes. Everybody made minimum wage or a little bit more.

They weren't paid much of anything cause the company didn't have to. I typed up a letter, made it as formal as I possibly could, listed the benefits I wanted the employees to get. I started talking this up for a few days and one morning I went in earl y and convinced all 70 some of these men that this was the right thing to do and they all signed. I got them all in the warehouse before we went out on our day's work. I went into the boss' office, asked for all the bosses, the foremen, the supervisor to come in, said, "I have something to read it to them. All the men applauded. Then everybody headed out to the trucks.

I was called into the office before I was aloud to leave. The supervisors were in there and they wanted to know what attorney had drawn this up because it sounded so professional. I told them I did it myself. Well, they didn't believe me. They wanted to know what group, what union was behind this. I said, "Absolutely none. I done all this myself." They let me go on to work. After lunch, my foreman come up to me and my cousin, he said, "I need to take y'all for a ride." He took us out away from everybo dy.

He said, "Look, I'm gonna tell you this. If anybody asks, I'm gonna say I never said anything or heard anything, but I want you to know that you better watch behind you all the time. People have been killed for doing less than what you done this morni ng." He said, "If you're thinking about bringing the union in here, you best be getting on out of here right now, and that's all I'm gonna say." Within a week, I was demoted from truck driver to pulling baby trees. I went out on that job one morning and-- driving the truck wasn't that bad, even on the bar pit wall-- but pulling those trees down on your knees all day-- I just knew already that I wasn't gonna do that. A truck was going in for supplies that morning and I hopped in the back of it. The foreman yelled at me, said, "Where the hell you think you're going?" I said, "I'm going to jack off. What's it to you?" I went on in and hitched a ride home. That was it for me.

I did hear from my cousin and my friends at work that a few months later after the next annual meeting-- since I was gone apparently they didn't feel threatened-- so a supervisor took my proposal to the annual meeting and had gotten those workers the benefits I'd asked for, so it made me feel really good. If I'd stayed there I don't think they would have even taken them cause they were suspicious that I was gonna bring the union in. But these guys did get some health benefits and over-time.

Originally published in Blue Collar Boom: Honest Work, Tilt-A-Whirl Press, August 1996.

1. Intro
2. Church of the holy spook
3. What was all that noise about?
4. Western Kentucky: late 1960's

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