A stranger coming upon the gorgeous green mountains soaring over the Tug Fork Valley of West Virginia near the Kentucky border would not, at first glance, suspect that a combat zone was at hand. Yet for more than a century, bloody civil strife has roiled the region embraced by Mingo County, W. Va., and Pike County, Ky. There in the late 1800s, the Hatfield and McCoy families began a feud so lethal and long that it became legend. Then in 1920 the early struggles of the region's coal miners to unionize exploded into a fray that left nine people dead and is still remembered as "the Matewan massacre." Now the area around the same little town of Matewan (pop. 822) is living up to its turbulent reputation: a coal miners' strike that is now in its eleventh month is well on the way to becoming the longest and meanest since before World War II.
The strike pits some 1,500 members of the United Mine Workers against the A.T. Massey Coal Co. Violence has become almost monotonous. In the latest incident, a midnight explosion last week rocked the three-story brick district headquarters of the U.M.W. in Pikeville, Ky., incidentally shattering a huge portrait of the late union leader John L. Lewis that hung on the wall. The strike has produced one death, hundreds of injuries and more than a thousand episodes of rock throwing, smashed windshields and punctured tires. Gunfire has been commonplace. Snipers killed a nonunion coal-truck driver, Hayes West, 35, in a convoy crossing Coeburn Mountain in late May. Gunfire wounded Miner Judy Mullins, 40, in the hand in July while she was picketing in Canada, Ky. The walls of an office at Rawl Sales & Processing Co., a Massey subsidiary in Lobata, W. Va., are pocked with bullet holes. Somebody even soaped one highway and caused a nonunion truck to crash.
In McCarr, Ky., a grocery and grill well known as a gathering spot of the strikers became a target for gunfire. A stick of dynamite tossed last month into a nonunion truck on Route 1056 near McCarr blew a three-foot hole in the vehicle but caused no injury. One explosion at the Kentucky Power Co. plant knocked out service to some 3,000 customers, including one coal company that had bought a unionized mine and reopened it as a nonunion one. Another blast blew up a power line leading to the Sprouse Creek Processing Co., the Massey subsidiary that has been a primary strike target. Former Mayor of Matewan Robert McCoy, a member of the original feuding clan, calls it "almost like a civil war."
The Massey company broke off negotiations after West's slaying. Company President E. Morgan Massey came close to accusing U.M.W. President Richard Trumka of fostering violence. Said Massey: "Mr. Trumka can turn the violence on, he can cut it off at will, and he uses that as a bargaining tool." The union leader in turn said that the Massey firm was merely foot dragging. Talks have resumed but have produced nothing so far.