Coal miner, union leader, Virginia state delegate: Jackie Stump bore all three titles before his death last month at the age of 68. Stump’s death received little coverage—a quiet end to an unquiet life. But in 1989, the former coal miner made national headlines for his surprise ouster of 12-term Democratic legislator Donald McGlothlin.
Born in rural Russell County, Stump lacked a high school diploma, party affiliation, and electoral experience when he first ran for office. He owed his public platform to UMWA, which he served as a local official, and announced his independent run against McGlothlin a mere three weeks before election day. Most observers downplayed his candidacy as an UMWA stunt designed to call attention to their on-going direct action against the Pittston coal company.
And yet: He won 7,981 votes to McGlothlin’s 3,812.
To the media, he was a marvel. Reports at the time emphasized his lack of education and “lumbering” build. That backlash didn’t dissuade voters, and he remained in office until 2005.
The tale of Jackie Stump has been largely forgotten by the world outside his former district, which spans Buchanan County and parts of Russell and Tazewell counties. But his campaign is notable for what it tells us about political life in a region that now favors a different political newcomer: Donald Trump.
“The 1,586 votes Mr. Trump received in (Buchanan) county were triple the total for the Democratic primary winner, Hillary Clinton,” The Wall Street Journal reported in April. Virginia has an open primary, and Trump’s tally included a number of Democrats who’d refused to vote for either former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
Stump and Trump never shared much of a political philosophy. Stump’s brand of populism targeted corporate bosses and their legislative allies, not immigrants. The Ivy League-educated Trump claims he’s funding his own campaign, while Stump’s succeeded on grassroots power.
Despite their differences, they both benefited from the anger of the white working class. And the Pittston strike, which paved Stump’s path to Richmond but could not staunch Appalachia’s economic bleeding, helps explain their campaign victories.
Stump had good reason to challenge McGlothlin. The lawmaker’s son, Russell County Circuit Court Judge Donald McGlothlin Jr., ultimately levied $64 million in fines against the union for its activities during the strike. That figure includes $1000 each against Stump and fellow UMWA official Marty Hudson. In court, the younger McGlothlin slammed union lawyers for comparing their strike to the civil rights movement; theirs was but a simple “economic dispute,” he told them at one May 1989 hearing.
“You're not talking about human rights,” he insisted.
That was news to Stump and his fellow miners. They’d landed in court due to a dispute over their pensions and medical benefits.
Pittston had withdrawn from the Bituminous Coal Operators Association, UMWA’s collective bargaining organization, in 1987, telling miners and press that economic circumstances demanded a significant reduction to pensions and medical benefits. Miners disagreed, and negotiations between Pittston and union representatives quickly deteriorated.
“Pittston is trying to break our union,” Hudson told The New York Times at the time.
By April 1989, miners had worked without a contract for 14 months, and legal pickets had failed to persuade Pittston to relent. The same month, a group of local women calling themselves “The Daughters of Mother Jones” occupied Pittston’s Lebanon, Va., headquarters for 36 hours in solidarity with miners. Weeks later, 1,400 Virginians and 300 West Virginians walked off the job. By June, about 37,000 more miners in several states had joined them in a series of wildcat series.
The Pittston strike’s location shaped its tactics. It unfolded mostly on Virginia’s jagged western border, with activity concentrated in and around Dickenson and Russell counties. This is Lyndon B. Johnson’s ‘Other America.” It’s bare country, rock splits it like a compound fracture, and the people who live there aren’t strangers to fighting. The Battle of Blair Mountain took place just over the nearby state line in Mingo County, West Virginia.
In the decades after Blair Mountain, UMWA earned its members hard-won benefits, compensation for dangerous work made even more dangerous by coal companies themselves. Six years before Stump and his compatriots ever appeared in McGlothlin’s courtroom, seven miners died in after an explosion at a Clinchfield Coal Company mine in Dickenson County. An UMWA report later blamed the tragedy on Clinchfield’s “haphazard approach” to mine ventilation.
Six years before the Pittston strike, seven miners died in after an explosion at a Clinchfield Coal Company mine in Dickenson County. An UMWA report later the tragedy on Clinchfield’s
The benefits Pittston intended to sacrifice were benefits miners had bled to keep.
Stump knew this history, of course. As miners, he and his fellow union members knew it better than almost anyone else. He knew that Pittston would call in federal authorities and try to bleed the union dry in the courts. So they acted, launching a large-scale and politically sophisticated direct action. In court testimony, he called it “a strike like no other strike.”
But it was in many ways deliberately like other strikes. Camo-clad strikers used jack rocks to block road access to the mines. They staged raucous pickets across southwest Virginia and turned a Castlewood, Va., campground into “Camp Solidarity,” an echo of Mingo County’s Lick Creek tent colony. And they encountered familiar retaliation, primarily from state police and federal marshals. A few strikers committed violence themselves in violation of strict orders from UMWA leadership—though property, not people, suffered most of the damage.
UMWA won, technically. It successfully preserved the pensions and benefits Pittston sought to cut, though historian Richard Brisbin argues in A Strike Like No Other Strike that its gains were at best incremental. The union also challenged McGlothlin Jr.’s fines in a case that eventually meandered its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Justices decided UMWA v. Bagwell in the union’s favor. According to Brisbin, Chief Justice Henry Blackmun ruled that McGlothlin Jr.’s fines had been unnecessarily “punitive.”
McGlothlin Sr. may have considered Stump’s challenge punitive, too. But voters clearly didn’t agree: The magnitude of Stump’s lead suggests it can only be partially attributed to UMWA’s political machine. It’s better attributed to widespread resentment. McGlothlin’s years in the legislature had, in the eyes of his district, achieved little for the working man. He represented the establishment; Stump, populist fervor. UMWA gave that fervor institutional backing and an attainable target.
It could not likely accomplish a similar strike today. Its numbers were already shrinking in 1989, and they have only further diminished due to coal’s decline and successful industry efforts to block unionization. In 2007, the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues reported that the union represented no working miners in eastern Kentucky. Earlier this year, the Washington Post reported that nationally, the union represents one working miner for every 13 retirees.
The union is still active politically. In southwest Virginia and the rest of the coalfields, an UMWA endorsement still carries weight. But its fate is bound to coal and there are fewer and fewer coal jobs for the union to defend. Pittston itself is no more: It ended mining operations in 2003. Alpha Natural Resources bought portions of its assets only to declare bankruptcy last year. Patriot Coal has filed for bankruptcy twice. Peabody Coal, the world’s largest coal company, filed for bankruptcy in April.
And the resulting job losses have crippled an already-impoverished region. Bloomberg reported last year that eastern Kentucky lost roughly half its coal jobs from 2008 to 2014. Southwest Virginia has fared little better. According to Politifact, Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise counties had 2,812 coal jobs in 2014, down from 9,773 in 1990.
Jackie Stump lived long enough to see his industry die. His union may not be far behind. And the district he represented continues to struggle. 28 years after his victory, Buchanan County’s per capita income sits at just $18, 357. In Russell and Tazewell counties, the per capita income is $20, 117 and $21, 558 respectively.
As Jedediah Purdy wrote for Scalawag a few weeks ago, Trump offers these counties a new script to express old grievances. You are victims, he assures them, your anger is valid. They believe this because it is half of a whole truth, and because the words are familiar. But the anger that animated the Pittston strike outlasted Pittston itself. Trump’s success in southwest Virginia reflects the absence of old enemies—and old leaders.
What Southwest Virginia really needs is another Stump. But unless other unions or labor movements like Fight for 15 can replicate UMWA’s presence in the region, it’s unlikely to get one.