Q&A With Richard Brisbin, A Strike Like No Other Strike

The title of your book, A Strike Like No Other Strike, proclaims the Pittson Coal Strike was unique.  What is it that makes this particular strike so unusual?

My concerns in writing the book were about the legal aspects of the case.  My concern was to write a book about resistance to law, which is something I’ve long been interested in.  I think what is distinctive about the Pittson Strike is the organization of the resistance by the United Mine Workers; the large number of arrests, the large number of acts of anonymous violence, the amount of litigation and the legal penalties which were later retracted.  All of those kind of made it a unique strike.  Of course the phrase “a strike like no other strike” actually comes from the transcripts of one of the trials, and was stated by one of the miners who later went on to become a politician.

Do you think today there could be strike of this proportion?

I don’t think so in the coal industry. I think it’s questionable whether one could occur in many areas of America because unions have been under such tremendous attack by the political right that they have lost a lot of authority in America.  Compared where unions were 70 years ago, unions have far less power.

What caused the Pittson Coal Strike?

Well the strike was actually caused by the fact that the contract had expired between Pittson and the UNWA.  During negotiations on a new contract the company undertook some actions that affected widows, survivors and retirees largely as a measure to force the union to accept what the union regards as a less than satisfactory contract. 

During your extensive research for the book you interviewed several strikers and widows.  Are there any particular interviews that stand out in your mind and why?

I interviewed dozens and dozens of people.  Some of them were just brief conversations with people in informal settings and there were some people I talked to for some five to six hours.  I think one interview that really struck me was when I interviewed a gentleman, a former miner, who had been a pretty active participant in the strike along with one of his friends.  He had black lung and every five minutes or so he had to take a break to get his oxygen.  These two guys had actually collected and taped on VHS tapes every newscast of coverage of the strike.  I sat in the living room of this house and it was just amazing to watch with them because certain people from the coal company would come onto the screen and they’d shout out “BOOOO” or something like that.  

Another man I interviewed, I offered to come to his house but we met at a motel I was staying at.  He came by and I looked out and said to myself, “Oh my gosh, there is a guy with one leg coming.”  That’s pretty scary.  You know that’s pretty upsetting.  He had lost his leg in a mining disaster.

Is there any particular message you want your audience to take away from the book, one main point?

My basic lesson is one of broad theory, not about coal strikes. It’s about what happens when people resist the law.  What I’m interested in from a scholarly perspective is whether resisting or opposing the law can really change their lives or change the world.  You know it’s kind of a mixed bag, mine is just a case study of one instance.   I think what we don’t know enough about is litigation, you know the strike lead to a lot of litigation, and whether or not the law can help or impede social change.  There is also a hypothesis that says “the law favors the ‘haves’ over the ‘have not’s”.  I think the question is to what degree can people use the law, particularly if they’re “have not’s”, to better themselves. The question is whether or not it’s through the courts that change can occur or whether the courts can impede it.   I decided to take a case that was really quite different from the standard civil liberties cases, like the rights of women or racial minorities, and take a look at it in a different context.

In the first chapter, you emphasize that the book is not merely a historic account but a “tale” and you compare it to the tale of Robin Hood.  Can you elaborate on this comparison?

Yes, what I’m trying to get at is a tale of resistance to authority. It’s also not a standard history and I tried to focus on the legal aspects.  What I wanted to get at was the way law plays a role during conflicts and the way which law deals with situations in which people are unhappy with their circumstances. 

Since the original release of the book ten years ago what have you been working on?  What can we expect to see from you in the future?

For a long time I’ve been involved in two or three things.  I’m still writing a little on resistance to the law and I’ve got a piece coming out.   I’ve long been involved in the West Virginia Politics Book as a co-author and after the strike book we did a second addition which took up a great deal of my time.  I’ve done a little work on censorship and also work on non-enforcement of the law, particularly animal-law and why most animal-laws aren’t enforced. 

Is there one thing you’ve learned personally from the experience of researching and writing the story of the Pittson Coal Strike?

I think we fail to recognize sometimes how hard life can be for working class America.   We sit here in these nice, well semi-nice offices, and it’s a nice clean job.  I think too many Americans, particularly in the business management community forget, and maybe its revealed by these TV shows like “Undercover Boss”, they really don’t realize how hard these people work and how tough it can be.  There is a lack of understanding of how hard it is for some people in “dirty jobs”.


About Lindsay Bailey

Hi, I'm a senior public relations major/English minor at West Virginia University. I'm interested in writing, camping and having fun. View all posts by Lindsay Bailey

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