1,100 union miners in Alabama now in their fifth month of strike action
Although coal mining jobs represent a rapidly shrinking portion of the US economy, they became a potent token fodder during the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns. Candidates from both major parties devoted airtime considerable on the subject, with varying degrees of success. And yet, as 1,100 metallurgical coal miners in Brookwood, Alabama, entered their fifth month on strike earlier this week, the political establishment has remained blatantly silent.
The miners, represented by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), first hit the picket lines on April 1 after contract negotiations with their employer, Warrior Met Coal broke off. Last week, they demonstrated on Wall Street, where they gathered outside the headquarters of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager and Warrior Met’s most powerful shareholder.
The miners, who extract the coking coal used to make steel, claim that BlackRock is wringing profits from their community without worrying about the welfare of the workers.
Warrior Met Coal, Inc., was formed to purchase the remnants of Walter Energy after the company declared bankruptcy in 2016. Bankruptcy lawsuits, which tend to value the company’s assets rather than the well-being of the workers, determined that Walter Energy’s holdings would be sold “free and clear,” meaning that Warrior Met does not need to honor the commitments its predecessor made to the miners and their union. Keeping mines open and saving pensions and retiree health coverage, UMWA members at Brookwood agreed to a below-average contract requiring excruciating sacrifices.
Coal mining is one of the most physically dangerous occupations in the United States, with high rates of injuries and life-changing illnesses like silicosis and black lung. Unionized miners fought hard for premium health insurance to ease the physical burden of their work. As part of the contract with Warrior Met, miners saw their 100% coverage reduced to an 80/20 system with huge out-of-pocket costs for members. The wage has been cut from $ 6 to $ 8 an hour, which is well below the industry standard for unionized miners. Hard-earned pensions have been replaced by lousy 401Ks.
Warrior Met’s scheduling and firing practices became increasingly draconian even as workers’ ability to earn overtime was crippled. Miners were required to work shifts as long as sixteen hours, up to seven days a week. “You could be scheduled for seven, ten, twenty days in a row,” says Haeden Wright, auxiliary president of two striking UMWA locals.
The miners lost all but three leaves with their families. They could be off work for up to three days in the event of the death of a loved one, but under Warrior Met’s “four strike” policy, a fourth day off would be grounds for dismissal. As miners were pressured to work longer and harder hours, the safety protocols protecting them were relaxed. Workers complained of a widespread and blatant disrespect on the part of the new management team.
For five years, the UMWA miners tolerated these poor conditions. They took the company out of bankruptcy and generated billions in profits for its New York investors. But the union says when contract negotiations began earlier this year, Warrior Met refused to deliver on its promise of shared prosperity. So, as Amazon workers in Bessemer finished their election, UMWA miners in Brookwood voted to start their union’s first strike in Alabama in forty years.
Initially, they hoped to achieve an early resolution. Shortly after the strike began, Warrior Met and the UMWA leadership tentatively agreed to a contract that ignored most of the miners’ concerns, offering an increase of $ 1.50 over five years. Members overwhelmingly voted to decline this offer. They maintained their resolve despite the company’s aggressive tactics, including obtaining a court injunction limiting the size of the picket lines, arrests and intimidation by police and private security, and multiple serious attacks with the ram car against the strikers. The anti-worker response by law enforcement and the remoteness of the picket lines of the strike add an element of danger, recalling the days when coal bosses in company towns could freely brutalize striking miners. .
Central Alabama has a deep heritage of coal miner unionism. As union reporter Kim Kelly writes:
While many of this latest generation of workers weren’t here (or even alive) the last time the region’s coal miners went on strike, their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers l ‘were surely and passed on this knowledge to their relatives. . The union has been a part of life in these mines since 1890, when John L. Conley founded UMWA District 20 in Alabama, which remains one of the most racially integrated sections of UMWA in the country, where approximately 20 percent of workers are black.
The strike received tremendous support from local residents, and Wright and the other auxiliary members maintain a pantry full of supplies donated to help families survive between UMWA’s modest bi-weekly strike payments.
Mainstream media attention, however, has been almost absent. Even videos of blatant corporate hit-and-run failed to cut through national noise. A story about southern coal miners abused by New York’s elites seems tailor-made for Fox News, and yet the network barely mentioned it – proving that its flirtations with economic populism are purely performative.
Across the aisle, Joe Biden also remained silent. Earlier this year, he made waves by declaring that Amazon workers in Bessemer have the right to organize. Is it too much for him to also say that the miners at Brookwood deserve basic protections in return for their life-threatening work? (At least three former BlackRock executives now hold senior positions in Biden’s administration, including Brian Deese, the president’s chief economic adviser, and Adewale Adeyemo, assistant secretary in the Treasury Department; the former strategist BlackRock Investment Global, Mike Pyle, is Kamala Harris’ Senior Economic Advisor.)
Miners like those at Brookwood will be at the heart of the transition to a fossil fuel economy. They are standing up against powerful interests that will willingly burn through the bodies of workers and the climate. If Democrats were serious about pushing forward a worker-centric climate plan, they would seize every opportunity to join struggles like this.
Meanwhile, the miners continue to hold the picket line and seek support. On Wednesday, they held a rally of two thousand people that drew UMWA members from Illinois, Indiana and several other states. “We’re not asking for much,” striking miner Emanuel Burnfield told a local newspaper. “All we want is our previous reimbursement and 100% of our health insurance. “