Hundreds of UMWA miners remain on the picket line at the Warrior Met Coal mine.
BROOKWOOD, ALA.?â??âYou ainât working tonight!â
That was one of the picket line chants heard June 15 as several hundred members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and their allies attempted to block strikebreakers from entering the Warrior Met Coal mine.
With tank tops that read ?âscab bullies,â supporters stood shoulder to shoulder with the miners while police pleaded for protesters to move their trucks. No one would claim the vehicles.
âWho is in charge?â one of the officers asked.
âEveryone,â answered Haeden Wright, president of a local UMWA womenâs auxiliary unit, a close-knit group of union membersâ wives and supporters. ?âWe are the UMWA.â
Police eventually towed the vehicles, but the standoff would last for hours. One miner offered a simple explanation: ?âThis playing nice shit ainât cutting it.â
The picket line had grown contentious before. In May, about two months after the strike began, Tuscaloosa police arrested 11 leaders of the UMWA and the Alabama AFL-CIO for blocking one of the mineâs 12 entrances. They all spent the night in jail and, according to the union, were given a warning: If theyâre arrested again, they will be held until trial.
Along with threats from police, striking miners have faced other attacks?â?including three separate vehicular assaults in June, in which drivers plowed into UMWA picketers.
âWarrior Met personnel, either management or nonunion workers, have repeatedly struck our members, who were engaging in legal picket line activities, with their vehicles,â UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said in a June 7 statement. ?âWe have members in casts, we have members in the hospital, we have members who are concerned about their families and potential of violence against them if they come to the picket line.â
The work stoppage, which follows the months-long campaign to unionize Amazon warehouse workers in nearby Bessemer, is one of the countryâs most significant mining strikes in decades. On April 1, upward of 1,100 workers walked off the job as their contract with Warrior Met expired. The union reached a tentative agreement with management a week later, but rank-and-file members rejected it, claiming it failed to address demands for better hours and wages. The miners remained on strike.
When the UMWA signed its most recent contract in 2016, it agreed to significant concessions to save the jobs of workers laid off by the mineâs previous owners, Jim Walter Resources, with the understanding that new management would eventually reward workers for their sacrifice. Those concessions included an average wage cut of $6 (from $28 to $22), mandatory seven-day workweeks, loss of overtime pay and, perhaps most crucially, an end to full healthcare coverage.
âOur members are the reason Warrior Met even exists today,â Roberts said in a March 31 statement. ?âThey made the sacrifices to bring this company out of the bankruptcy.â
While cheaper and greener alternatives threaten the coal industry, companies like Warrior Met, whose coal is used in the production of steel, enjoy a measure of security. Warrior Met reported a net loss of $21.4 million in the first quarter of 2021, but CEO Walter J. Scheller, III says the company is ?âstrongly capitalized and well-positioned to restart our growth trajectoryâ after the pandemic and is negotiating in good faith.
Meanwhile, strikers are struggling. The UMWA has provided members with weekly payments of $350, but thatâs a fraction of their lost salaries. Roberts estimates the strike costs the union more than $1 million per week. To supplement these payments, the UMWA created a strike fund that has directed hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from other unions and groups directly to the miners. (Full disclosure: the North Alabama Area Labor Council, of which the author is secretary-treasurer, has contributed to the fund.)
The womenâs auxiliary pantry has collected tens of thousands of dollars more. Local markets have also allowed the unit to purchase bulk groceries at wholesale for miners and their families.
âMiners have always been their brotherâs keeper,â says Braxton Wright, a long-time UMWA member and Haedenâs husband. ?âTheyâve always stuck together as a group, even outside of work.â
Haeden sees the strike as part of a bigger struggle. ?âWe know about Blair Mountain, we know about Mother Jones, we know Harlan, and we know what it takes to move a company,â she says. ?âThatâs hard for people to understand if they have never been a part of [this].â
Fourteen miners clad in camo-print UMWA T?shirts took the fight to Wall Street on June 22 to protest three hedge funds with substantial stakes in Warrior Met?â?BlackRock Fund Advisors, State Street Global Advisors and Renaissance Technologies?â?that the union blames for stalled talks. Among others, labor leaders Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, and Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, marched alongside them.
Their battle cry remained the same:Â ?âNo contract, noÂ coal!â
This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 9, 2021. Reprinted with permission.
About the author: Jacob Morrison is Secretary-Treasurer of theÂ North Alabama Area Labor CouncilÂ which represents thousands of union workers and co-hostsÂ The Valley Labor Report, aÂ union talk radio show on Saturday mornings fromÂ 9:30Â toÂ 11:00am onÂ WVNN,Â WGOL, andÂ YouTube.