By COLIN STAUB
On April 1, 2021, 1,100 workers at an Alabama coal operation walked off the job. A year later, they haven’t returned.
Members of United Mine Workers of America, the workers were frustrated with Warrior Met Coal, their employer. Based in Brookwood, Alabama, it produces and sells metallurgical coal for the global steel industry. Two mines with depths greater than 2,000 feet are its main coal assets.
Warrior Met was created by major creditors of the mines’ previous owner, Walter Energy. Walter Energy went bankrupt in 2015 and sold its assets to the entity created by creditors. But the buyers said they would not take on the mining operation’s existing labor and retirement costs, and asked a bankruptcy judge for permission to reject existing union contracts and terminate retiree benefits. UMWA President Cecil Roberts estimates there were about 2,800 UMWA retirees receiving benefits. Over the strong objections of the union, Judge Tamara Mitchell granted the request even though she acknowledged the “enormous potential hardship on many.” Mitchell ruled that terminating the contract and retiree benefits was the only way to make the sale happen, and that the continued operation of the mines warranted the move.
Before the sale was finalized in 2016, UMWA members ratified a contract with the mines’ new owners. The contract included a $25 million employer commitment to fund retiree health care (enough to get retirees through 2016, the union estimated at the time). But it also cut pay up to $6 per hour and ended 100% employer-paid health coverage, with employees instead picking up 20% of the cost after a deductible of over $700 per person.
As Roberts later explained at a Feb. 17 Senate hearing, it was a terrible contract, but the union had no bargaining power. With the previous contract terminated and hundreds of employees laid off, the new owners weren’t obligated to rehire the union workers.
Four UMWA locals approved the contract, and the sale was completed. For five years, workers did the same work for less, under the understanding that compensation would improve once the company was more profitable, said Haeden Wright, president of Auxiliary Locals 2368 and 2245. In UMWA, auxiliary locals are organizations of spouses that support striking workers and their families.
“The profits came,” Wright told the Labor Press, “but the benefits never made it back to the workers.”
The company denies there was any promise made: “No representative of Warrior Met Coal ever indicated to the union in any way that specific terms of any previous contract under which they had worked would be restored in future contracts,” the company says on a web site it created in response to the strike.
For workers, the final straw came during contract negotiations in early 2021. The company says some employees are earning $10.58 an hour more than they were after the bankruptcy, and that the proposed contract included additional raises. It says healthcare deductibles would be lowered (but wouldn’t return to the pre-bankruptcy benefits). But for workers who remembered the concessions and then saw executive pay increase (CEO Walter Scheller’s compensation grew from $2.4 million in 2016 to $5.7 million in 2021), the contract didn’t sit right.
“We knew if we didn’t stand up and fight now, we would just continue to lose more and more,” said Braxton Wright, a striking coal miner and Haeden’s husband.
The strike began April 1, 2021, by members of UMWA Locals 2245, 2397, 2368 and 2427 at two mines, a preparation plant and a central shop. After four days the union bargaining team reached a tentative agreement with management, but workers rejected it and the strike continued, and continues to this day.
“When you’ve been exploited for five years, you’ll fight for as long as it takes to get your dignity back in your workplace,” Haeden Wright said.
Dangerous picket line
Warrior Met presents a challenging environment for a strike. There are numerous entrances into the facilities, so the miners set up 14 picket lines scattered over 120 miles. Some picket lines are remote, in the middle of the woods.
And there is aggression from scab workers and the company. Last summer, UMWA shared videos showing scabs driving vehicles into striking workers. The union reported three vehicular assault incidents in three days at the beginning of June.
Warrior Met says the violence on the picket line is coming from the striking workers, and published its own videos highlighting striking workers breaking windows of cars coming onto the property. (Braxton Wright says the company videos don’t show how the incidents began, with scabs running their vehicles into the picket line).
Citing safety concerns, the Circuit Court of Tuscaloosa County issued injunctions, including a restraining order banning picketing by striking workers or anyone affiliated with them that was in place from November into January. When pickets were allowed again, they were limited to a handful of people per location, and picketers are prohibited from having their cars at picketing locations. Volunteers drive between the locations to check on picketers.
“We can’t just leave two people standing on the line with 150 scabs driving by,” Braxton Wright said.
Strike donations pour in
Key to sustaining the strike has been a strike fund facilitated by the UMWA international union. Strike pay has actually increased as the strike has stretched on, and striking workers are now able to receive $800 every two weeks.
“You can’t live on that, but what you can do is survive when you take on a part time job,” Haeden Wright said. Her husband did just that, and in an interesting twist of fate, his part time job has him in another high-profile labor action: He’s working at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, that has a current union campaign.
The auxiliary locals have also been key to keeping the strike going. They got active when it became clear the strike was going to continue for some time. The auxiliaries hold weekly rallies where they give out food to families of striking workers. Some weeks the events draw 250 people, some weeks it’s 500, Haeden Wright said. Auxiliary volunteers buy groceries, put together food bags and hand them out at the events. When many families were likely to forgo Christmas last year, the auxiliary hosted a “Solidarity Santa” holiday event, providing gifts for children of striking workers. This month, they’ll be holding an Easter egg hunt. Auxiliary members also show up to the strike line. Members’ kids also attended the pickets, until the aggression from scab workers ratcheted up.
The strike has drawn national attention. The Senate Budget Committee highlighted the strike in a hearing on the concentration of wealth that private equity firms hold in the U.S. economy.
This week, the mineworkers are holding a large multi-union “Caravan to Warrior Met” rally in nearby McCalla, Alabama, featuring UNITE HERE!, United Auto Workers, United Food and Commercial Workers and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.
Negotiations between the union and management are still taking place, but there hasn’t been a second tentative agreement. In the meantime, the workers don’t plan to change course.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Haeden Wright said. “We’ll be here one day longer than the company.”