Christmas On Strike: Warrior Met Miners Stick It Out
This Christmas, as millions of families settle in to adorn fir trees, the children of striking coal miners in Alabama have asked mainly for practical gifts. Shoes and clothes top their lists, followed by Barbies and Rainbow High dolls, Legos, Nerf guns, and makeup kits.
Roughly 300 children will receive these gifts through donations collected by the Mine Workers (UMWA) auxiliary. “We feel very confident that Christmas is going to be covered for all of our families,” said Haeden Wright, a high school teacher and president of the auxiliary for Locals 2368 and 2245. Each family gets three gifts through a gift list on Target, totaling $7,500 worth of purchases. The gifts are wrapped and delivered in “solidarity Santa boxes.”
The financial pinch of the strike has spurred miners to pick up other jobs. Haeden’s husband Braxton Wright, a miner of 17 years, is making $15.50 hourly at Amazon, picking items from oversized bins on a conveyor belt at the same mammoth warehouse in Bessemer where the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union lost a unionization vote in April.
Braxton said he has talked to some of the RWDSU organizers, “and I figured, hey, if I can help them and make a little money at the same time, it’d be a win both ways.”
Another miner I spoke to, Michael Wright, has been driving a forklift for less than $20 an hour. Tammie Owens has started a telehealth job as a nursing assistant for $21. Brian Seabolt has picked up odd jobs as a handyman, drawing on his skills as an electrician and carpenter.
‘DON’T MUZZLE THE OX THAT TREADETH OUT THE CORN’
Nine months into a bitter strike against Warrior Met Coal, the mine workers are doing all they can to keep up morale in their struggle to reverse concessions made during bankruptcy proceedings in 2016: slashed pay, hiked health care costs, grueling schedules, and diminished safety standards.
Since 1,100 miners walked off the job in April, they have lived through arrests and brazen attacks by company employees who used their vehicles to plow into picket lines. They’ve also seen union siblings cross the line and take up foremen positions with the mining company.
Despite these setbacks, they are steadfast in their determination to hold out one day longer than Warrior Met, which suffered third-quarter losses totaling nearly $7 million, attributed to the strike.
“The coal prices are out of the roof right now,” Michael Wright said. “Warrior Met is accepting pennies [the company has little coal to sell –Ed.] because they are trying to prove a point that they don’t need us. And they really do need us, because the reason why they’re where they are now is because of us.”
He quotes a Bible verse to drive home the point: “The Scripture says, ‘Don’t muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn.’ And you keep putting a muzzle over his mouth to where you can’t feed him the same corn he’s treading up. He’s eventually going to fall out, so that’s what has happened with us.
“You can’t continue to treat people like that. And just keep grinding on, making ’em grind, making ’em grind, and then you don’t give them a piece of what they’re putting out.”
SCABS AN IMPEDIMENT
While many miners have picked up other jobs as the strike wore on, others have turned to scabbing. Miners say 100 to 200 people have crossed the picket line.
“That’s probably one of the biggest things that hurt our leverage,” said Braxton Wright. “The coal mines have always had more bosses than workers. They have all their bosses doing manual labor that they’re not used to do, and then of course you have the scabs that’s helping them, and then the contractors coming in left and right, crossing the picket line—that hurts us.”
“Numbers matter,” said Owens. “When we stick together, we are stronger.” For inspiration she pointed to another long strike, at Peabody Energy’s Shoal Creek mine, that recently concluded with an agreement ratified by miners. “The scabs have definitely prolonged the [Warrior Met] strike,” she said. “If they didn’t go in there to work in the mines, we would have been back at work a lot sooner.”
COMPANY WANTS TO PUNISH STRIKERS
The current impasse in negotiations, miners report, is over what happens when the strike ends. Warrior Met wants to bypass seniority rights and give preferential treatment to scabs and to the nonunion contractors it has hired to work alongside union miners since the bankruptcy.
Since this strike is over alleged unfair labor practices, not an economic strike, Warrior Met is barred from permanently replacing strikers. Whenever a settlement is reached, strikers should be owed their old spots within five days of the union’s submitting notice of an unconditional return to work. However, strikers said, Warrior Met wants to bypass seniority rights and give preference to scabs and contractors.
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Seabolt said the company has also proposed to bar from returning to work any striker who engaged in what it calls “picket line misconduct.” “Basically, they went after all the union officials, strike captains, and people that’s been vocal on the picket line,” he said.
Seabolt thinks he’ll be able to hold out longer, with his handyman jobs, than investors will be able to stand decreased production at their plants while prices are booming for the metallurgical coal they produce, which is used to make steel.
“Eventually, this group of investors is going to say, ‘We got to increase our profits, and we got a corporate campaign against us,’” he said.
GOING AFTER PRIVATE EQUITY
Taking aim at these investors, who are private equity firms, miners traveled to New York in June, July, and November. One of their targets was BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager and Warrior Met’s largest shareholder. The latest visit came after a temporary restraining order issued October 27, and later extended through December, stopped all UMWA pickets within 300 yards of entrances or exits to the mine.
State troopers began escorting replacement workers into the mines in September. This state intervention on behalf of the company has rankled union members, who took their protests to Alabama’s capital, Montgomery, November 18. Rallies were also held at private equity firms with holdings in Warrior Met in New York City, Washington, D.C, Denver, Colorado, Boston, Massachusetts, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Newport Beach, California, and Melbourne, Australia.
A group of 15 senators has called on Warrior Met to settle the strike.
TIME TO THINK BIGGER?
How could miners keep turning up the heat? “What it would take to win in the current environment would be the kind of global campaign that we saw in the ’90s,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
She pointed to the Pittston miners strike of 1989, which featured mass picketing and a plant occupation, and the Ravenswood Aluminum lockout of 1990, where Steelworkers delegations traveled around the globe to publicize the fight in countries where the company was trying to do business. But she noted that Covid may pose challenges to forging such international links today.
“In a strike like this, something much more than solidarity is needed,” said Lee Adler, also from the School of Industrial and Labor Relations and a union-side lawyer who represented miners for 40 years. “They need to have thousands of bodies supporting them from all over the country, and that does not seem to be in the cards right now.”
He contrasted that to the Pittston strike: “We had tens of thousands of U.S. steelworkers mobilized and ready to do anything, and we slugged it out. And we at least held our own. It’s not the same balance now.”
But Haeden Wright said the strikers have felt an outpouring of support from other unions and community groups. “At the end of the day we’re all workers, and workers have to stay together,” she said. “It’s been eye-opening to see where your support comes from.”