The Warrior Met Coal Strike Began Two Years Ago Today
The United Mine Workers of Alabama went on strike two years ago today to reverse concessions from 2016. DSA should fill the void left by the lack of support for the mineworkers from the Democratic Party.
Two years ago today, on April 1st, 2021, over 1,000 coal miners went on strike against Warrior Met in Brookwood, Alabama. The miners went on strike after Warrior Met refused to agree to their demands. What were those demands? For Warrior Met to give back the $1.1 billion it had stolen from these miners.
Walter Energy owned the mine in Brookwood until it went bankrupt in 2015. It was then acquired by a consortium of private equity firms in early 2016, which renamed it Warrior Met Coal. The mine workers played a major role in bringing the company out of bankruptcy by accepting concessions. Their pay was cut, their healthcare costs increased, they were forced into working long hours, and safety standards diminished drastically. Since 2016, Warrior Met has started to turn a profit at the mine. So, when the miners got the chance to renegotiate their contract in 2021, they had one simple ask: repay us for not letting the mine go bankrupt. The miners did not ask for anything beyond a return to their 2015 pay, benefits, hours, and safety standards. Warrior Met refused.
Since the strike began, the miners have organized multiple protests against Warrior Met. On several occasions, the coal miners have traveled to the New York offices of the asset manager Blackrock, the primary shareholder in Warrior Met. Rallies were also held at private equity firms with holdings in Warrior Met in Washington DC, Denver, Boston, Latrobe, Newport Beach, and Melbourne, Australia. Organizers from the unionization push at the Bessemer Amazon facility and members of Birmingham DSA can often be found at those protests outside the mine, standing in solidarity with workers.
And now, two years later, not much has improved. The number of striking workers has decreased over time, with the number dropping down to 800. An estimated 200 scabs have crossed the picket line, escorted into work daily by the Alabama State Troopers. The buses used to transport these scabs, along with the additional security guards and cameras that Warrior Met acquired, were listed in a $435,000 bill that the NLRB sent to the United Mine Workers Association, the union representing the Alabama miners, in August 2022. This bill from the NLRB was charged to the UMWA, on behalf of Warrior Met, for “damages” that the workers had caused during the strike.
What has taken a turn for the worse, however, are the living conditions for the workers and their families. The striking miners have had to pick up new jobs, sometimes two or three. The pay and benefits are worse. Striking miners and their families are harassed by the police escorts that have been brought into the area, with multiple striking families reporting they’ve been ticketed for going at or below the speed limit. The hardship has been especially felt during the holidays, with many of the striking miners relying on the generosity of those donating to the UMWA auxiliary to provide gifts for their children during the last two Christmases.
The strikers have found little support from politicians from either side of the aisle. When Tommy Tuberville, Republican, ran against Doug Jones for US Senate in 2020, he sought out the endorsement of the UMWA. While he did not receive the endorsement, he did allegedly give his “private number” to the UMWA District 20 Vice President Larry Spencer. He told Spencer that the union could call him if they ever needed anything. Not once has Senator Tuberville returned a phone call from the UMWA. Republican Governor Kay Ivey has actively made moves against the strikers.
Not much can be said for the Alabama Democratic Party either. Only one elected Alabama Democrat has even been to a picket line: State Representative Chris England from Tuscaloosa. Marty Walsh, the US Labor Secretary for nearly the entirety of the strike, has shown up to support many picket lines during his tenure and even helped to broker a few bargaining agreements – but has refused to come to Brookwood. Even when Walsh was just a few minutes away from the strike during a visit to Birmingham to promote the Biden infrastructure plan, he couldn’t be bothered to show his face.
The main political ally of the strikers has been Senator Bernie Sanders. Sanders invited the mineworkers to Washington to testify about their strike and had also appeared at a few of the strikers’ rallies. But his involvement alone has not convinced Warrior Met to negotiate in good faith.
On February 16, 2023, 23 months after the strike began, UMWA president Cecil Roberts sent a letter to Warrior Met Coal CEO Walt Scheller offering an unconditional return to work on March 2. Scheller responded the next day, accepting the return of the miners under their original contract. The total cost to the union for strike pay and other expenses was over $35 million, while the cost to the company is estimated at over $1 billion.
Even with a two year strike that has received national attention, the support of Sanders, a local DSA chapter, and other unions, the mine workers are still without a contract. These miners desperately want a return to the status quo conditions that they worked under for years, so their families can regain a sense of stability. The miners only want what is rightfully theirs. These workers saved this company and Warrior Met has not repaid the debt that is owed. DSA should help to heighten the spotlight on the dreadful situation in Brookwood, Alabama, and work to turn up the pressure on Warrior Met so that their workers can get what they are properly owed. While this near two-year long strike is already over, the Left should continue to fight for the miners in Brookwood, Alabama.