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Alabama’s Striking Coal Miners Are Upping The Ante

Above Photo: Striking Met Warrior Coal miners march along the road leading to the coal mine. Kim Kelly.

Warrior Met Coal has tried to beat the strike with court orders and scabs.

But coal miners are marching on with a cautious but deliberate offensive.

Hundreds of coal miners at Warrior Met Coal in Brookwood, Alabama, have been out on strike since April 1, 2020—and, as the strike nears its second anniversary, the struggle has started heating up again. It’s been a knock-down, drag-out fight for 19 months; during that time, recalcitrant coal bosses have refused to negotiate a fair contract with the miners, who are represented by the United Mine Workers of America, and the story has grown into a sprawling epic powered by solidarity, punctuated by moments of violence, and propelled by corporate greed. Last week in the Alabama backwoods, with the late-autumn heat still hanging in the air, the miners opened up a new chapter in their long struggle, and I was on hand to bear witness.

When I got a series of cryptic text messages from some of my UMWA contacts telling me that something big was happening, I knew I had to be there. Things had been fairly quiet with the strike for the past several months, and it was about time for some fireworks. Also, I was overdue for a trip to Brookwood; I hadn’t been back to check in on the strike since September, when Tom Morello swung by their weekly rally, and I was feeling homesick.

On Tuesday evening when I arrived at the Hoover hotel, which the UMWA staff have turned into their home-away-from-home, I was still sniffing around for concrete details. Wednesday’s plan had been shrouded in secrecy, with only minimal information given out before things kicked off, but it was already exciting to see the Mineworkers springing back into action after so many months of forced inertia. Injunction or no injunction, they were ready to send a message to the coal bosses who’ve chosen to drag out this strike into its second year.

Throughout the strike, the company has repeatedly insisted that the strikers are violent, and it has used this assertion to secure various injunctions and legal orders to limit picketing activities. Local media outlets have lapped it up and unquestioningly perpetuated this narrative, which has been painful for the membership to bear. Given the number of witnessed instances of actual picket line violence perpetrated by employees and managers on the company side throughout the conflict, the additional level of irony at this mischaracterization stings. “They’re painting this picture of us as ‘These are people that are here to do violence,’” Kris Mallory, the UMWA’s special assistant to the president, told me. “We’re just here to try to get a collective bargaining agreement.”

The element of surprise can be a potent weapon, but unfortunately, in a town as small as Brookwood, word travels fast. The company’s lawyer had somehow gotten wind of Wednesday’s planned action, and sent over a threatening letter essentially warning the union that they’d be watching them like hawks and would be more than happy to send some of their members to jail if they were able to find a reason. “The tone of [the letter] was that ‘These things have happened, we are watching you, and if you do these things, we’ll enforce this order and you will have these penalties,’” Mallory explained. “That put us on notice and reiterated the fact that violations of that order could result in five days, 10 days, 30 days in jail, $50,000, $100,000, $200,000 fines.”

It was only when everyone was gathered at the union hall late Wednesday afternoon that the scope of the action was laid out and the change in plans was revealed. Initially, there had been talk of blocking the road that scabs use each day to cross the picket line with the assistance of local police escorts. A similar action unfolded last summer, when 11 UMWA staffers and supporters blocked the road in front of the Number 7 Mine and were hauled off to the Tuscaloosa County jail. They were held overnight, and the company responded to the action by getting a fresh court-issued injunction that added more severe penalties for violations.

This time, four members of the UMWA Auxiliary had volunteered to be arrested. Three of them were retired coal miners themselves, while the fourth was Auxiliary President Haeden Wright, whose husband Braxton is currently on strike. Others who were unable to risk arrest due to caregiving responsibilities volunteered to sit down with them until the moment of arrest, too. All of the women knew the risks, but volunteered anyway. However, given the severity of the penalties and the loss of the element of surprise, the decision was made to hold off on the blockade and instead use the day’s march as a warning notice of their own.

Instead of a blockade, a convoy of buses brought the participants up to a staging area; once everyone was in place, the march proceeded up to the entrance of the Number 4 Mine. Led by UMWA President Cecil Roberts and Secretary-Treasurer Brian Sanson, the line of miners, Auxiliary members, and supporters snaked its way up the wooded road, shouting slogans and waving yellow-and-black UMWA signs. A busload of UMWA miners from Local 2300 marched alongside them; the men had made the long drive down from Western Pennsylvania to support

One of the Auxiliary members brought along a portable speaker, so we had an impeccable soundtrack of union classics, from “Union Maid” to “Solidarity Forever” (Tom Morello was there in spirit, too—at one point in the march, his rendition of “This Land Is Your Land” and the voices of those singing along echoed through the trees as dusk fell). Kids dressed in UMWA camo ran up and down the line, adding to the boisterous atmosphere; one member even brought his dog, who was very excited about the whole situation. The only dampener was the arrival of the police cars that trailed the march, blue lights ablaze, and then sped past the marchers to head them off at the mine entrance.

Once the marchers reached their destination, they gathered to listen to President Roberts speak about the ongoing struggle. Creating a painfully on-the-nose visual metaphor, Brookwood police cars formed a ring around the group, silently protecting the forces of capital from the laborers who created it. Across the road, a belt cleaner sat atop a massive mound of sparkling black coal, its obsidian angles glinting in the fading sunlight as the striking miners hollered at the scab vehicles driving past them. Emotions began to run high. Even as union officials emphasized the importance of nonviolence, some workers in the crowd yelled out that it wasn’t enough—that they needed to take the fight directly to the scabs’ doorsteps. “Years ago, that’s what they would do,” Miss Pearlie, a retired coal miner and one of the Auxiliary members who’d volunteered to be arrested, piped up. “They would go to their houses, and they would do something.”

In the end, there were no violent confrontations or arrests made, and eventually everyone made it back to the union hall, where the weekly strike rally was scheduled to take place. The crowd awaiting the arrival of the marchers was larger than those who’d made up the march itself, which illustrated another problem now facing the strike after so many months of prolonged struggle: apathy.

Last Wednesday’s action had two purposes. Firstly, to put Warrior Met on notice that the miners are tired of the company’s stalling and its lawyers’ games, and they are ready to start playing hardball again, injunction be damned. They’ve spent nearly two years trying to make headway at the bargaining table, sitting across from a group of millionaire executives who made it publicly known long ago that their intention has been to starve the striking workers and their families out. They’ve endured months of the coal bosses’ legal maneuvering to strip them of their First Amendment rights and whittle down their picket lines to nothing, all while their members and those members’ families have lived under constant threat of draconian penalties for stepping one pinky toe out of line. They’ve been smeared in the local press, thanks to Warrior Met’s high-powered, Los Angeles-based public relations firm, and have been left twisting in the wind by their local and state politicians. On top of that, the Brookwood police force has stuck to them like burrs, monitoring their every movement, harassing them on the roadways, and protecting the company’s interests at every turn.

This strike has been an utterly exhausting feat of endurance, faith, and perseverance, but as it became clear during the march and at the rally afterwards, it is going to take an even greater effort to make it to the finish line. “You have to show the company leverage, and leverage is in solidarity,” Mallory explained. “This action shows solidarity—marching in unison, discipline, not doing any kind of violent activity, things that they have accused us of in the past. This is showing the company we’re still here to fight. We are together.”

In response to the rumblings about taking more drastic measures to confront the scabs, Roberts made it clear that he wasn’t going to condemn the idea. Instead, he urged caution. “People talking about going down and demonstrating at other people’s houses, I’m not holding you back,” he said. “If you feel compelled to do that, I understand. But you better check the law, and before you go, you better let some folks know you’re going on, because you might need some help getting out of jail. Because the law in this state is not on your side. The governor is not on your side. I haven’t seen a politician yet come down here and say, ‘I’m on your side.’”

As Mallory told me, the union is now planning to hold a new action every week until they win their contract. The UMWA has been active in Alabama’s mines since 1890, and still has some tricks up its camo sleeves to keep the coal bosses sweating. After all, they’ve had 132 years of practice. “God has gotten us this far,” President Roberts said in his closing speech of the night. “But we got to be more active and we have to be more militant, and we’ve got to participate in nonviolent civil disobedience and shut this place down.”

The second overarching message of last Wednesday’s day of action was directed not at the company, but at the striking miners themselves. The strike itself is still very much alive, but its demands have taken a toll on the hundreds of workers who are still holding the line and trying to make it to another Christmas.

After nearly 600 days on strike, it’s no wonder that morale is low and energy is flagging. At a recent meeting, the union shared that only 161 scabs had crossed the picket line since the strike began. One may argue that even one is too many, but for a strike of this length and magnitude, it’s impressive to see that so few have faltered. But even as the line itself has held, the number of members who have stayed active in the strike itself has dwindled. There is a dedicated core group who have continued to show up and stay involved, but as union staffers told me, keeping the needed level of engagement up has been difficult. By now, many of the workers have picked up other jobs, and some have moved to other mines. They still show up every Wednesday evening to pick up their strike checks, but it’s been harder to get people to show up for picket line duty.

I could sense the frustration from the people I spoke with who have rearranged their entire lives around the strike, from miners to spouses to union staffers. Many hands make light work, and those who have been elbow-deep in strike support are in desperate need of a break.

The Auxiliary, which has been a beacon of both hope and material support for the strikers, is still relying on piecemeal donations to meet their target every week, and their coffers are at perpetual risk of running dry. They’re gearing up for their second Solidarity Santa party at the end of December, where they’ll dish out holiday treats and distribute gifts to strikers’ children that have been donated by supporters across the country. The event will undoubtedly give a much-needed boost to a weary community and brighten up a lot of union kids’ days, but no one wants to have to do it all again next year.

And the only thing these coal miners want to find in their stockings this Christmas is a contract.

“It’s been long enough,” Cheri Goodwin, an Auxiliary member whose husband is active in the strike, told me. She’s spent untold hours every week organizing events, helping run the strike pantry, and distributing food at rallies on top of attending strike actions with her husband and homeschooling their children (who are often there helping out right alongside her).

The fight for a decent contract has stretched on for so long, and the strikers have suffered so much, that all anyone can think about now is crossing the finish line and getting it done. Giving up has never been an option; the miners are tired of seeing management drag their feet, and are praying for a speedy resolution to the standoff. “People have given enough. The company has treated people badly for long enough. We’re ready.”

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