Alabama Coal Miners Enter Sixth Month Of Strike

Above Photo: Luigi Morris.

“We Are Not Giving Up.”

A reflection on the strengths and contradictions of this historic strike by a journalist who covered the struggle from the first night of picket lines and from a distance.

The S-curved roads were dark, surrounded by nothing but trees and the bright stars. After a turn, we arrived at a clearing, where the 4 and 7 mines send their coal. Two bulldozers were doing their last rounds over a large pile of coal, while a few yards ahead, four workers were holding the picket line. On that night of April 1, 1,100 miners at Warrior Met Coal Inc started a historic strike in Brookwood, Alabama.

The miners directed us to the entrances of the main mines. When we arrived, workers were setting up tents, unloading firewood, and preparing the fire pits. By the light of a few cellphones, we interviewed Miles, a third-generation miner. When we asked him why he and his union were going on strike, he explained that he was barely able to see his four-year-old daughter grow up. Working long, grueling hours, including holidays, left the workers with little time for their families. That, in a nutshell, was why most of them were going on strike.

The miners work six days a week, eight- to 12-hour shifts, with no holidays. Sometimes they are forced to work on their day off for weeks at a time. They risk their lives, they have long commutes, and the “four-strike” clause forces them to arrive 30 minutes early to ensure that they are on time, or else risk losing their jobs. As if all this weren’t enough, they have only a 30-minute unpaid lunch break. They are fighting for the right to enjoy life.

These conditions are compounded by low wages, below the industry average, while the CEO Walter J. Scheller III made $4 million in 2019 and has an estimated net worth of $11.5 million. For Scheller to enjoy a luxury lifestyle, there must be hundreds of workers like Miles, who quite often has to work 155 to 170 hours every two weeks, 1,400 to 2,100 feet underground. These workers spend all their time underground without natural light, restrooms, or food.

Essential Workers

Miners have entered the sixth month of their strike, making this one of the longest strikes of its size in the recent history of the U.S. labor movement. Meanwhile, Warrior Met Coal Inc has lost $7 million during the strike, but it hasn’t shown any willingness to negotiate a contract. It has been a tough battle.

What can push you to fight for six months? Your body and mind are unwilling to continue. Workers had reached a limit. They had been working for five years under a contract that included important concessions from the previous contract. It was signed after Walter Energy declared bankruptcy and was bought by Warrior Met Coal Inc.

While we are still dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and the Delta variant, millions of workers haven’t stayed safe at home. They have continued to show up to work. They have been exposed to risks and treated as disposable, and companies haven’t compensated them for keeping society running. Quite the opposite.

From Hunts Point Market workers in the Bronx, New York, to Nabisco workers in Chicago, from healthcare workers around the country to Frito-Lay workers in Kansas, they are rejecting new contracts that keep things the same or include cuts. Alabama’s striking miners are part of that general sentiment growing across the country.

On the sixth day of the strike, the union UMWA (United Mine Workers of America), with its president Cecil Roberts attending in person, presented the rank and file a tentative agreement reached between the union leadership and the company. The contract included a $1.50 raise for the next five years (divided into two parts!), but it did not address the workers’ central demands. Miners considered it “slap in the face,” and they overwhelmingly rejected it.

Many of these workers come from generations of mining families (some are also steelworker families). Union families. Some have lived in Brookwood or nearby their whole lives, but many others come from other mines that have closed in other states like West Virginia, Georgia, and Kentucky. While most of the miners are white men, there were many Black miners, but just a handful of women. There is pride in being a miner, in the skill set and accumulated experience. Many of them would excitedly tell us about what they do at their job, how they reach areas that have never been seen, and connect with things that have been beneath the soil for thousands of years.

All of them explained that they produce a particular kind of coal, the metallurgical one, also known as coking coal, which is of great importance for the blast furnace process of steelmaking, especially high-grade steel, material that can be found in buildings, roads, rail infrastructure, and autos. Many of them talked about energy conversion questions, and their main concern was whether to trust that the government would guarantee them jobs. There are not many job options around, and what is flourishing is minimum-wage jobs, which are nonunionized and precarious.

While inside the mines, they are exposed to coal dust, silica dust from the rock, diesel fumes from the equipment, and hydrogen gas coming from the battery-powered equipment. A three-decade miner, while explaining his reasons for going on strike, told us, with tears in his eyes, that “our life is shorter because of working here, but they don’t provide health care knowing all the diseases we can have for working here.” The most common ailment is black lung, a term that refers to several lung diseases that affect coal miners. Most mines routinely use painkillers.

But the health issues are not just long term. The immediate danger is a ceiling collapse, as well as mine explosions. The mine has methane gas, which is tasteless, odorless, and invisible. If the air’s methane content reaches 5 percent or more, there is a high risk of an explosion.

One worker told us that “500 feet below from the 2,000 feet where we work, there is a main gas vein pocket. And the top—that is what we called the roof—it can fall in at any given moment. The moment you start seeing major cracks in the top, that is a warning, and parts of the top are just hanging in there about to fall out.” Another one added, “One of our belt lines is called North A. It has already collapsed on itself three times. From bad roof bolts and rib pain. That whole beltline is in worse condition than the rest of them. Every time I go in there, the conditions get worse and worse. It might happen again, but they will not go back in there and put up new roof bolts and support the top. They have the equipment to do it, but they choose only to put up timbers.”

Many of them have had serious injuries. We heard about many cases of workers breaking bones, passing out, losing a finger, bleeding. Many of them went right back to work after leaving the emergency room to avoid getting a “strike” on their attendance record. Workers are trained to respond to some emergencies, but even though there are more than 1,100 workers in the mines, there is no medical staff and no ambulance on call.

All these factors become an explosive cocktail when you consider that the miners work long shifts, sometimes weeks without a single day off. The pressure of the strike clauses make workers come to work sick, tired, and sleep deprived. The greed of capitalists to take the last drop of sweat from workers has no limits.

In 2001, 13 miners died in an explosion. Even though the workers warned their superiors about the safety conditions, no changes were made, and one day a rock fell and set off a methane gas explosion. The workers barely wanted to talk about this; the pain is still present, as is the fear that this could happen again.

Strike, Politics, And Contradictions

Strikes break with routine and expose contradictions. As a result, many questions come to surface. Workers will lose friends because they become scabs or they will find their best friends through fighting and standing together in situations they had never imagined. Some families will become divided, while some others come together on picket lines. The status quo is put into question, it is time to choose sides, and, whether you like it or not, politics is on the table.

Miners felt they were on their own. The mainstream media, they said, didn’t care about what happens in small towns, rural areas, and conservative areas of the country. They said the same of politicians.

We were staying in West End Manor, Birmingham, closer to Bessemer, where we were covering the union drive at Amazon. On our way to the mines, we took the AL-216 road, which goes through the small towns between Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. Many of the houses along the road had Confederate or Trump 2020 flags on their front doors. In my experience, these Trump supporters could be divided into two groups — a more pragmatic Trump voter and a more fervent supporter.

As an example of the pragmatic Trump supporter, a Mexican restaurant owner explained that he voted for Trump to keep the coal mines open. Without the mining industry, he said, many towns like this would lose a main source of income. He said he knew how horrible Trump’s rhetoric was, especially regarding immigrants, but he didn’t want to end up living in a ghost town. In another conversation, a miner would go further and said, “Let’s keep it real. If [the coal mines close], the opioid crisis will consume entire families.” Many miners’ votes could be reduced to “whoever supports coal.” I could really feel the rejection of the Democrats; the sentiment was “they don’t care about us.” They felt disdained by urban progressives. Indeed, Democrats like to make a show of caring about the environment and a transition to clean energy, but at the end of the day it is hypocritical and often just hurts workers, not profits.

Besides this more “pragmatic” sector, some of the workers were fully into MAGA — they had the shirts, stickers, and 2024 Trump hats; they called Covid-19 the “Chinese virus”; and so on. They would see us coming with our Left Voice shirts and knew our politics, yet we were one of the few people showing up in support and making efforts to put out their words and experiences. They appreciated that, and we would chat as we sat down next to a pit fire in the darkness or a grill under the sun while waiting for a hamburger.

The strike made some conversations more direct and concrete. Where is Trump? Why hasn’t he even mentioned the strike? Why, in a Republican state, are they totally abandoned? Who are the police here to protect? Especially after a judge limited how many workers could be on the picket line, the workers’ relationship with the police became more tense. And in recent months the police have been harassing miners driving to the pickets while looking to the other side when scabs try to run over miners on strike.

And that’s not an “Alabama thing”; the police are doing likewise at every strike around the country: keeping the entrance clear, allowing business to function with scabs and managers, threatening workers, repressing every attempt at a blockade, and arresting those who defy their bosses. The repression of miners has a very long history. To take just one example, in June 1914 the Colorado National Guard joined private guards to attack a tent city that had been set up by striking coal miners in Ludlow. As we explained in this article, “The official death toll was 21 miners,” but “historians have established that 55 women and children were also murdered by the National Guard and its accomplices.” Police and other forces have never been an ally of the working class.

Trump, with his right-wing populist rhetoric, appealed to sectors of the working class, but he proposed an agenda that divides workers, pitting them against each other and using the more exploited sector as a scapegoat. He did this instead of pinning the responsibility on a capitalist class that is getting richer and richer exploiting workers. The working-class movement would be much stronger if it took up the demands of Black and Brown workers and the struggle of immigrants and organized against police brutality.

At this point, it is totally clear that Trump defends the millionaires of the coal business and doesn’t care about their workers. Democrats are the same, but they are better at pretending. The Democrats’ support for the miners has been symbolic or reduced to small solidarity actions that are far from what could be mobilized.

I once talked with someone wearing an anti-immigrant T-shirt. I’m an immigrant, I have a strong accent, my English is far from perfect, and I sometimes needed help from my comrades to communicate clearly. But I would sit down anyway and discuss their situation. I have been working weekends and holidays for more than 17 years, working long shifts, earning low wages, suffering bad working conditions, going from one job to the other, and getting injured. I went on strike as a casino worker for more than 100 days, so I could relate to their experience in many ways, and I tried to show that they have more in common with an immigrant worker like me than their American bosses. What was very helpful for listening more about their stories and for them to stand we were on their side on this struggle.

At pro-Trump rallies or right-wing protests, the social composition is mixed. Many of them don’t belong to the working class, and behind their nationalist rhetoric they are defending their profits and the capitalist system. In strikes like this, the situation is different. The dispute is clearly with the bosses, and that’s an opportunity to fight for unity and to break with the division imposed from above.

Class-Struggle Unions

In efforts to connect struggles, we went to the picket line with Frances Wallace, an Amazon worker and a Black Lives Matter activist. A few workers would stay away from us, but most of them would chat with us about working conditions, the importance of having a union, and what it is to fight millionaire bosses. And then they would shout at scabs who were entering the mines.

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which was in charge of organizing the Amazon facility in Bessemer, didn’t make any efforts to mobilize some of the 6,000 Amazon workers or its other members to support the miners’ picket lines, and neither did the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) organize a group of miners to support Amazon workers. Doing so would not have helped the strikes gain visibility but it would have also helped to build relationships with two important struggles going on in Alabama. One or two union leaders might attend the other’s rally, but they never made efforts to mobilize the rank and file.

Racism and redbaiting reared their heads. District 20 President Union Larry Spencer and other union leaders violently kicked out a Black DSA member who runs the Dixieland of the Proletariat from a festival to raise strike funds. This violence was also perpetrated with racist slurs, which were caught on camera in this video. Union leadership must exemplify a clear stance against racism and any form of discrimination, and fight it at every turn.

In a similar situation, another union rep tried to kick us out of a picket line. While waving his hands across his neck, he shouted, “Socialism is not welcome here!” We refused to leave and stayed with the workers. Once he left, the workers came to us to say they appreciated us being there and that they valued our efforts to put out their stories. They made clear that we were welcome. Sometimes, union leaders will use certain prejudices in their favor, but that doesn’t mean they represent what workers want. If he had called the workers and asked them if it was OK for us to be there, they would have said yes.

During some of our first interviews with the workers, they were asked to redirect press to the union reps or to just answer, “Unfair labor practices.” But to get solidarity and support, workers must speak freely about their experiences and what they are fighting for.

In general, the strike lacked democratic spaces where workers could gather to talk, make proposals, and vote about how to organize their struggle every week. Each time the workers tried to defy the judge’s limit on how many of them could be at a picket line, the union leaders would urge them to disperse. The same went for blocking the scabs. The goal of a picket is to create a strong line of workers who won’t allow scabs and managers to enter the mine; this was also immediately discouraged by the union. This needs to be changed.

All Solidarity With The Miner Workers

It has already been six months of striking. The miners have been dealing with isolation, their struggle ignored by politicians and the mainstream media. The court’s limit of six workers on a picket line has now been extended to just 10. Meanwhile, police officers are harassing them, and the National Labor Relations Board Section has denied that scabs were crossing picket lines with their cars, injuring miners, despite the evidence.

Strikes like this have a huge impact not only for the miners but also to the rest of the working class in the U.S. In that sense, it is vital that we workers take full agency of our struggle and discuss every step and demand along with other union leaders who have been showing up in support. We have to take bold actions to pressure the bosses and politicians who have been complicit in isolating the miners’ strike. They are at a point where all solidarity is needed to win this fight.

What needs to be encouraged is the self-organization of the working class. Beyond individuals, the main organ of democracy should be assemblies, or mass meetings of workers with decision-making power. Workers should have the right, especially during strikes, to meet at least every week to discuss steps forward.

Strikes open spaces to democratize and improve our unions, to make them more democratic, and to orient them toward class struggle. An example of how things can change is the Women’s Auxiliary Committee, formed by some of the miners’ wives and daughters. The role of the families in the strike stands out from the beginning. In an early interview with one of the miner’s wives, she told us,

There was a huge struggle in 1989 known as the Pittston Coal strike that lasted more than 10 months, and thousands of workers were arrested during it. In this fight, the Daughters of Mother Jones group was formed. It was a group of women who helped organize the picket lines, helped workers, and ran committees. So after that, the UMWA formed a women’s auxiliary, and we’re working on trying to get that re-established as an auxiliary for the strike and the union.

The Women’s Auxiliary Committee has been vital, not only in collecting contributions but also in breaking the isolation the strike has suffered since the beginning.

On July 28, a delegation of Warrior Met miners traveled to New York City to protest in front of the Black Rock office. I had the chance to talk again with many workers we met while we were in Alabama. Their willingness to fight is expressed in John’s words in this interview: “We are not giving up.”