Last week, more than 500 coal mine workers picketed in New York City, joined by a diverse army of other labor movement members and supporters. The mine workers, who extract coal for steel production, are now in the eighth month of their strike against Warrior Met Coal in Brookwood, Alabama. Their aim is to force Warrior Met to restore the pay, benefits, and schedules they had before their previous employer, Walter Energy, declared bankruptcy and auctioned off its assets in 2016.
On Thursday, the mine workers marched to the headquarters of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager and Warrior Met’s biggest shareholder. After the rally, five United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) members and the union’s president, Cecil Roberts, sat down in the street and refused to move. The six were handcuffed by the New York Police Department and arrested for their act of civil disobedience.
The striking workers brought their picket to the middle of Manhattan because they have been barred from gathering outside the Brookwood mines. On October 27, a Tuscaloosa County circuit judge issued a temporary restraining order stopping all UMWA picket activity at Warrior Met. The injunction, which has been extended through November 15, blocks strikers from gathering within 300 yards of any mine entrance or exit.
That’s a huge restriction. As Haeden Wright, president of the UMWA auxiliary for two of the striking locals, explained to Jacobin, moving the pickets three football fields back from the mines “could put you on a completely separate road from Warrior Met property.” In in an interview with Jacobin, labor scholar Steve Striffler called the restraining order “an unconstitutional act that effectively takes away the miners’ right to free speech and assembly at the conflict’s most important sites.”
The injunction is the apparent product of an aggressive campaign by Warrior Met to spread the misleading narrative that UMWA members are engaging in violence and vandalism on the picket lines. Labor journalist Kim Kelly reported that Warrior Met hired the public relations firm Sitrick and Company to “neutralize the opposition” and “reframe the debate” around a strike that has garnered local and national support despite embarrassingly insufficient coverage from the corporate media.
The injunction, Striffler says, is the latest evidence of “local government siding with coal companies” — a tradition with deep roots in coal country. But the tradition of cross-racial miner solidarity has roots that run just as deep, and the union miners and their families have held strong thus far despite the most recent effort to break their collective power.
The Origins of the Strike
Warrior Met Coal was formed in 2015 to purchase the remains of Walter Energy. The same year, a federal bankruptcy judge ruled that Walter Energy and its successor could disregard the bankrupt company’s commitments to miners and their families. In a bid to save jobs and retiree benefits, the UMWA agreed to a subpar contract mandating profound sacrifices. The workers’ understanding was that if they helped the company out of its financial straits, they would be made whole in the next contract.
The immediate concessions were enormous: Worker pay was slashed between $6 and $8 an hour, bringing it below the industry standard for unionized miners. Health insurance was downgraded from 100 percent coverage to an 80/20 system with massive out-of-pocket costs — no small concern in one of the country’s most physically hazardous occupations, with high rates of life-altering injuries and more than 10 percent of long-term miners suffering from black lung. Workers saw their pensions exchanged for threadbare 401(k)s. They lost most of their overtime pay, all but three holidays, and thirty minutes of paid lunch time. (Warrior Met miners eat their lunch underground in some of the deepest coal mines in North America, near dangerous methane gas and coal and silica dust.)
To make matters worse, Warrior Met implemented inhumane scheduling practices. Workers could take up to three days off if a loved one died, but under the company’s “four-strike” policy, a fourth day off was cause for termination. Haeden Wright said that workers like her husband, Braxton, “could be scheduled seven, ten, twenty days straight” with shifts sometimes stretching as long as sixteen hours. Such schedules add deadly, unnecessary risks to an already high-risk profession and prevent miners from seeing their children and other loved ones.
Companies in coal mining and other forms of resource extraction are particularly vulnerable to takeover by private equity firms like BlackRock, because as the UMWA’s director of communications and governmental affairs, Phil Smith, explained to Jacobin, “the entire industry is distressed.” When management decisions are made in Manhattan boardrooms, it’s that much easier to ignore the needs of the workers whose toil makes BlackRock and its peers so valuable. So, although the Brookwood miners delivered Warrior Met from ruin, producing “ungodly amounts of coal” and billions in profit, they were nonetheless told they had no right to demand a return to their previous contract. Consequently, on April 1, around 1,100 of them walked off the job.
While the work stoppage has cost Warrior Met dearly, the company continues to enjoy a highly profitable quarter thanks to increased demand for American metallurgical (“met”) coal resulting from trade tensions between Australia and China.
From the start of their strike, the UMWA miners have faced collaborative opposition from Warrior Met and local and state government. An earlier court injunction limited the size of pickets, first to six strikers at any given outpost, then upon appeal, to ten. The mines’ remote locations made it easier for strikers to be threatened with physical danger.
Multiple brazen vehicular attacks on picketers were caught on video, but nevertheless dismissed by Alabama law enforcement. Miners and their family members have been injured and even hospitalized as a result of these “company-inspired” hit-and-runs, yet when the UMWA filed unfair labor practice charges with the regional National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) office, the charges were dismissed.
According to UMWA’s Phil Smith, in addition to the vehicular attacks, strikers have seen brandished firearms and death threats on the picket lines. Local and state police have made no effort “to follow up on any of that.” Meanwhile, Alabama troopers have been escorting replacement workers (scabs) to and from the mines on the public’s dime — acting, in Smith’s words, as “Warrior Met’s security apparatus.”
The lopsided state response has created a situation in which strikers and their families logically believe they must defend themselves. According to both Smith and Wright, the alleged instances of striker violence that Warrior Met has pushed out through local outlets were all in response to provocations, mainly by management. “There is no question,” Smith said, “that the [temporary restraining order] was issued in the shadow of a highly-edited video put out by the company that purports to show unprovoked actions by UMWA strikers. The premise of that video is false.”
Striffler put it simply: “This restraining order simply goes too far, is unconstitutional, and is designed to break [the] strike.”
Picket lines are rarely characterized by cross-class congeniality. If playing nice was effective in conflicts with cutthroat bosses, strikes would not be needed in the first place. But whatever grievances they choose to air, striking workers are entitled to their First Amendment freedoms. As Cecil Roberts aptly put it, the Constitution protects workers’ right to “stand on the side of a road and call a scab a scab.”
Why the Warrior Met Strike Matters
National outlets are finally beginning to cover the Warrior Met strike, but they have been extremely slow to acknowledge the seriousness of what’s happening in Alabama. In recent years, the corporate media has tended to treat coal miners as relevant purely as a potential source of red votes, should Democrats demand substantive climate legislation.
Even left-leaning publications have seemed to shy away from a story involving the four-letter word: coal. Never mind that the metallurgical coal miners in Brookwood are arguably part of a renewable energy supply chain, considering they extract coal that is sent to China to make steel for windmill parts.
But regardless of how their labor is used, when employees in extractive industries attempt to check their bosses’ power, they are standing up for all of us. Private equity firms like BlackRock are happy to bet on the markets and burn through workers’ bodies and the climate alike when it suits their bottom lines. While courts, police, and capital align to crush the striking UMWA miners, we’d all do well to ask the question Florence Reece posed melodically back in 1931: “Which side are you on?”