The silence outside West Brookwood Church in Tuscaloosa County was broken by a somber bell sound. The white-gloved hand of Larry Spencer, International Vice President of Mine Workers (UMWA) District 20, solemnly struck the Miners’ Memorial bell as the names of victims of mine-related deaths were read aloud.
“As we gather this evening for our service, it is appropriate that we remember in the past twelve months over 2021 and 2022 there has been tremendous heartache as the result of mining accidents across this country,” Thomas Wilson, a retired UMWA staff representative, announced from the podium. “Twelve coal miners’ lives have been snuffed out — also, 19 metal and non-metal miners — for a total of 31 fallen miners since we last gathered.”
The annual Miners’ Memorial Service commemorates not only those who left for work in the mines over the past year never to come home again; it also honors the 13 men who died in a series of explosions in Jim Walter Resources Mine No. 5 in Brookwood on September 23,2001. Families reminisce about the time they gathered at the same spot on September 23rd 2001, as they waited anxiously to find out if their loved ones survived.
In 2001, Walter Energy purchased the No. Walter Energy owned the No. Today it is part of Warrior Met Coal, the company at the center of the UMWA’s 550-day strike, the longest and largest ongoing strike in the United States. All were reminded, as strikers, their families and community members gathered to pay tribute to the fallen miners, that the Warrior Met strike is literally about life and death.
Miners Resist the Calls to Stake
“One of the United Mineworkers’ goals is to make sure that you have a safe place to work and that you come home and to be with your family,” Spencer explained before the ceremony. “We are ready to go back to work at Warrior Met, but we aren’t going to roll over and let things like this [explosion] happen again. So we are going to stay strong and continue to fight.”
The Warrior Met strike exemplifies the inequalities between Wall Street power and workers in the United States. These 900 miners are currently facing the trillion-dollar assets of Wall Street fund owners.
Walter Energy filed for bankruptcy protection in 2016. The union agreed to temporary 20% wage and benefit cuts until the new entity (Warrior Met), could achieve profitability. It was formed by private equity firms Apollo Global Management and Blackstone.
Warrior Met has been back since 2017 when it went public. over $1.4 billion in dividends to shareholders. In 2019, the shares of the original equity firms were sold to a new group Wall Street investment funds. BlackRock, Vanguard Fidelity and State Street are all examples. currently the company’s largest shareholders. Warrior Met continues reporting record profits including $297 million in the second quarter of 2022, signifying the company’s financial ability to address workers’ economic demands. Nonetheless, the striking miners have yet to see a reverse in wage and benefit cuts — which prompted them to launch their strike in April 2021.
Warrior Met being a revenue machine to investment and asset management firms, UMWA needed to plan a ground game that not just targets Warrior Met Coal facilities here in Alabama, but also these global Wall Street funds. BlackRock was the dominant shareholder throughout the strike. fluctuating between 13 and 14 percent. For almost a whole year UMWA took their fight to BlackRock’s Manhattan headquartersAs well as expanding actions nationally to the investment fund’s offices in Washington D.C., Denver, and Boston.
One year after the strike began in April, it was April. BlackRock finally issued a statement calling for a labor agreement and questioning Warrior Met executives’ choices in protracting the strike.
“Prolonged operational disruptions, such as labor disputes, can have a negative impact on a company’s financial performance and business resilience. We believe it is in the best economic interests of our clients for Warrior Met Coal and the UMWA to reach a resolution,” BlackRock wrote in a bulletin explaining why it was voting against the re-election of two top Warrior Met board members and the board’s executive compensation proposal. “We don’t believe key executives should be rewarded when the company has been impacted negatively by the ongoing labor dispute and related fall in production.”
While BlackRock’s statement represents a significant victory for the Mine Workers’ campaign at the Wall Street firm, it has yet to result in a resolution to the strike. As Phil Smith, UMWA chief of staff and executive assistant to the president, explains, this raises new questions: “Who is the Warrior Met Board of Directors accountable to? Clearly it isn’t their largest shareholder.”
Despite the advice of BlackRock, key Warrior Met executives continue to reap financial rewards while workers and their families are struggling to keep fed, clothed, and housed — and conscious that another holiday season on strike draws ever closer.
The Auxiliary looks to the Future
Cheri Goodwin was a working wife of striking miners, and Haeden Wright was a mother to young children. They were both founding members of the UMWA Auxiliary of Brookwood, which formed quickly after the strike.
While strikers’ families picked up grocery sacks at the Auxiliary pantry and members sorted food contributions, Goodwin’s little daughter skipped past as her mother and I chatted. In the middle of the bustle, Goodwin’s calm voice of reason demonstrated how mutual support has helped the women create such a successful Auxiliary.
“You have to show each other grace because it is hard. This is the hardest two-years I have ever experienced, even after losing my brother. It is very demanding. You put so much of yourself into it, and no one realizes how many hours you put in — how much time, effort, and emotions,” Goodwin said. “So we all have to take a breath sometimes and be there for each other when it gets hard.”
The more the strike goes on, the more difficult it is for families.
“We are all tight,” Goodwin admitted, “Insurance isn’t great. We are trying to balance doing this appointment and not that—going to the doctor but not going to the dentist. You have all your normal stressors, then you have your financial stress because you’re on strike, and you have mom-guilt of a year and a half of your kids’ lives happening during this all.”
Wright, whose young daughter played around with the Auxiliary while we spoke, is president of UMWA Auxiliary locals 2368 & 2245. Wright is a full-time high-school teacher. I believe her classroom management skills have helped to organize a successful Auxiliary to support a long-term strike. “The reason we didn’t have deodorant tonight to give to people and the reason we don’t have dish soap or laundry detergent anymore is that we know people need those things, but those donations are needed to the Auxiliary. You need to have a budget. When funds are low, food is more vital,” Wright explained.
Even though they are constantly trying meet the immediate needs for the food pantry, they also try to procure the necessary items. hygiene items that can be contributed through an online registrWright and Goodwin stressed that they must also look ahead to preparing to strike again during the holiday season.
“The Christmas registry is huge for the kids. Solidarity Santa members fill out forms and we create an online registry to ensure that children get gifts. We use and appreciate everything,” Wright affirmed. (Check out the UMWA Auxiliary’s Solidarity Santa registry at TargetAnd WalmartTo support families that are struggling this holiday season.
Brookwood, where the hardships resulting from an 18-month strike as well as the loss of loved ones in mine tragedies can have a significant impact on UMWA members’ families and friends, has hosted weekly or biweekly rallies since the beginning.
In the last few weeks, UMWA’s unwavering commitment to its members, their families, and the larger labor movement has not only been reaffirmed at these rallies but also made national headlines.
National news outlets from across the country will be reporting on August 3rd. ABCTo BloombergThe National Labor Relations Board (NLRB Region 10) ordered the United Mineworkers Region 10 pay $13.3 million in strike related damages to Warrior Met Coal. This was almost a billion dollars. 33 times higher than initial estimates. This amount included the company’s “lost revenue” from the strike, a calculation that ostensibly violated workers’ right to inflict economic damages in a legal strike, as defined under Section 13 of the National Labor Relations Act.
President Cecil Roberts, UMWA issued an unambiguous statementThe UMWA said that this judgment would not be allowed to stand as it would jeopardize the right of unions and workers to strike.
“What is the purpose of a strike if not to impact the operations of the employer, including production?” Roberts asked. “Is it now the policy of the federal government that unions be required to pay a company’s losses as a consequence of their members exercising their rights as working people? This is outrageous and effectively negates workers’ right to strike. It cannot stand.”
In a victory for the UMWA and for the right of all U.S. union workers to strike, NLRB Region 10 recalculated the amount to $435,000 plus interest. This removes the costs of lost company revenue caused by the strike.
As Roberts had done at each rally in September, he reiterated that Warrior Met can’t fire workers without due process, referring to a list that Warrior Met gave the union with the names of 40 members who the company said it would not allow to return after a contract was reached. Roberts explained, “Where I come from, if they don’t let you go back to work, you are fired,” and that was not something that the UMWA would allow.
Striking miner Braxton Wright (Haeden’s husband) explained that the list included the “union leadership; they picked the presidents of every local and put them on the list” along with other union activists.
The miners continue to be supported by labor activists across the nation, many of which have come to Brookwood to express solidarity. Tom Morello was on a short break from Rage Against the Machine touring in sold-out arenas when he climbed up onto the wooden flatbed trailer with his acoustic instrument in hand. In the spirit of Joe Hill, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and other great union-loving musicians, Morello played his own “Union Town” and “Hold the Line” with the crowd singing along before inviting them to join him on the flatbed for Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”
“What I have learned about the strikers in my 24 hours here is that they are not going to give up, and they are not going to give in,” Morello said after his set. “On the other side, they have the cops, the courts … what they’ve got on this side is the will power and solidarity to stand up as long as it takes.”
Every Warrior Met striker with whom I have spoken has agreed. It’s been more than 550 days and UMWA strikers have held the line.