The United Mine Workers of America and the Associated Press reported August 3 that the Subunit of the National Labor Relations Board, (NLRB), for Region 10 (“much of the South”) had ordered the union pay $13.3 million Warrior Met Coal.
Since April 2021, approximately 1,000 workers from two mines in the southwest of Birmingham, Alabama have been on strike against Warrior Met, refusing to work in harsh conditions. Now the Biden NLRB is demanding the UMWA pay what amounts to $13,000 per striker into the company’s pocket. The government claims this is for reimbursement for security guards, cameras and repairs, as well as production lost due to strike, and buses for carrying scabs over picket lines.
This workforce regularly works 12-hour days and six-day week. The company operates on Sundays, and almost all holidays. The company has a hated policy that automatically fires employees if they miss more than four days of work per year, regardless of whether they are ill or have to take care of family emergencies.
The company offered a $1.50 an-hour raise during the strike from 2021 to 2026. Workers retorted that back in 2016 they accepted a $6-an-hour reduction when the company declared bankruptcy and threatened mass layoffs if the workers didn’t “help” shore up its profitability. When the UMWA leadership presented this tentative agreement, more then 95 percent of the strikers voted “no.”
The $13.3 million judgment by the NLRB is more than half the strike pay distributed in 16 months to 1,000 strikers. The UMWA provides only $350 a week, or $18,000 a year, for miners’ families to live on. The money grab goes towards a company that made $146million in profit from January to March this and last year. paid its CEO $5.7 million.
Cecil Roberts, president UMWA, condemned the NLRB’s decision. “What is the purpose of a strike if not to impact the operations of the employer, including production? … This is outrageous and effectively negates workers’ right to strike.” He accused the NLRB of “tak[ing] up the company’s cause.”
However, the UMWA leadership announced it had reached a settlement with Warrior Met after the union made its arguments before the NLRB district administrator. Union leaders agreed that the company would pay some monetary damages. The union had accused picketing strikers, who were accused of taking illegal and rowdy actions against scabs, and asked the NLRB for punishment. The union statement says it was necessary to pay the company damages “in order to save striking members … from days of hostile questioning by company lawyers,” but that the NLRB then shocked union leaders by massively increasing the payment. It is self-evident that the union bureaucracy opened the door to this disastrous situation and that it did so largely relying on the NLRB’s goodwill. The excuse of sparing coal miners hostile questions is a hoax.
Questioning whether the NLRB is at its core pro-worker, neutral, or pro-employer — and why — cannot be sidestepped. Many unionists believe the NLRB is taking and will continue to take progressive, prolabor actions. In fact, the NLRB acted as a referee to request a revote on unionization at Bessemer and Alabama Amazon (which was again unsuccessful). It has also started pressing cases against Starbucks regarding union busting firings.
Paul Prescod has written In Jacobin, “Labor law, especially in the United States, is extremely limited in its scope and power of enforcement,” but still, “the new NLRB under Biden is a welcome change in the balance of power between workers and employers.” Union lawyer Gay Semel wrote in Jacobin, “The current union organizing wave is being held back by an underfunded NLRB.” Both authors are excited about Biden’s removal of some overtly anti-labor right-wingers from NLRB leadership positions and about the appointment of Jennifer Abruzzo, briefly a union lawyer, as head NLRB attorney.
The NLRB’s Warrior Met monetary order suggests a problem with these hypotheses. The NLRB is not there to help workers beat our bosses. It is intended to act as a referee. It is not neutral, but it can referee two equal teams in a symmetrical game of soccer.
The NLRB mediates economic disputes and strikes. It is part of the U.S government and allows workers to organize and withhold work in limited economic bargaining units. However, it opposes the use of forceful picketing or solidarity strikes. The NLRB doesn’t believe that striking workers have the right to strike. Prevent Production in their workplace. The NLRB supports the opposite: that a company can access and use its property at all times and that bringing scabs over picket lines constitutes an essential legal principle.
This is not a hair-splitting argument. This is why Biden’s NLRB is imposing a $13.3 million fine on a union in favor of a coal company, basically kicking a group of workers while they are down, after fighting to win a strike for 16 months. The basic issue of “which side are you on” is why the Biden NLRB has no moral qualms about supporting the company with the six-day workweek and the CEO who gets paid almost $6 million annually. It also has no reservations about attacking Alabama coal miners for standing up against mistreatment and overwork at 2,000 feet underground.