As millions of families gather to decorate fir trees this Christmas, children of striking coal miners in Alabama are asking for practical gifts. Clothes and shoes are the most requested items, followed by Barbies, Rainbow High dolls, Legos and Nerf guns and makeup kits.
The Mine Workers (UMWA auxiliary) will donate gifts to these children. “We feel very confident that Christmas is going to be covered for all of our families,” said Haeden Wright, a high school teacher and president of the auxiliary for Locals 2368 and 2245. Each family receives three gifts through a gift list on Target, totaling $7,500 worth of purchases. The gifts are wrapped and delivered in “solidarity Santa boxes.”
Miners have taken up other jobs because of the financial hardship caused by the strike. Haeden’s husband Braxton Wright, a miner of 17 years, is making $15.50 hourly at Amazon, picking items from oversized bins on a conveyor belt at the same mammoth warehouse in Bessemer where the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union lost a unionization voteApril
Braxton said he has talked to some of the RWDSU organizers, “and I figured, hey, if I can help them and make a little money at the same time, it’d be a win both ways.”
Michael Wright, another miner I spoke with, drives a forklift for less that $20 an hour. Tammie Owens started a telehealth position as a nursing assistant, earning $21. Brian Seabolt, a carpenter and electrician, has taken up odd jobs as a handyman.
“Don’t Muzzle the Ox That Treadeth Out the Corn”
Nine months into a bitter strike against Warrior Met Coal the mine workers are trying to keep their morale high in their struggle for justice. reverse concessions2016 bankruptcy proceedings: Slashed pay, increased health care costs and grueling schedules.
Since April, 1,100 miners have been on the job since then. They have endured brazen attacks by company workers who used their vehicles to dig into picket lines and were arrested. They’ve also seen union siblings cross the line and take up foremen positions with the mining company.
Despite these setbacks however, they remain determined to keep going one day longer that Warrior Met, who suffered third-quarter losses of nearly $7million due to the strike.
“The coal prices are out of the roof right now,” Michael Wright said. “Warrior Met is accepting pennies [the company has little coal to sell –Ed.] because they are trying to prove a point that they don’t need us. And they really do need us, because the reason why they’re where they are now is because of us.”
He quotes a Bible verse to drive home the point: “The Scripture says, ‘Don’t muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn.’ And you keep putting a muzzle over his mouth to where you can’t feed him the same corn he’s treading up. He’s eventually going to fall out, so that’s what has happened with us.
“You can’t continue to treat people like that. And just keep grinding on, making ’em grind, making ’em grind, and then you don’t give them a piece of what they’re putting out.”
Scabs an Impediment
Many miners have taken on other jobs during the strike, but others have taken up scabbing. Miners estimate that 100 to 200 people crossed the picket lines.
“That’s probably one of the biggest things that hurt our leverage,” said Braxton Wright. “The coal mines have always had more bosses than workers. They have all their bosses doing manual labor that they’re not used to do, and then of course you have the scabs that’s helping them, and then the contractors coming in left and right, crossing the picket line—that hurts us.”
“Numbers matter,” said Owens. “When we stick together, we are stronger.” For inspiration she pointed to another long strike, at Peabody Energy’s Shoal Creek mine, that recently concluded with an agreement ratified by miners. “The scabs have definitely prolonged the [Warrior Met] strike,” she said. “If they didn’t go in there to work in the mines, we would have been back at work a lot sooner.”
Company Wants To Punish Strikers
Miners report that the current impasse in negotiations is over what happens after the strike ends. Warrior Met wants seniority rights to be ignored and it will give preferential treatment for scabs and the nonunion contractors it has employed to work alongside the union miners since the bankruptcy.
Warrior Met cannot replace strikers permanently because this strike is about unfair labor practices and not an economic strike. Whenever a settlement is reached, strikers should be owed their old spots within five days of the union’s submitting notice of an unconditional return to work. Warrior Met, however, said that it wants to ignore seniority rights and give preference for contractors and scabs.
Seabolt said the company has also proposed to bar from returning to work any striker who engaged in what it calls “picket line misconduct.” “Basically, they went after all the union officials, strike captains, and people that’s been vocal on the picket line,” he said.
Seabolt thinks he’ll be able to hold out longer, with his handyman jobs, than investors will be able to stand decreased production at their plants while prices are booming for the metallurgical coal they produce, which is used to make steel.
“Eventually, this group of investors is going to say, ‘We got to increase our profits, and we got a corporate campaign against us,’” he said.
Private Equity: Going after it
These investors are private equity companies. Miners traveled to New York three times in June, July, & November to take aim at them. One of their targets was BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager and Warrior Met’s largest shareholder. The latest visit was made after a temporary restraining or October 27th, which was later extended through December. All UMWA pickets located within 300 yards of the mine’s entrances and exits were stopped.
In September, state troopers began escorting substitute workers into the mines. This intervention by the state on behalf of the company was rankled union members, who took their protests to Alabama’s capital, Montgomery, November 18. Private equity firms also had Warrior Met holdings in New York City, Washington, D.C., Boston, Massachusetts, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Newport Beach, California, Melbourne, Australia.
A group of fifteen senators has called on Warrior MetTo settle the strike.
It’s time to think bigger!
How could miners keep turning up heat? “What it would take to win in the current environment would be the kind of global campaign that we saw in the ’90s,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
She pointed to the Pittston miners strike1989, which saw mass picketing and plant occupation. Ravenswood Aluminum lockout1990, Steelworkers delegations travelled around the world to publicize the fight against corruption in countries where the company wanted to do business. She noted that Covid might present challenges for establishing such international links today.
“In a strike like this, something much more than solidarity is needed,” said Lee Adler, also from the School of Industrial and Labor Relations and a union-side lawyer who represented miners for 40 years. “They need to have thousands of bodies supporting them from all over the country, and that does not seem to be in the cards right now.”
He contrasted that to the Pittston strike: “We had tens of thousands of U.S. steelworkers mobilized and ready to do anything, and we slugged it out. We held our own. It’s not the same balance now.”
Haeden Wright said that strikers have felt support from other unions, community groups, and the government. “At the end of the day we’re all workers, and workers have to stay together,” she said. “It’s been eye-opening to see where your support comes from.”