The 1,100 workers at Warrior Met Coal, Inc. in Brookwood, Alabama are entering their seventh day of a strike over working conditions and “unfair labor practices.” The stories the workers tell about their day-to-day lives in the mines — mandatory 12-hour shifts that make workers strangers to their children, injured miners forced back on the job, “healthcare” that leaves miners thousands of dollars in debt, and wages that are much lower than similar jobs in the area — paint a picture of enormous exploitation for workers who do some of the most dangerous jobs in the country. The workers, organized by the United Mine Workers (UMWA), have been in a fierce contract negotiation battle with Warrior Met since late last month after the company presented them with a contract that made cuts to their wages, healthcare, pensions, and protections.
You might be interested in: Low Pay, Long Hours, and No Holidays: Alabama Coal Miners Strike Back
Presented with this insulting offer, the workers at Warrior Met walked off the job, throwing a wrench in the daily functioning of the mines and letting management know that they won’t stop fighting until the company makes some serious concessions. The attacks on their wages and benefits build on the cuts Warrior Met made when it first bought out Walter Energy and negotiated a new contract with the union in 2016. At that time, the bosses said they had no choice: the company was going bankrupt and the workers had to take a cut in wages or else the mine would shut down and they would lose their jobs. The union urged workers to vote yes on that contract and negotiate a better one later.
Five years after they signed that deal, the miners say that not much has changed — the company just takes more and more from them, forcing them to work more days and longer hours in increasingly unsafe conditions, and keeps them in constant fear of losing their jobs. The workers expected that this new contract would make up for the hits they and their families took in 2017. “I was expecting to see a $6 increase to my wages, just to make up for what they took from us in 2016,” one miner tells us.
Until the workers took to the picket lines, the company refused to sit down with the union for negotiations over the initial offer. Five days after the strike began — as Warrior Met hemorrhages millions of dollars each day without the workers in the mines — the union and management came back to the bargaining table to work out another deal. On April 6, the union presented the highlights of a new tentative agreement to the striking workers that they worked out with management; several workers have described it as “a slap in the face.” Many say they are ready to stay on strike until the company offers a serious deal.
The new tentative agreement presented by the union offers workers a minimal raise — around $1 per hour for each tier of employment and $0.50 after three years — that is nowhere close to regaining the wages stolen in the 2016 contract or keeping up with the rising cost of living in the area. A $1.50-dollar raise that is expected to last for the next five years (the length of the contract) is certainly nowhere near the $30,000 to $50,000 bonuses supervisors are taking home for record production or the $4 million that CEO Walter J. Scheller, III took home last year.
As one worker who has been at the mine for over 30 years told us, he is making less now in 2021 than he did working in the mines in 2009. Nearly every worker we spoke with said they and their families cannot survive on these wages; a $1 increase won’t help them put food on the table or take care of medical bills and rent.
The workers at Warrior Met say that their wages are some of the lowest in the industry, flying in the face of the fact that these mines are some of the most lucrative mines in the country, and despite the fact that the bosses rake in seven-figure salaries and huge bonuses each year. The workers’ salaries do not compare with the salaries of other unionized workers at mines such as Oak Grove mine or Prospect Coal. The union has not made a specific demand for higher wages, instead citing “unfair labor practices” as the reason they are on strike, but every worker on the picket line says that they just want their wages to be on a par with the average for the region. They are fighting for higher compensation for the profits they produce and the risks they take on the job each and every day.
The new tentative agreement (TA) reached by the union representatives and management also makes very few changes to the workers’ healthcare plans or their paid time off. While the TA allows new miners to accumulate time off and doubles the pay of workers who are forced to work on holidays, it does not give more time off to workers who have been at the mines longer, nor does it guarantee that miners can take off specific holidays; instead they are forced to work on holidays and compensate by taking another day off at a later date.
Beyond this, the TA also does not get rid of the “four strike” policy that makes it impossible for workers to take off time from work to deal with unexpected events like a car breakdown, a sick family member, or even a workplace injury or Covid-19. In fact, it merely extends the policy, granting workers “six strikes” before they are fired. Workers feel this is unfair, especially the ones who have been working in the mine for decades.
Conviction to “Vote No” on the Contract Grows Among Workers
Talking to workers on the picket lines, the rank and file does not believe the tentative agreement comes anywhere close to offering them what they deserve. According to several workers, in a meeting on Wednesday to explain the TA, the at least 800 workers who participated walked out of the union hall before a union representative had even finished reading the most positive elements of the tentative agreement. The miners we talked to on the picket line said that the TA is unacceptable and that they will continue to fight until they get a contract that reflects the changes they know need to be made to their working conditions. A vote will be held on Friday on whether or not to ratify the TA. Many workers are already saying they plan to vote no and continue to fight for better terms in their contract.
With this determination, the workers at the Warrior Met mines continue their struggle against a company which has done nothing but extract every single cent from their blood, sweat, and labor. And to get back to making record-breaking profits, the company is doing everything it can to break the strike.
By the time the strike was announced, the company had already made contingency plans. It has hired hundreds of scabs to keep the mines functioning at a bare minimum. The scabs are bused in on school buses with blacked out windows and bars to prevent the workers on the picket lines from seeing the scabs’ faces. Some of the buses turning into the mines appear to be completely empty; one worker tells us that the company has told the scabs to hide under their seats so they can’t be recognized. Since the company regularly employs contract workers, many of the miners on strike already know the scabs crossing the picket lines at shift change; they used to call them friends, brothers, and sisters. All that has changed in the middle of the strike — workers hurl insults as the scabs drive into the mine. The scabs sometimes shout back: one rolled down his window with a smirk and said, “Thanks for the money” to the workers on the picket lines who are trying to survive off the $300 a week in strike benefits.
Warrior Met is also spending buckets of money each day on “security” for the strike. They have hired a fleet of private security cars who regularly patrol the roads around the mines, and enlisted the efforts of Alabama’s state troopers to police the picket lines and escort scab buses. Warrior Met recently filed an injunction with a judge to allow just six workers to guard the picket lines at any given time, which means that the over fifty workers who work any given shift can’t stand together to hold the line. As the workers put their livelihoods on the line to fight for a better contract, the state stands firmly on the side of the company — classifying the miners as “essential” to keep up production during the pandemic, sending dozens of state troopers each day to guard the picket lines, and now limiting even the number of workers who can stand outside the mines. For its part, the union has warned workers to comply with the injunction and stay on the good side of the state troopers at the site. Even though 1,100 workers are out on strike right now, the picket lines are sparse. Workers hold signs and yell at the scabs under the watchful eye of the state troopers who are there to prevent workers from blocking entrances and roads and make sure scabs and management can get in and out without a problem to keep the mines running — and the profits flowing.
You might be interested in: Unions in the Biden Era
All of these tactics are designed to prevent the workers on strike from doing the most important thing they can do as workers: withhold their labor and throw a wrench into the company’s production and profits. Warrior Met is going to such lengths to break the strike precisely because it relies on these workers to function. Several of the workers at the mines tell us that they are the only ones on site who have the training to fulfill certain functions at the mine. Every day that the miners remain on strike they put more pressure on the bosses; at the same time, the company is hoping it can just outlast the workers who depend on their salaries to survive.
On the picket line, the workers say that what they need more than anything else is for their story to be told and for other workers to show solidarity with their struggle. Workers who were laid off recently from jobs at other mines in the area refuse to serve as scabs for Warrior Met. These are just small examples of how a united working class can fight for each other and for the interests of the entire class. A win for workers at Warrior Met strengthens the position of all miners, and perhaps even the entire working class.
A success for the miners at Warrior Met depends on the workers who are determined to stay on the picket lines until they get what they deserve. And their ability to carry on depends in no small part on the solidarity of the entire working class — all those workers who have come to realize that while they are essential, the bosses are not. This includes the 1,300 steelworkers who just reached a deal after a strike in Pennsylvania, the teachers still fighting against unsafe reopenings across the country, and healthcare workers negotiating contracts after being on the frontlines during a deadly pandemic. It also includes the workers who are currently waging a fierce battle to unionize at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, just 40 minutes from the coal miners strike. If these workers stand shoulder to shoulder with the miners on the picket lines at Warrior Met, they have the potential to tip the scale in the workers’ favor.
The 1,100 workers on strike will decide on Friday whether they end the strike or stay off the job until their demands are met.