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“I’ll Never Cross a Picket Line”: Interview with an Alabama Coal Miner

An interview with a striking coal miner in Brookwood, Alabama gives us a glimpse into Warrior Met’s stalling negotiation tactics, the conditions at the picket line, and the solidarity that is keeping the strike alive.

Left Voice

May 13, 2021
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Photo: Luigi Morris

A striking coal miner in Brookwood, Alabama gives updates from the picket line in front of Met Warrior Coal. The miners have been on strike since March 31 after the company presented a contract with cuts to wages, pensions, healthcare, and protections. After voting “no” on a tentative agreement on April 6, the miners are still on the picket line demanding better wages and working conditions.

What is it like on the picket line right now?

Right now, we’re supposed to do 16 hours a week to keep our strike pay and our benefits [from the union]. They used to pay us $300 a week, and now they give us $350 a week. Our insurance was set up, but now it’s not. The company screwed us on that.

The union is paying for our major medical and we don’t pay a penny for that. State law said that the company was supposed to continue our regular medical vision, dental insurance for an additional six months. We filled out all the paperwork before we went on strike. Then we filled it out two weeks or so into the strike. Now the company says that’s not valid because it has to be on the company letterhead. It’s another one of their stalling tactics. 

They’re stalling this whole negotiation too. Every time we’re available to negotiate, they find a way not to be able to negotiate, that they’re not available. If they find out that we’re not available, they make it a way that they’re available. The first few excuses where they were on vacation. The union representatives in our district are helping other unions. So when they found out that our negotiation team was going to help someone else, oh, now all of a sudden we can negotiate today.

Do you know and interact directly with the people who are doing the negotiations from your union?

I know who they all are. No, I do not interact with them directly. Our union representatives, our presidents, our vice presidents, our treasurers, they know more about negotiations than I know. They’re keeping it real close to chest. Those are the international presidents and the district presidents. They’re keeping it close and not really spreading this information because they don’t want rumors to get mixed up…you know how it is. There’s very little communication with us, and very little communication between the company and the union.

How do you end up finding out information?

When they find out they let us know, through emails, emails, text messages, social media, face-to-face conversations. I mean, you also have a lot of the… I will refer to them as former union brothers. They’re scabs, and I have nothing for them. I mean, honest to God, some of these people were my best friends. We ate dinner together. Our kids played together. My kids called them uncles and aunts. Not anymore they don’t.

Case in point, yesterday, one of the guys who crossed the picket line came to my house. He and I used to be very close. Now he’s trying to talk me into going underground. “You need to do this and to do that.” No, I don’t.

What were some of the things that they were trying to get you to do?

It’s all scare tactics about how they’re going to close the mine for a year and a day, which legally means they could go non-union. Obviously they want to bust the union. They want to go a year and a day, bust the union, then go back non-union. They’re trying to scare people and say, “If you don’t cross now, you’ll never be able to come back.” There’s a couple of people whose first day back was yesterday. Because they were told if you don’t come in on Monday, you’re not coming back. But they told them that a week ago, they told them that two weeks ago.

But you’re standing firm. How are you motivated to stay on the picket line?

Loyalty. My great-grandfather and my grandfather were Teamsters. They personally knew Jimmy Hoffa. When I was a child, they told me, “Son you’ll never disappoint us in life, no matter what you do, but if you ever cross the picket line, you’re not my grandchild anymore.” They were that hardcore. And I said, I’ll never cross the picket line. That’s me, it’s my principles. If I crossed that picket line, how can I tell my son or my daughters, “Don’t do that. Don’t turn your back on those people.” I’d be a hypocrite there. It’s just my morals, my principles, my values. We stood here and we agreed to do this together. And we agreed to stand up together.

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I expected to lose union brothers. I expected to lose friends for this. You’d be crazy if you didn’t expect that some people are just going to do it because they didn’t grow up that way. But if I cross that picket line and I go back to work to make the money I was making, not only am I telling the company, “I’m willing to accept this and I’m willing to be treated this way,” I’m telling everybody in the union that I’m willing to take less than what you’re fighting for to do the same thing you’re fighting for.

I take it as disrespect. Not only to me, not only to the men and women that I work with underground, but I take that as disrespect to my children, all the other children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews that these union men and women are raising. That’s disrespecting them too. Just because my daughter’s six months old and she’s never seen the inside of a coal mine doesn’t mean she’s not a coal miner’s daughter. My six-month-old can’t go get a job and buy her own diapers. Working in the coal mine is how I pay for her diapers.

What changed after the bankruptcy of Walter Energy in 2016?

In 2015, I was not a member of the union. I was one of the first contractors into the coal mine after the bankruptcy. [The unionized miners] had wonderful benefits, pensions, retirements, and way better pay. But Warrior Met took over from Walter Energy, and the union agreed to take pay cuts. They agreed saying, “Hey, if you’ll leave the older guys who were under the contract and let them have their pensions, we’ll give up our pensions so that we can start this company and go back to being coal miners.”

They gave up a lot of off-time. Insurance back then was a hundred percent paid insurance — family, medical, dental vision, all paid. No questions asked. A lot lower premiums, a lot lower deductibles. [In 2016], they agreed to 80-20 insurance, higher deductible, higher premiums, less pay.

In 2014, before Walter Energy went out of business, a man could work four days a week and make a hundred thousand dollars a year. Now I work six, sometimes seven days a week, for up to 10-14 hours a day, and I brought home $85,000 last year. Now I know $85,000 is a lot of money to a lot of people, but not when I’m sticking my head between two rocks to make a living. When I kiss my daughter on the cheek before I go to work, I don’t know if I’m going to come home and see her again. What we do is a serious business. You know, if I’m working at Starbucks and I mess up, somebody gets a pumpkin spice latte instead of a green tea chai. If I screw up in a coal mine, somebody dies. I’ve worked desk jobs, I’ve worked a lot of different jobs. With coal mining, you gotta be on your toes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This isn’t just a job. You don’t come home and not be a coal miner. I mean, it sounds really crazy. I’m very blessed that my wife actually worked in the coal mines before me at one point. So she understands what I deal with and how I feel.

What else would you add to your description of a typical day of work before you went on strike?

Working conditions change. The mine changes around you constantly, whether you know it or not. I’ve spent months in waist-deep water — there’s human waste in that water, there’s oil in that water, there’s huge parts of equipment floating around in that water. You don’t know what’s in there. You just run your equipment and do your job. And you’ll go from months wading around in water, you know, ankle deep, knee deep, waist deep. I’ve been in situations where it was up to my throat and I’m wading through it.

There’s laws and regulations put in place to keep us from having to deal with those situations, but laws and regulations cannot control nature. The sheer fact of this is just how coal is made. You can’t change that. I don’t care what’s on the books. I don’t care how much paper you put on it, or how many paragraphs or sections you write. That’s just the nature of the beast. Everything changes around you constantly, whether you realize it or not, you’re in an ever-changing environment and you can go from belly button, deep water to high levels of methane to no air, to too much air. I mean, every little thing has to be precise to make coal mining safe. 

I’m not going to sit here and say that we don’t do that because we do. We strive to do that. A lot of the bosses that work there strive to make sure that we’re safe and they help and do their job and look out for each other and look out for us. But a lot of them just don’t know.

Can you tell me about changes in your hours and schedule?

The hours are typical for any miner — you’re going to work long hours. Most of your mines up north are non-union mines now. It depends on the company you work for whether or not their weekend is mandatory, or whether it’s voluntary. It used to be voluntary here. If you wanted to work on Saturday, you worked on Saturday, and you got time and a half. If you wanted to work on Sunday, you got double time. Not anymore. Saturday is a regular scheduled work day. They say that we’re allowed to sign up as volunteers for Sunday. That’s complete bullshit. They take who they want to take and they put your name up on Thursday, we know whether we’re working Sunday or not.

So that would be a seven-day work week for you.

Yeah. And then they have this three-strike policy. It doesn’t matter if I have a court appointment, doctor’s appointment, my kids have a doctor’s appointment, doctor’s excuses. It doesn’t matter. You get three days a year, and on the fourth day, you’re fired.

So a lot changed when the union accepted the new contract in 2016.

Right. We really didn’t have a choice but to agree on it, it was forced on us. We were at a negotiation and the attorneys basically said, “You’re either going to take this or you’re not going to go back to work and they’ll be a non-union.” So the guys took it. They didn’t have a choice because of the so-called new company. It’s not a new company.  It’s the same CEO and the same CFOs, it’s just the investors are different. Walt Scheller and Jack Richardson drove Warrior Met to supremacy, but they drove Walter Energy into the ground. This is not a new company. It’s the same regime. And they’re getting rich by screwing us and expect us to take it.

What are the recent developments in the strike that people should know about?

There’s been no change. We had a union meeting today and from what we heard, they’re not offering us anything better than what they offered us the first time. You got guys that are underground working — the scabs, the bosses. They’re not going to offer us anything for six months. If we say no to them after six months, they’re not going to offer us anything for a year. Then after a year, they’re going to shut the mine down and try to go back non-union.

I’m sure it’s really frustrating to be on your sixth week of the strike and to see certain people go back to work, but we’re all impressed by the solidarity.

We’re really trying hard. What’s even more frustrating is the fact that our local news, they’re not here to help us. They’re not getting our message out. The UMWA journal does what it can. But you guys [at Left Voice] have never skewed our words. You’ve never twisted my words to make it look like I’m against the union or the union’s against us or anything like that.

We’re getting blamed for a lot of things we’re not doing down here. They’re trying to blame us for popping people’s tires and messing with people and starting fights. And we’ve done none of that. Hell, I’ve been shot at myself. Two weeks ago there was a police report. The week before I got shot at, guys had guns pulled on them. It was the one of the bosses from other mines that did it. He drove by on his way home and the guys simply yelled at him, “No contract, no coal.” He stopped his truck, got out, and pulled a gun on them. 

I was standing by myself when a guy pulled up, stopped his truck, and I recognized him and thought he was joining the strike line. I said, “Hey man, what’s up?”” There he pulled the gun out and took a shot at me. There’s a police report about it in Tuscaloosa County. They can do that. But if I throw an empty water bottle at a car, I’m going to jail, you know?

What are some of the tactics the company is taking up to try to limit organizing among workers?

At the mine, we use these buses to go to auxiliary portals so that we could drop in and save time underground travel-wise. Before, the buses were just regular old used school buses that we bought from somebody. Now they’re full-on prison buses, cages around the windows, foam-filled tires. You know, they say they can’t pay us, they can’t give us any more money, we’re not worth more money, but they cook or order food every day for the scabs every day. And they’re offering the contractors $40 an hour, a thousand dollar a month bonus, and weekends off. So you can’t give me $2 an hour more, you can’t give me guaranteed Sundays off, you can’t let me volunteer for Saturdays, you can’t work with me if I have a doctor’s appointment. But you can pay the bonuses you weren’t willing to pay before? I’m not buying it anymore.

Look, coal miners in general, we don’t go to the doctor. We’ll go when we’re dying sick and have to drag each other to our equipment. But they act like we don’t have families. They just have no respect for us as human beings. They have no respect for our families. But they’re the ones cashing big checks and getting big bonuses and then they say we should be grateful for the peanuts they throw us. 

They also have video recorders that take still photos, video, and audio. Apparently they’ve put up more. They’re in all the elevator shafts, they’re out in front of all the guard shacks, and they’ve also got people hiding in the woods, spying on us. They’ve recorded everything we’re saying to one another. Then they want us to come back and be like, “We’re so grateful for y’all.”

One last question. Has this struggle has connected you to anyone that was unexpected? Or are there other issues that you feel connected to because of this strike?

I’ve gotten really close to some of the guys that I worked underground with that I never was close to to start with. I also lost a lot of friends over this. 

I’m a coal miner from Alabama who’s served time in the Marine Corps and never thought that, you know, my right-wing ass would find that a left-leaning [publication] would actually be our strongest voice. I thought we’d have a lot of Republican backing down here. We thought the conservative Baptists would say, “Hey, we’re behind you.” They’re the ones that are against us.

I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way at all. We actually said something about it in the union meeting today. [Other publications] took some of our words and twisted them completely. But y’all were the first ones here and were really pushing our voice out there. And none of us ever thought that would happen.

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