Although coal-mining jobs comprise a rapidly shrinking share of the US economy, they became potent symbolic fodder during the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns. Candidates from both major parties devoted considerable airtime to the subject, with varying degrees of success. And yet, as 1,100 metallurgical coal miners in Brookwood, Alabama, entered their fifth month on strike earlier this week, the political establishment remained conspicuously silent.
The miners, represented by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), first hit the picket lines on April 1 after contract talks broke down with their employer, Warrior Met Coal. Last week they took their protest to Wall Street, where they gathered outside the headquarters of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager and Warrior Met’s most powerful shareholder.
The miners, who extract the coking coal used to make steel, contend that BlackRock is wresting profits from their community with little regard for workers’ well-being.
Warrior Met Coal, Inc., was formed to purchase the remains of Walter Energy after the company declared bankruptcy in 2016. Bankruptcy court proceedings, which tend to value company assets over workers’ well-being, established that Walter Energy’s holdings would be sold “free and clear,” meaning Warrior Met need not honor the commitments its predecessor had made to miners and their union. In a bid to keep the mines open and save the pensions and health coverage of retirees, UMWA members in Brookwood accepted a subpar contract mandating excruciating sacrifices.
Coal mining is one of the most physically hazardous professions in the United States, with high rates of life-altering injuries and diseases like silicosis and black lung. Unionized miners have fought hard for premium health insurance to alleviate the physical toll of their work. Under the contract with Warrior Met, miners saw their 100 percent coverage downgraded to an 80/20 system with massive out-of-pocket costs for members. Pay was slashed by between $6 and $8 dollars per hour, bringing it well below the industry standard for unionized miners. Hard-earned pensions were replaced with shabby 401Ks.
Warrior Met’s scheduling and firing practices became increasingly draconian even as workers’ ability to earn overtime pay was gutted. Miners were expected to work shifts as long as sixteen hours, for as many as seven days a week. “You could be scheduled seven, ten, twenty days straight,” says Haeden Wright, president of the auxiliary for two striking UMWA locals.
Miners lost all but three holidays off with their families. They could leave work for up to three days if a loved one died, but under Warrior Met’s “four strike” policy, a fourth day off would be grounds for termination. As miners were pushed to work longer and harder hours, the safety protocols protecting them were relaxed. Workers complained of pervasive, egregious disrespect coming from the new management team.
For five years, the UMWA miners tolerated these poor conditions. They pulled the company out of bankruptcy and produced billions in profit for its New York investors. But the union says when contract negotiations began earlier this year, Warrior Met refused to make good on its promise of shared prosperity. So, as Amazon workers down the road in Bessemer were wrapping up their election, the UMWA miners in Brookwood voted to launch their union’s first strike in Alabama in forty years.
Initially, they hoped to reach a swift resolution. Shortly after the strike began, Warrior Met and UMWA leadership tentatively agreed on a contract that ignored most of the miners’ concerns, proposing a $1.50 raise over five years. Members overwhelmingly voted to turn down that offer. They’ve maintained their resolve despite the company’s aggressive tactics, including obtaining a court injunction limiting picket size, arrests and intimidation from police and private security, and multiple serious vehicular attacks on strikers. The anti-worker response from law enforcement and the remote location of the strike’s picket lines add an element of danger, recalling days when coal bosses in company towns could freely brutalize striking miners.
While many of this latest crop of workers hadn’t been around (or even alive) the last time coal miners in the area went on strike, their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers surely were, and passed down that knowledge to their kin. The union has been a part of life in those mines since 1890, when John L. Conley founded the UMWA’s District 20 in Alabama, which remains one of the most racially integrated UMWA chapters in the country, where about 20 percent of workers are Black.
The strike has received considerable support from local residents, and Wright and the other auxiliary members are keeping a pantry stocked with donated supplies to help families survive between the UMWA’s modest biweekly strike payments.
Attention from legacy media, however, has been all but absent. Even videos of flagrant company hit-and-runs have failed to break through the national noise. A story about Southern coal miners being abused by New York elites seems tailor-made for Fox News, and yet the network has scarcely mentioned it — proving that its flirtations with economic populism are purely performative.
On the other side of the aisle, Joe Biden has also remained silent. Earlier this year he made waves by stating that Amazon workers in Bessemer were entitled to organize. Is it too much for him to also say that miners in Brookwood deserve basic protections in return for their life-threatening work ? (At least three former BlackRock executives now hold prominent positions in Biden’s administration, including Brian Deese, the president’s chief economic advisor, and Adewale Adeyemo, the deputy secretary at the Treasury Department ; BlackRock’s former global investment strategist, Mike Pyle, serves as Kamala Harris’s chief economic adviser.)
Miners like those in Brookwood will be central to the transition from a fossil-fuel economy. They are standing up to powerful interests that will gladly burn through workers’ bodies and the climate alike. If Democrats were serious about advancing a worker-centered climate plan, they would take every opportunity to join with struggles like this one.
Meanwhile, the miners continue to hold the picket line and seek support. On Wednesday, they organized a two-thousand-strong rally that drew UMWA members from Illinois, Indiana, and several other states. “We’re not asking for much,” striking miner Emanuel Burnfield told a local newspaper. “All we want is our previous pay back and 100 percent of our health insurance.”