Above photo: Luigi Morris.
The strike of UMWA mine workers at Warrior Met Coal in Alabama involves many more people than the 1,100 workers who walked off the job in early April.
Next to them on the picket lines are their families and partners who are helping to organize the strike, break its isolation, and discuss next steps, following in the footsteps of women’s committees in some of the most important labor battles in U.S. history.
Alabama – Just 40 miles to the west of where Amazon workers at the BHM1 facility in Bessemer, Alabama, were voting on whether to form a union, 1,100 mine workers at Warrior Met Coal in Brookwood began a strike for a fair contract and better working conditions. The strike is now entering its third week, and already the workers have surmounted their first significant obstacle: they voted overwhelmingly to reject a wretched deal presented by the company, one that many workers called “a slap in the face.” The tentative agreement (TA) presented by UMWA union representatives and the company fails to address the workers’ most important concerns: wages, job security, and paid time off. In response, the miners tore up the TA and returned to the picket lines, determined to force the company to offer a better contract.
Some say the strike and negotiations may carry on for weeks or months, but the mine workers are prepared to stay on the picket lines until their demands are met. Many of them say they have no choice but to stand together and put it all on the line. They and their families cannot continue under the conditions the company has imposed on them. They could get other jobs, but as many of the workers have told us on the picket lines, they know that if they don’t take a stand now, this will only set a precedent for other companies to attack workers in this sector and beyond; they know they are waging an important struggle and that they need all the support and solidarity they can get to win their demands.
A critical part of this solidarity has come from the wives and families of the mine workers, most of whom are men. These women are playing a key role in organizing, publicizing, and carrying the struggle forward — fighting the bosses’ attempts to isolate the strike, keeping people on the picket lines, and discussing and circulating the most up-to-date information about the strike so that they and the workers are informed and can stay united. That the strike has been successful so far and that the workers are laser-focused on staying on the picket lines until the company makes significant concessions is in no small part thanks to the participation of their families who know that this is their struggle too. In the tradition of the Ladies Auxiliary of the 1934 Minneapolis strike and the Daughters of Mother Jones of the 1989 Pittston Coal strike, the families of the mine workers at Warrior Met are coming together to make sure they win.
Daily Life for the Families of Mine Workers
There is no doubt that the conditions at the mine are dangerous and made even more dangerous by the policies the company has put in place to keep workers underground and cleaning coal at breakneck speed. But these conditions do not only affect the mine workers. The long shifts they work — sometimes seven days a week — leave them little time at home to see their families or help out with taking care of the kids, housework, or anything else. As one wife of a coal worker told us, “If you don’t have a family member or a husband who works in the mines, you don’t understand what it’s like. Our husbands work 12 hours a day. Some of them have a two-hour drive home. So I might see him an hour or two a day. I’m in charge of everything after I get home from work, and then I’m worried about where he is at the mines.”
Added to this, workers constantly fear losing their jobs if they miss any work. One of the practices the miners are striking against is the “four strike” policy, which allows the company to fire workers after just four instances of being late, leaving early, or missing work for any reason — even in an emergency or in case of a workplace injury. Every worker we have spoken to on the picket lines tells us they are afraid to ever call in from work for fear of getting a strike on their record.
As the partners of the mine workers have told us, the four-strike policy means that they are left on their own to deal with all manner of emergencies at home because they don’t want their spouses to risk losing their jobs and income by missing work. As one of the miner’s wives told us,
When I went into labor, I didn’t want my mom to call my husband. I said, “Don’t make me call him yet because he’ll get a strike because he has to leave early.” … When my first daughter was a few weeks old, she fractured her skull and I had to stay at the hospital by myself because my husband couldn’t get off work. … If I told him to come to the hospital, they would give him a strike. … With kids in emergencies, you’re making the choice. Do I even call and tell him? As a husband and a dad, he’s going to want to be there for the kids. But a lot of the women, if it’s not a dire emergency, we try not to even call them because we know what’s going to happen.
What this amounts to is that the families and loved ones the workers leave behind as they enter the mines each day are forced to take on twice the amount of work in their daily lives. Many of the partners of the mine workers also work full-time jobs; after a full day of work, they come home and have to take on the majority of the housework and childcare.
At one point in history, miners organized in unions fought for salaries that would at least allow their families to scrape by on one income; their partners were still forced to take on the brunt of the unpaid work of taking care of their children and household duties. Today, however, after years of cuts to wages, benefits, and the combative power of unions, it is now much more frequently the case that the partners of these workers must add a full-time position on top of their unpaid labor in the home just to generate enough income to make ends meet.
This is certainly the case for many of the women with family members who work at Warrior Met Coal. Before 2015, when Walter Energy owned the mines, salaries were significantly higher than they are now. When the company declared bankruptcy in 2016 and Warrior Met took over, the union presented them with a contract from the company that forced them to choose between taking a steep cut in wages and benefits or losing what for many was their only source of income. At that time, many of the workers’ partners were forced to take on other jobs to keep their homes and feed their families.
In other words, beyond exposing the horrific conditions the workers themselves have faced for many years at the mines, the strike is also shining a light on the additional labor their partners and families take on, first at their own jobs and then at home because their partners work so much and for such low wages. As they stand next to their partners with their children on the picket lines, they are making visible what is often conveniently invisible — not just to the company but to the wider community.
As one of the partners of a mine worker told Left Voice, the families of the workers know this well; that’s why they are taking on such a direct role in organizing the strike. She says the strike has “brought the women together” to share their experiences and stories, and to discuss daily what is going on with the strike and how to move forward. In coming together, they have seen that they are not alone in this fight — that each and every family has a story about the conditions in the mines and the impact they have had on their daily life.
In other words, the strike for better conditions at Warrior Met goes way beyond the 1,100 workers who walked off the job on April 1. This is a strike for better conditions for their families and loved ones as well — the partners of these mine workers are also exploited by Warrior Met, as is the entire community of Brookwood that depends on the mines to survive in some form or another. They are all being squeezed by a company that wants to make as much profit off the workers, their families, and their communities as it can. And so, even if they are not going to work at the mines each day, the families of the mine workers have a vested interest in carrying the strike forward until they get what they deserve: not only for their families but also for themselves as workers.
Making the struggle visible is a huge part of the organizing work. The miners and their families tweet and post daily updates about the strike on Facebook — both to publicize the strike and to make sure all the workers on the picket lines have the necessary information from the union about the struggle and next steps. They know that the more support they have from the community and beyond, the harder it is for the company to wait them out until they burn through their savings or run out of morale.
In an interview with Left Voice, Lyla who is organizing the miners’ families pointed to the importance of social media. “A lot of the men don’t know how to use social media,” she said. “They just don’t understand what or how important it is. I even told the union: you need to understand that social media is how you get a message out now. So we’ve been active in that.”
Any cursory glance at the replies to the union’s tweets or the comments on articles about the strike on Facebook show that the partners and families of the striking workers are there to support the struggle and to set the record straight about the strike. It’s not just about sending messages of solidarity to the miners or retweeting the union’s press releases. These women are engaging on social media to discuss the importance of unions and the significance of the fight that the mine workers are waging to set a standard for wages and conditions across the industry and beyond. And they’re not just discussing with outside commenters but with each other and the workers themselves — boosting morale and arguing to keep the strike running. Lyla continued, “We’ve been kind of monitoring when people post about the union. One day, someone commented about how the unions are like the mafia. So I tried to explain that if you enjoy, you know, having a 40-hour work week, if you enjoy PTO, if you enjoy having safe workplace conditions, all of those things happen because of a union, whether you’re in a union job or not. The union says the standard for the workplace across the board.”
These types of interventions are a significant, though easily overlooked, example of the type of rank-and-file participation that can keep a struggle united while keeping the responsibility for the strike in the hands of the people who are directly affected by its success or failure. They show an active rank-and-file and their supporters engaging in the fight and sharing their perspectives — giving human faces to the struggle and showing that the mine workers are not alone in this battle.
According to many of the workers and their families on the picket lines, isolation is one of the biggest threats to the strike and to workers’ unity. That’s why they have been going to great lengths to get local and national media out to the picket lines to hear the stories of the workers and their families. If the company had its way, there would be no coverage of the strike, and as the partners of the workers tell us, what coverage there has been from the local or corporate media has mostly been favorable to the company, without giving any voice to the striking workers and their families. While the union has told most of the workers not to give interviews to the press in an effort to control the message and “avoid retaliation,” many of their partners are taking on the public-facing work to make sure the striking workers have a voice.
In part, this is an effort to engage the communities of Brookwood, Tuscaloosa, and the surrounding areas in the struggle. While the workers guard the picket lines, their families are bringing signs to local businesses and explaining how folks can get involved by donating supplies and coming by the picket lines to support the workers. The partners of the mine workers see their role as trying to get the whole community involved in the struggle, to help the people who live in the small town of Brookwood and beyond see that this is their struggle too. They are constantly talking to their coworkers, friends, and local grocery clerks, telling them about the strike and how they can support it.
But engaging the community alone is not enough; the wives are discussing how to get other unions involved, to gather international messages of solidarity, and organize donations to the picket lines. They know that the strike must expand to ensure its success.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
The families of the mine workers at Warrior Met who are organizing various aspects of the strike view their work as part of a long history of women’s participation in labor struggles. One of the mine worker’s wives explained to us how she and the rest of the partners and families are continuing in a long tradition of coordination between striking workers and women’s committees:
I don’t know if anyone has told y’all about the Pittston Coal strike of 1989. … It actually lasted 10 and a half months. Four thousand people were arrested. That’s where some of the hashtags that we’re using come from, like “#OneDayLonger.” That actually comes from the Pittston strike. There was a group of women that was called the Daughters of Mother Jones. It was a group of women who helped organize the picket lines, to help the workers and strike committees. After that, the UMWA formed a Women’s Auxiliary. We haven’t really been able to get in contact with anyone from those days because we found out that the last members from the one in our union are in their 60s. We’re working on getting that group reestablished to carry the strike forward.
If you don’t already know the history of these groups, it’s easy to overlook the significance of what the partners and families of the mine workers are striving to do. These women’s committees took an active part in key labor struggles, putting their bodies and lives on the line and bringing entire communities and other sectors of workers into the fight.
The Daughters of Mother Jones, for example, played a militant role in the success of the 1989 Pittston Coal strike. Their role was not limited to providing much-needed support for the picket lines in the form of food and donations to sustain the workers and their families; they actually pushed the struggle forward and prevented the company from crushing the strike. They blocked roads to prevent trucks carrying coal from making deliveries. They even staged a “sit in” for three days in the offices of the Pittston Coal company to demand a new contract. They confronted the cops, put their own jobs and lives on the line, brought national attention to the struggle, and ultimately helped win a new contract.
This is just one example of a long history of powerful women’s committees that bridged the workplace and the wider community, extending workplace struggles and serving as living, breathing examples of how our position as workers — as the producers of everything in society, including the bosses’ profits — defines our relationships and material circumstances. At moments in history when women did not make up the majority of the official workforce, as they do now, women formed these organizations to take an active role in the struggles that most affected their daily lives and those of their families. Take, for example, the heroic struggle Women’s Auxiliary and Emergency Brigades of the Flint sit-down strikes of 1936 and 1937. These women, including Genora Johnson Dollinger, were on the front lines of the struggle, taking part in strike actions and playing a role in deciding next steps for the strike and the workers’ demands. They set up their own picket lines and marches, served as “spokespeople” for the struggle, and discussed together and with the workers themselves how to carry the fight forward. These women played an instrumental role in one of the most important labor struggles in the history of the U.S. labor movement, and they showed the power that the working class has to address all of society’s ills, from poverty to gender oppression.
Communication and Democracy
Following in the tradition of other women’s committees throughout history, the miners’ families have not only gotten the word out about the strike, but have also made sure that every miner is up-to-date on the latest news about the strike. They have formed chat groups and Facebook groups where they are sharing information across picket lines and union locals. When the miners were voting on the terrible tentative agreement brought forward by the union representatives, the wives were behind the scenes making sure every worker knew how and when to vote. As one of the spouses of the miners told Left Voice,
A lot of the wives actually go out there who don’t have young kids. They’re actually going to the picket lines everyday. And we have a GroupMe altogether where we post updates. We let each other know if there’s anyone that needs additional men at the line so that we can coordinate with our husbands. We work to give everyone information so that everybody can kind of stay on the same page with everything that’s happening.
With miners in different locales on strike across Warrior Met, and the workers far away from the negotiating table, it is difficult to make sure the workers on the picket lines and those at home are briefed on the latest events related to the strike. Seeing how this could have a serious impact on the workers’ ability to stay united during the strike, the wives formed their own lines of communication to make sure the workers know what they need to. They discuss among themselves and disseminate the information across the 12 different picket lines spanning the mines and facilities.
This work is a vital part of both keeping the strike united and strengthening the union’s democratic decision-making. When the workers have all the information, when they can discuss the struggle’s next steps together, they can better see the entire picture and decide what is best for them and their families. The women, too, are actively discussing the strike — seeing themselves as part of the struggle and learning about the power that they and their families have to stand up for their own interests.
Lifeblood of the Struggle
Far from passive supporters, the families and partners of the mine workers are actively engaging in the strike — spending days on the picket lines with their children, working multiple jobs to make sure their partners can stay out on strike, and spreading the word far and wide so that the strike will not be silenced. They know the power of a union and they know the power of a united struggle against the boss. In this way they are reviving the great traditions of women’s committees and women workers around the world who have been on the front lines of the labor movement.
As the strike continues, this work will become even more important. The company will do everything it can to divide the workers; the longer they stay out on the picket lines, the harder it gets to hold out until they win their demands. But the families of the workers can play an active role in fighting these maneuvers by organizing to take further actions to reinforce the picket lines and continue to publicize the struggle and invite broader sectors into the movement. They can play an active role in the rallies the UMWA has announced it will be holding to make sure their voices and those of the workers are heard throughout the country and across the world. And they can organize their own meetings to discuss the strike and have a say in the next steps of struggle, since they have as much a stake in this fight as the workers on the picket lines.
Because behind the 1,100 workers on strike at Warrior Met are 1,100 families who are waging this struggle with them. Behind them are women, children, parents, and an entire community who have suffered the injustices of Warrior Met Coal for far too many years. But now they are realizing the power they have and in this experience, how they can organize to stand up for their interests against a company that would sooner have them evicted from their homes than pay a living wage. With the support of their families and community, the striking workers have the chance to fight for all their demands; with the active participation of their families and community in the struggle, they have every chance to win.