Democrats should take every opportunity to join with labor in challenging the corporations that trample over workers and the planet alike in their unquenchable thirst for profit.
On June 22, Alabama coal miners represented by the United Mine Workers of America picketed BlackRock, State Street Global Advisors, and Renaissance Technologies—the investment firms who finance and reap the profits from their employer, Warrior Met Coal.
Just as Amazon workers were concluding their disastrous union election in Bessemer, about 1,100 metallurgical coal miners were voting to strike Warrior Met Coal in nearby Brookwood, Alabama. The miners say Warrior Met and the New York hedge funds backing it have failed to follow through on their end of an agreement made five years ago.
Warrior Met Coal, Inc, was formed to purchase the assets of Walter Energy after that company was declared bankrupt in 2016. The sale terms stipulated that Walter Energy's remains would be purchased "free and clear," meaning Warrior Met was not obligated to employ Walter Energy's miners or recognize their union. Warrior Met agreed to retain the miners and honor their representation if they signed a subpar contract mandating excruciating sacrifices. These included hefty cuts to pay and benefits paired with inhumane scheduling and firing policies. "You could be scheduled 7, 10, 20 days straight," says Haeden Wright, president of the auxiliary for two striking UMWA locals.
Workers saw their hard-earned pensions swapped out for threadbare 401Ks. They lost much of their ability to earn overtime pay, all but three holidays off with their families, and 30 minutes of paid lunch time (lunch is eaten deep underground near dangerous methane gas and coal and silica dust). They could take three days off if a loved one died, but under Warrior Met's "four strike" policy a fourth day off would result in termination. Pay was slashed by between $6-$8 an hour, bringing it well below the industry standard for unionized miners. Health insurance was cut from 100% coverage to an 80/20 system with massive out-of-pocket costs—no small concern in one of the most physically hazardous professions, with high rates of life-altering injuries and 10% of workers suffering from black lung.
Warrior Met assured the miners that if they accepted these losses, they would be taken care of in the next contract. So they endured the squeeze and delivered Warrior Met from its financial hardship, producing "ungodly amounts of coal" and billions in profit for the company and its investors. When contract negotiations began this spring, however, Warrior Met reneged on its promise, refusing to bargain in good faith.
The UMWA miners hit the picket lines on April 1, embarking on the union's first strike in Alabama in 40 years. They've maintained their resolve despite Warrior Met's aggressive tactics, which include a court injunction limiting picketers, arrests and intimidation from police and private security, and multiple brazen vehicular assaults on strikers. UMWA's president, Cecil Roberts, asserts that "UMWA members have been subjected to company violence for 131 years and will not be deterred from seeking a fair contract."
Following the walkout, Warrior Met offered the miners a contract that largely ignored their concerns, providing an insulting $1.50 per hour raise over five years. The miners emphatically voted to reject that offer and continue striking.
At the end of their third month on strike, miners are feeling the pain of sacrificed wages. UMWA is supplying picketers with health insurance and a modest bi-weekly payment. Ms. Wright and the UMWA auxiliary local members run a strike pantry that furnishes families with basic necessities, and the union holds weekly unity rallies to boost morale. The strikers remain determined to hold the line "one day longer" than Warrior Met can stand it.
Cross-racial miner solidarity has deep roots in the region, and the UMWA strike has garnered widespread community support. It has also attracted vigorous encouragement from local and national labor leaders, organizers, and rank-and-file union members. Mainstream media attention and support from prominent politicians, however, have been conspicuously absent.
Republicans love to profess a fetishistic devotion to coal miners, pointing out that fossil fuel workers are frequently overlooked or derided by Washington elites. In 2016, Donald Trump exploited Hillary Clinton's claim that she'd "put a lot of..coal miners out of business," to convincingly argue that Democrats despise working people. And yet Republicans have done next to nothing for the UMWA miners on strike. This presents a prime opportunity for Democrats to prove that they can, in fact, be a party who cares about workers who toil in mines and elsewhere. Voicing robust support for the UMWA miners could help Democrats both attract needed votes and build a worker-powered coalition to fight for a just transition to green energy. The workers on strike in Brookwood mine coking coal used to make steel; but many other UMWA members mine thermal coal for electricity generation.
Many people in communities powered by fossil fuel extraction are justifiably skeptical that a green transition will duly account for their needs. Indeed, in our current economy, green jobs are often highly exploitative and anti-union. Democrats claim to believe the scientific consensus that we must rapidly end fossil fuel use if we are to avoid global catastrophe. In order to build the political will to achieve such a transition, they should take every opportunity to join with labor in challenging the corporations that trample over workers and the planet alike in their unquenchable thirst for profit. Joe Biden surprised many by sounding encouragement for the Amazon unionization drive in Bessemer. Where is his support for the UMWA?
While legacy media and the political establishment disregard the miners whose challenging work makes global steel production possible, you can take action now to support their strike. Companies like Warrior Met should not be allowed to enrich already wealthy shareholders and executives while the workers who risk life and limb to produce that value are unable to care for their health and spend quality time with their families.
When I asked Haeden Wright about the mood among strikers, she offered the following: "The UMWA miners..have always seen each other as brothers and sisters. Underground you depend on your brother to have your back in dangerous working conditions. We have this same feeling while on strike. We take care of each other and support each other however we can."