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As Alabama coal miners strike nears end, a look at why it started, and how it failed

Striking miners and supporters march to the entrance of one of Warrior Met Coal’s mines in Brookwood, Alabama, November 9, 2022.
Stephan Bisaha
/
Gulf States Newsroom
Striking miners and supporters march to the entrance of one of Warrior Met Coal’s mines in Brookwood, Alabama, November 9, 2022.

After 700 days, hundreds of striking coal miners in Brookwood, Alabama will be returning to work soon — but without the better contract that they’ve been fighting to get.

The United Mine Workers of America, the union at the center of the purported longest strike in Alabama’s history, asked Warrior Met Coal to allow the miners to return to work at the company’s four locations starting Thursday. The decision was announced in a Feb. 16 press release.

“The status quo is not good for our members and their families,” said UMWA president Cecil Roberts in the statement. “I sincerely hope that Warrior Met leadership will accept this offer, get our members back to work, engage in good faith bargaining and finally sit down face-to-face with us to resolve this dispute for the betterment of all concerned.”

The union describes the decision as fighting Warrior Met Coal to a valiant draw, but the reality of the situation is closer to waving the white flag.

The two sides have been discussing what a return to work will look like and the union shared details with the miners at a meeting Wednesday evening. Here’s what you need to know about the strike, from how it started to how it’s ending.

What led to this strike?

The Warrior Met Coal mines in Brookwood, Alabama continue to be run by workers who have crossed the picket line. March 23, 2022.
Andi Rice for the Gulf States Newsroom
The Warrior Met Coal mines in Brookwood, Alabama, March 23, 2022.

The miners demanded better pay and benefits, but the origins of this strike are tied to the price of steel.

That’s because the coal taken from these mines in Brookwood, Alabama isn’t used for energy but for making steel. In 2015, the price of steel plummeted, ending the year 44% lower than the previous year. This led the company that operated these mines at the time, Walter Energy, into bankruptcy The mines’ debt holders then formed a new company in 2016 called Warrior Met Coal to take over.

According to the miners, Warrior Met told them that it needed to cut their pay and benefits in order to keep the mines open, and the company would look into restoring what they lost after five years. Warrior Met, however, denies making any promises to them.

After those five years passed, Warrior Met offered a roughly 11% raise to the miners, but many said that wasn’t enough; Miner Rily Hughlett said his pay was cut about 14%, but the strike was about more than just money — they also wanted more vacation time and lenient sick days.

“Even on Easter they would have us come to work,” Hughlett said. “We should have Sunday off anyways. I go to church on Sunday.”

On April 1, 2021, roughly a thousand miners officially went on strike. Miners regularly formed picket lines outside the many entrances to the Warrior Met Coal mines, stretched out over dozens of miles weaving through the backwoods of Brookwood. Miners set up grills and built makeshift shacks to protect themselves from the sun during the long hours they would be protesting. They joked together on lawn chairs between the mine’s shift changes to pass the time.

But the strike was also marked by violence. The UMWA accused replacement workers of trying to hit miners with their cars. Warrior Met Coal later released an edited video, just under four minutes long, that appeared to show multiple scenes involving miners tossing a cement block through a car’s rear window, swarming a bus full of strikebreakers and the presumed aftermath of fights that left the faces of workers bloodied. A separate video showed security camera footage of a fistfight.

A federal judge in November 2021 banned the strikers from picketing outside the mine entrances after Warrior Met cameras recorded miners attacking workers’ vehicles. The union agreed to pay $435,000 in damages to Warrior Met last fall.

Is this actually Alabama’s longest strike?

A coal miner wears a t-shirt that says "no luv for scabs' during a rally at the United Mine Workers of America union hall in Brookwood, Alabama, March 23, 2022.
Andi Rice for the Gulf States Newsroom
A coal miner wears a t-shirt that says "no luv for scabs' during a rally at the United Mine Workers of America union hall in Brookwood, Alabama, March 23, 2022.

Where this work stoppage stands in the Alabama strikes record books is hard to say definitively because federal strike data is notoriously bad.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics only tracks strikes with more than a thousand workers. In fact, looking at that data would have you believe the Warrior Met Coal strike ended after a year. That’s because fewer than a thousand miners were still actively striking.

Still, some miners believe it’s the longest in the state’s history and evidence of a longer strike has yet to pop up.

How have miners lasted this long on strike?

Striking coal miners pick up their strike checks from the United Mine Workers of America at a union hall on March 23, 2022, in Brookwood, Alabama.
Andi Rice for the Gulf States Newsroom
Striking coal miners pick up their strike checks from the United Mine Workers of America at a union hall on March 23, 2022, in Brookwood, Alabama.

Each actively striking miner has been getting a $800 strike check from the UMWA every two weeks since the strike began.

It’s a generous amount from a union for a strike, and the UMWA’s also been covering health insurance for the miners. But the checks ultimately amount to a bit more than $20,000 a year — roughly a fifth of what the miners were making before the strike.

Other unions and supporters have also donated millions of dollars to help – they have also kept a food pantry stocked with supplies.

Perhaps the biggest help has come from the tight labor market. Miners have been able to work elsewhere during the strike — for instance, at a Mercedes-Benz plant 10 miles away or a nearby strip mine. These jobs rarely pay more than Warrior Met does, but they help many of the strikers hold out.

But not all the miners have been able to bear the financial burden of giving up six-figure paychecks. That has caused some to cross the picket line. By last November, only about half of the original thousand-or-so miners are still striking, though it’s unclear how many went back to work at Warrior Met.

Why did the strike fail?

Antwon McGhee is one of about 500 Warrior Met Coal miners in Brookwood, Ala., who have been on strike for 20 months.
Stephan Bisaha
/
Gulf States Newsroom
Antwon McGhee stands next to his pickup truck in Brookwood, Alabama. McGhee was one of about 500 Warrior Met Coal miners in Brookwood, Alabama, who was still holding out from returning to work when the coal miners' strike hit its 600th day in December.

Remember what we said about this strike going back to the price of steel?

Just as the low price of steel forced the owner of these mines to go bankrupt, it has since rebounded, currently at about 250% higher than it was at the end of 2015. The high price it hit during the strike let Warrior Met Coal get through the strike while still making a profit. The union said the company could have made a lot more money without the strike, but Warrior Met still made a profit of $641.3 million last year, according to the company’s latest report.

The company was also able to recruit replacement workers, sometimes from out-of-state, to keep the mines running.

Miners also lamented that striking is not like it used to be in the 80s. Security technology like cameras and sensors weren’t as common or effective back then, so it was easier for strikers to do things like hold sit-ins and shut down workplaces. Without that, and with replacement workers in the mines, production kept going despite the strike.

What’s next?

Riley Hughlett
Andi Rice for the Gulf States Newsroom
/
Andi Rice
Rily Hughlett stares out of the window of his home in Brookwood, Alabama, March 23, 2022. Hughlett has not decided if he will return to work at the Warrior Met Coal mines once the strike is officially over.

While the union initially requested March 2 for a return, getting the miners back underground will almost certainly happen at a later date.

For starters, some of the miners will need to get recertifications and physicals before they return.

The UMWA and Warrior Met have gone back and forth over letters hashing out what a return will look like. The union presented what it knows to the strikers during a closed-door meeting on Wednesday. But while the members can give feedback, it’s ultimately the union president Cecil Roberts’ decision to end the strike.

The company islegally required to bring back all of the miners, according to the National Labor Relations Board, but it could appeal this. A major sticking point for Warrior Met, according to the union, is that it doesn’t want to take back about 40 miners it accused of either threatening or causing violence.

Warrior Met is also required to let go of any replacement workers necessary to make room for those returning. If the company delays bringing back workers, it could owe them back pay.

Contract negotiations will continue even after the miners return — though they’ll likely be doing so with significantly less leverage.

“The leverage is making the stockholders understand that you could be getting a whole lot more bang for your buck here if you use the right people to run the coal and produce more coal,” said Larry Spencer, international vice president of the United Mine Workers District 20.

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration among Mississippi Public BroadcastingWBHM in Alabama and WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR.

Stephan Bisaha is the wealth and poverty reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a regional collaboration between NPR and member stations in Alabama (WBHM), Mississippi (MPB) and Louisiana (WWNO and WRKF). He reports on the systemic drivers of poverty in the region and economic development.