A somber bell toll broke the silence outside the West Brookwood Church in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama. The white-gloved hand of Larry Spencer, international vice president of United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) District 20, solemnly struck the miners’ memorial bell as the names of victims of mine-related deaths were read aloud.
“As we gather this evening for our service, it is appropriate that we remember in the past twelve months over 2021 and 2022 there has been tremendous heartache as the result of mining accidents across this country,” Thomas Wilson, a retired UMWA staff representative, announced from the podium. “Twelve coal miners’ lives have been snuffed out — also, nineteen metal and nonmetal miners — for a total of thirty-one fallen miners since we last gathered.”
The annual Miners’ Memorial Service commemorates not only those who left for work in the mines over the past year never to come home again; it also honors the thirteen men who died in a series of explosions in Jim Walter Resources Mine No. 5 in Brookwood on September 23, 2001. Standing on the front lawn of the church in the shadows of mine tipples, families reminisced about gathering at the same location on that fateful day in September when they anxiously waited to hear if their loved ones had survived the blasts.
In 2001, the No. 5 mine was owned by Walter Energy. Today it is part of Warrior Met Coal, the company at the center of the UMWA’s 550-day strike, the longest and largest ongoing strike in the United States. As strikers, families, and community members gathered to remember the fallen miners, all were reminded that what is at stake in the Warrior Met strike is, literally, life and death.
Miners Resist Call to Settle
“One of the United Mine Workers’ goals is to make sure that you have a safe place to work and that you come home to be with your family,” Spencer explained before the ceremony. “We are ready to go back to work at Warrior Met, but we aren’t going to roll over and let things like this [explosion] happen again. So we are going to stay strong and continue to fight.”
The Warrior Met strike epitomizes the imbalance of power between Wall Street and workers in the United States. Currently, these nine hundred miners are confronting the trillion-dollar assets of Wall Street funds that own the company.
In 2016, after Walter Energy filed for bankruptcy protection, the union agreed to temporary 20 percent wage and benefit cuts until profitability could be achieved by the newly formed entity (Warrior Met) assembled by private equity firms including Apollo Global Management, Blackstone, and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.
Since Warrior Met went public in 2017, it has returned over $1.4 billion in dividends to shareholders. By 2019, the original equity firms had sold their shares to a new group of Wall Street investment funds. BlackRock, Vanguard, Fidelity, and State Street are currently the company’s largest shareholders. Warrior Met continues to report record profits, including $297 million in the second quarter of 2022, signifying the company’s financial ability to address workers’ economic demands. Nonetheless, the striking miners have yet to see a reverse in wage and benefit cuts — which prompted them to launch their strike in April 2021.
With Warrior Met serving as a revenue machine for investment and asset management firms, UMWA has had to strategize a ground game that not only targets the Warrior Met Coal facilities in Alabama but also these global Wall Street funds. Throughout the strike, BlackRock has generally held the largest number of shares, fluctuating between 13 and 14 percent. For nearly a year, UMWA took their fight to BlackRock’s Manhattan headquarters, as well as expanding actions nationally to the investment fund’s offices in Washington, DC, Denver, and Boston.
In April, a year after the strike began, BlackRock finally issued a statement calling for a labor agreement and questioning Warrior Met executives’ choices in protracting the strike.
“Prolonged operational disruptions, such as labor disputes, can have a negative impact on a company’s financial performance and business resilience. We believe it is in the best economic interests of our clients for Warrior Met Coal and the UMWA to reach a resolution,” BlackRock wrote in a bulletin explaining why it was voting against the reelection of two top Warrior Met board members and the board’s executive compensation proposal. “We don’t believe key executives should be rewarded when the company has been impacted negatively by the ongoing labor dispute and related fall in production.”
While BlackRock’s statement represents a significant victory for the Mine Workers’ campaign at the Wall Street firm, it has yet to result in a resolution to the strike. As Phil Smith, UMWA chief of staff and executive assistant to the president, explains, this raises new questions: “Who is the Warrior Met Board of Directors accountable to? Clearly it isn’t their largest shareholder.”
Despite the advice of BlackRock, key Warrior Met executives continue to reap financial rewards while workers and their families are struggling to keep fed, clothed, and housed — and conscious that another holiday season on strike draws ever closer.
The Auxiliary Looks to the Future
Cheri Goodwin and Haeden Wright, working wives of striking miners and mothers of young children, were founding members of the UMWA Auxiliary in Brookwood that formed quickly after the strike began.
While strikers’ families picked up grocery sacks at the Auxiliary pantry and members sorted food contributions, Goodwin’s little daughter skipped past as her mother and I chatted. In the middle of the bustle, Goodwin’s calm voice of reason demonstrated how mutual support has helped the women create such a successful Auxiliary.
“You have to show each other grace because it is hard. This is the hardest two years I have ever had, including when I lost my brother. It is demanding. You put so much of yourself into it, and no one realizes how many hours you put in — how much time, effort, and emotions,” Goodwin said. “So we all have to take a breath sometimes and be there for each other when it gets hard.”
The longer the strike continues, the more challenges the families face.
“We are all tight,” Goodwin admitted. “Insurance isn’t great. We are trying to balance doing this appointment and not that — going to the doctor but not going to the dentist. You have all your normal stressors, then you have your financial stress because you’re on strike, and you have mom-guilt of a year and a half of your kids’ lives happening during this all.”
Wright, whose young daughter also played around the Auxiliary as we spoke, serves as president of UMWA Auxiliary Locals 2368 and 2245. She is a full-time high school teacher, and I suspect her classroom management skills have helped in methodically organizing a successful Auxiliary to sustain a long-term strike. “The reason we didn’t have deodorant tonight to give to people and the reason we don’t have dish soap or laundry detergent anymore is that we know people need those things, but those donations are needed to the Auxiliary. You have to have a budget. When funds are low, food is more vital,” Wright explained.
Even as they are always trying to meet the immediate needs of the food pantry, including procuring hygiene items that can be contributed through an online register, Wright and Goodwin emphasized that they also have to look ahead to preparing for another holiday season on strike.
“The Christmas registry is huge for the kids. With Solidarity Santa, our membership fills out forms, and we create a registry to make sure kids get gifts. We use and appreciate everything,” Wright affirmed. (Check out the UMWA Auxiliary’s Solidarity Santa registry at Target and Walmart to help support striking families this holiday season.)
In Brookwood, where the hardships of an eighteen-month strike and memories of loved ones lost in mine tragedies can weigh heavily on UMWA members and families, the union has held weekly or biweekly rallies to share information and raise spirits since the beginning of the strike.
In the last few weeks, UMWA’s unwavering commitment to its members, their families, and the larger labor movement has not only been reaffirmed at these rallies but also made national headlines.
On August 3, national news outlets ranging from ABC to Bloomberg reported that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Region 10 ordered the United Mine Workers to pay $13.3 million in strike-related damages to Warrior Met Coal, an amount that was nearly thirty-three times higher than initial estimates. This amount included the company’s “lost revenue” from the strike, a calculation that ostensibly violated workers’ right to inflict economic damages in a legal strike, as defined under Section 13 of the National Labor Relations Act.
UMWA President Cecil Roberts issued an unambiguous statement that the UMWA would not allow this judgment to stand because it jeopardized the right of unions to strike.
“What is the purpose of a strike if not to impact the operations of the employer, including production?” Roberts asked. “Is it now the policy of the federal government that unions be required to pay a company’s losses as a consequence of their members exercising their rights as working people? This is outrageous and effectively negates workers’ right to strike. It cannot stand.”
Only weeks later, in a victory not only for the UMWA but for the right of all union workers across the United States to strike, NLRB Region 10 recalculated and reduced the amount to $435,000 plus interest, removing costs of lost company revenue due to the strike.
As Roberts had done at each rally in September, he reiterated that Warrior Met can’t fire workers without due process, referring to a list that Warrior Met gave the union with the names of forty members who the company said it would not allow to return after a contract was reached. Roberts explained, “Where I come from, if they don’t let you go back to work, you are fired,” and that was not something that the UMWA would allow.
Striking miner Braxton Wright (Haeden’s husband) explained that the list included the “union leadership; they picked the presidents of every local and put them on the list” along with other union activists.
The miners have continued to receive support from labor activists across the country, many of whom have come to Brookwood to show their solidarity. On September 14, musician Tom Morello, on a break from touring with Rage Against the Machine in sold-out arenas, climbed up on the weathered, wooden, flatbed trailer with his acoustic guitar in hand. In the spirit of Joe Hill, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and other great union-loving musicians, Morello played his own “Union Town” and “Hold the Line” with the crowd singing along before inviting them to join him on the flatbed for Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”
“What I have learned about the strikers in my twenty-four hours here is that they are not going to give up, and they are not going to give in,” Morello said after his set. “On the other side, they have the cops, the courts . . . what they’ve got on this side is the will power and solidarity to stand up as long as it takes.”
Every Warrior Met striker I have spoken with agrees. It has been over 550 days, and UMWA strikers and families are still holding the line strong.