At an event celebrating Labor Day in 2021, President Joe Biden said, “I intend to be the most pro-union president leading the most pro-union administration in American history.”
Tell that to the nearly eleven hundred union workers in Brookwood, Alabama, who are returning to work for Warrior Met Coal after an almost two-year-long strike. These workers faced down a company backed by powerful private equity firms, a state GOP hostile to labor, and overzealous police in a state where Donald Trump beat Biden by twenty-five points. And throughout their heroic struggle, the most pro-union president of the most pro-union administration in American history was nowhere to be seen. If Biden wanted to reverse the losses of working-class voters, this would’ve been a perfect opportunity to show up — but the administration sat this fight out.
The difficult reality is that workers fighting for decency and democracy on the job don’t just have to stand up to companies. They also have to contend with hostile governments and a legal system that comes down hard against labor. When it supports them, the system rarely does so with enough force to deter the anti-worker behavior of corporations. And when those in power refuse to stand behind workers in struggle, the latter are often doomed to lose.
The Strike at Warrior Met Coal
The Warrior Met strike was an inspiring example of solidarity and tenacity. In addition to picketing the mine itself, United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) miners on multiple occasions trekked up to New York City to protest outside of BlackRock, then the largest shareholder of Warrior Met Coal. Financial institutions and those who operate them are often cloistered away from the human consequences of their decisions, reducing the lives and livelihoods of workers to abstract “problems” to solve. These miners made a point of facing these decision-makers and laying bare what their choices meant for them and their families. As the strike rolled on, the union, miners and their families, and the local community came together to organize food pantries and toy drives for the miners — a beautiful example of Southern solidarity.
Under the former owners, Walter Energy, the mine was struggling. To keep the mine open in 2016, the mineworkers agreed to accept cuts to wages, benefits, and health care. The sacrifice these workers made was immense, with the UMWA claiming in 2021 that the wage concessions, benefit slashes, and reduced safety had cost the miners $1.1 billion. As a result of workers’ sacrifices and their daily labor, the mine became profitable again. But Walter Energy nevertheless went bankrupt, and Warrior Met Coal, which is backed by major private equity firms like BlackRock, took over the mine. When workers returned to the negotiating table hoping their sacrifice would be recognized, Warrior Met stonewalled them.
Like the railroad workers whose strike was averted earlier this year, miners face difficult scheduling practices that badly disrupt their ability to attend to their families and personal lives. Miners often work twelve-hour shifts, six days a week. The 2016 contract implemented a draconian four-strike policy: if a worker missed a day without giving twenty-four-hour notice, they’d be given a strike, and if a worker got four strikes they would be fired. If they showed up minutes late to work, they’d be forced to work the full shift and were still issued a strike. One of the miners, Braxton Wright, described what this system meant for him and his family in written testimony to a Senate hearing organized by Bernie Sanders:
When my own daughter was in the hospital, I was working my 12-hour overnight shift, my wife was afraid to tell me she had been admitted until my shift ended at 7 a.m. because if I left I would receive a strike.
During the workers’ strike, Warrior Met Coal benefited from high coal prices and scab labor, as Kim Kelly reported. Making matters more difficult, Warrior Met Coal was successful in convincing a Tuscaloosa County judge to prohibit miners from exercising their constitutional right to picket, barring them from picketing within three hundred yards of Warrior Met facilities. A protest and prayer vigil outside of one of Warrior Met Coal executives’ home was broken up by police in just eighteen minutes.
Alabama governor Kay Ivey sent state troopers to provide “emergency escorts” to help scabs cross the picket line. That sent a clear message from the Alabama GOP to striking miners: you’re on your own. Unfortunately, the Biden administration chose to send the same message through inaction.
After winning the presidency, Joe Biden tweeted, “I promise you this: I will be a President for all Americans — whether you voted for me or not.” Apparently that didn’t include Alabama coal miners in so-called Trump country. Neither Biden nor Labor Secretary Marty Walsh showed public support for striking workers in Alabama.
It’s not as if the Biden administration has not involved itself in labor disputes: Walsh helped with the negotiations that ended the St Vincent nurses’ strike. Why was the same effort not made for these Alabama miners?
Senator Chuck Schumer famously said, “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” But for anyone who wants to see a strong working-class movement in this country, it is a major problem that the Democratic Party is selective at best when it shows up for the working class, often overlooking workers in red states. Last December, Joe Biden, congressional Democrats, and Republicans all locked arms to block a potential rail strike. Nothing seems better designed to hasten class dealignment than that.
Support for labor unions is at its highest rate since the 1960s, with 71 percent of Americans supporting unions in a recent Gallup poll. Despite this popular support, organizing and winning a union in this country is far too hard. Workers who are unionized are on their back foot, facing not only hostile corporations but also weakened labor law and two political parties uninterested in fighting for them. Anti-union companies are able to take full advantage of a legal system that is biased against labor and governments that are either hostile or indifferent. Glowing talk from Democrats come election season that “unions built the middle class” isn’t enough.
We should be inspired by what the Warrior Met miners accomplished over the course of their strike, as disappointing as its conclusion may be, and support them as they enter into their new phase of bargaining. But if we want things to change, we need to get serious about building an organized working-class movement that can fight and win for each other nationwide. If Biden’s inaction has taught us anything, it’s that the necessary support is not going to come from the top.