Alabama coal miners are fighting for your freedom
Bosses, courts, and lawmakers still haven’t broken the resolve of UMWA workers and their families
The longest strike in Alabama history started April 1, 2021, when about 1,100 miners walked off the job at Warrior Met Coal in Brookwood. Many of those miners remain on strike today, now in their 11th month.
The walkout started as an unfair labor practices strike, with the workers accusing Warrior Met of bad-faith contract negotiations after they had endured years of sacrifice and grueling conditions to pull the company out of bankruptcy. The plight of those 1,100 workers remains the core issue, but the strike and its backlash have implications for all U.S. workers — not just for our working conditions, but for our constitutional rights to free speech and assembly.
In the miners’ corner they have their union, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), which has roots in Alabama dating back to 1890 and maintains one of the most racially integrated chapters in the country in Alabama’s District 20, with about 20% Black membership. As Kim Kelly reported for The Nation in June 2021, “Crossing a picket line is a mortal sin here, an unthinkable betrayal that is enough to earn a permanent black mark on one’s reputation and standing in the community.”
In the opposite corner stands Warrior Met, which has been pummeling the workers with the help of scabs who sometimes assault them with vehicles on the picket line, judges who have issued injunctions and restraining orders on picketers, and state lawmakers who are advancing bills right now to restrict and criminalize public protests (not to mention the 40-year legislative and judiciary campaign to dismantle labor power at the state and federal level).
Last night I heard from a striking miner and union leaders on a virtual panel discussion hosted by Democratic Socialists of America chapters in Birmingham, North Alabama, and Charleston. (We’re still fundraising for the UMWA Auxiliary, by the way! Click here if you want to chip in a few bucks via GoFundMe.)
As I listened, I was struck by how Warrior Met had attempted to curtail the workers’ First Amendment rights. In a real and urgent sense, these Alabama coal miners are fighting for your freedom, too. Their right to picket in Alabama is under attack, politically and physically.
“They’re trying to suppress our right to assemble. That’s what it is,” said Haeden Wright, leader of a local union auxiliary.
I am hard pressed to think of speech more worthy of First Amendment protection than a labor protest, but Warrior Met has bent the courts and Constitution to its will in Alabama. At various times in the past 10 months, local courts have restricted the pickets to 10, 6, or 2 protesters at a time. On Oct. 27 a Tuscaloosa County Circuit Court judge issued a temporary restraining order at Warrior Met’s request that prohibited all picketing within 300 yards — 3 football fields — of the entrance or exit to any place Warrior Met does business.
These conditions make it easy for scabs to cross a picket line. They also leave picketers vulnerable to attacks in small groups. Writing again for The Nation in January, Kim Kelly shared how coal miner Greg Pilkerton and his wife Amy were both separately hit by cars on the picket line:
To literally add insult to injury, Amy is among the multiple UMWA members and auxiliary members who have been slapped with additional legal charges in relation to the ongoing restraining order. “I’ve done been subpoenaed to court for criminal trespass, and the only thing I can figure is they’re trying to say that I was criminally trespassing on the day that I got hit. If I did step over onto their property, it is because one of their employees hit me with a car!”
Greg’s eyes glistened as he spoke about that day, still shaken at the memory. “That’s my wife,” he said. “You can hit me with a car, you can curse me, you can throw a bottle at me, I don’t care. But you’re not gonna mess with her or my kids.”
The body blows keep coming, but the miners and their families won’t quit.
Braxton Wright is the son and grandson of coal miners, and he’s been mining Alabama coal for 17 years. He was previously employed by Jim Walter Resources, which declared bankruptcy in 2015 and laid off its pension-eligible workers, including him. He came back as a union employee of Warrior Met, the new company that emerged from a hedge-fund buyout of Walter.
Like many of his coworkers who were re-hired after the bankruptcy, Braxton expected that work would suck for a little while as the company regained its financial footing. That meant long hours, a $6-an-hour pay cut, slashed benefits, and fewer holidays — currently just Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas.
Warrior Met’s fortunes turned around as global demand for metallurgical coal surged in 2021 — but the profits never trickled down to the workers who created their wealth. Currently the company is trying to starve them out and spend $6.9 million on a strike-breaking campaign rather than restore their compensation to 2015 levels. To help make ends meet, the union sends out $800 checks to the striking workers every two weeks, supplemented by proceeds from solidarity drives like the one we held last night.
Braxton talked about how the ordeal had rearranged his politics as a “used-to-be Republican.” It rearranged his life, too, as he and his wife raised an infant through the strike.
“We had to fight to get back the dignity and respect from the company, not just the insurance and the pay and the benefits,” Braxton said.
Braxton’s wife Haeden is fighting too. She leads the union auxiliary in their area, which currently means running a food pantry and clothing closet while organizing weekly solidarity rallies at the local ball park.
“The union is your family, and you don’t turn your back on family. You fight for family. That’s what we’re doing here, and we’re willing to go as long as it takes,” Haeden said.
As the bosses tried to snuff out protests through the courts last year, Republican state lawmakers in Alabama and across the country were ramming bills through statehouses that would broaden the definition of “riots,” legalize hitting protesters with cars, and increase the penalties and sentencing minimums for participating in disorderly protest actions.
These bills were part of the prolonged white backlash to the George Floyd uprisings, but they aimed to render all sorts of public protest illegal. Alabama’s version was HB 445, which passed the House over strong objections from Black Democrats. According to an analysis by the ACLU of Alabama, that bill would:
amend the crimes of riot and inciting to riot and would establish the crimes of aggravated riot and unlawful traffic interference.
include a mandatory period of incarceration to serve that is not subject to probation or parole.
provide that when a person commits the crime of harassment on or within 10 feet of the premises of a place of public accommodation, the person is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor.
The bill stalled out before the Senate could take action in 2021. The same lawmaker introduced a similar bill in January 2022, HB 2, that would establish the crimes of “aggravated riot” and “unlawful traffic interference.”
Jacob Morrison, host of the Valley Labor Report radio show in Alabama, noted on the panel last night that the obvious encroachments on free speech from the Statehouse to the Warrior Met picket line received little attention on most local talk shows. Instead, listeners have heard a series of rehashed panics about liberal cancel culture, most recently surrounding Joe Rogan’s use of the N-word on a podcast. It all sounded so disconnected from reality on the ground.
“What we’re looking at in Brookwood is legitimate suppression of speech, and nobody cares about it on these talk radio shows,” he said.
We should all care. We’re next.
The fundraiser for the UMWA Auxiliary is ongoing if you would like to help out. We aim to raise at least $15,000 in February, and we already cleared $10,000 last night! Click here to donate via GoFundMe. All proceeds go to the auxiliary.
Another way you can support the minevworkers is by sending letters of support to the local union office at the following address:
UMWA District 20 Office
21922 Highway 216
McCalla, AL 35111
I helped write this letter from my DSA chapter if you’d like to use it for inspiration.
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