How Management Won the Warrior Met Coal Strike
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One of the longest worker strikes in Alabama’s history, the Warrior Met Coal miners’ strike, has come to an end with workers no better off than they were when the action began two years ago.
The workers “did not win this strike — and that is tragic,” laments Hamilton Nolan, labor writer at In These Times.
As the striking workers return to work, many people are wondering how and why it ended this way.
The Start of a Two-Year Strike
On April 1, 2021, about 1,000 mine workers at four Warrior Met Coal locations in Alabama went on strike.
In 2016, the company that owned the mines, Walter Energy, declared bankruptcy, and a group of investment firms took over and renamed the company Warrior Met Coal. At that time, the new company asked workers to take a cut in pay and benefits to keep the mines open, but that those benefits would be restored after five years.
In 2021, the company and the workers’ union, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), began negotiations on a new contract that workers overwhelmingly rejected.
According to Shelley Connor, writer for World Socialist Web Site, the 2016 contract cut wages by $6 an hour, and the 2021 contract only raised them $1 per hour — far below what they were making before they agreed to a pay cut. The 2021 contract also did not remedy the higher out-of-pocket healthcare costs, the longer work days and work weeks, or the “four-strike” attendance policy. All of this even though the company made enough to pay its CEO over $5 million, notes Connor.
These kinds of working conditions will look familiar to anyone who followed the rail workers’ contract negotiations.
In short, the new contract was not what workers were promised. In a show of solidarity, workers and the UMWA authorized a strike.
The Battle for a Fair Contract
The ensuing two years have been difficult for the picketing workers.
“The company has not been budging,” says labor reporter Kim Kelly. And the company hasn’t had to because it hasn’t really suffered any setbacks as a result of the worker action. In fact, it has profited from high coal prices over the last couple of years.
When the strike started, Warrior Met brought in replacement workers (called “scabs”) to keep operations going. “So, throughout the entire strike, or even though these workers have been out, they have been running a skeleton crew, the mines have not been at full capacity, the owners have been able to profit because of those coal prices,” explains Kelly.
The company has also been able to win injunctions against the protesting workers that prohibit them from picketing within 500 feet of mine entrances. The result: Many striking workers struggled against the restrictions and, disenchanted with the effort, either crossed the picket line or took other jobs, Kelly explains in a Fast Company article.
All of these actions gave the company the upper hand in contract negotiations. It rejected workers’ demands and dragged out the process.
Workers, meanwhile, survived on donations from supporters, $800 strike checks from the UMWA every two weeks, and jobs that paid less than the six-figure salaries workers earned at Warrior Met, Stephan Bisaha at the Gulf States Newsroom reports.
The Decision to End the Strike
In the end, there was little hope that workers and management could reach an agreement. This led to the union’s decision to end the strike and offer an unconditional return to work.
In February 2023, the UMWA issued a statement to striking Warrior Met workers telling them that the strike was over and they could return to work. It also sent an unconditional offer to return to work letter to the company, which meant workers would get back to work under the same conditions they left — the very conditions they had been protesting.
In other words, workers lost the battle.
“We are entering a new phase of our efforts to win our members and their families the fair and decent contract they need and deserve,” said UMWA International President Cecil Roberts.
“We have been locked into this struggle for 23 months now, and nothing has materially changed. The two sides have essentially fought each other to a draw thus far, despite the company’s unlawful bargaining posture the entire time. The status quo is not good for our members and their families.”
Larry Spencer, vice president of the United Mine Workers of America, said the strike wasn’t “going in the direction it needed to be.”
“We didn’t get the exact outcome we wanted. But it showed people there is a lot of solidarity here and these guys have stuck together, and that is a positive thing.”
Negotiations aren’t done. They will continue as workers get back on the job — but what they can accomplish remains to be seen, as the union has a lot less leverage than it may have had when the strike began.
Where Was Wider Support for the Striking Miners?
The big question on many people’s minds as these miners get back to work: Where was the support they needed from national leaders over the last two years?
Politicians, legislators, and other labor advocates have been vocally supporting workers as they push to organize workplaces like Amazon, Starbucks, and Trader Joe’s. The federal government has even stepped in to help broker labor deals, like in 2021, when Labor Secretary Marty Walsh mediated agreements for the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM) workers at Kellogg’s and the Massachusetts Nurses Association at St. Vincent Hospital.
Yet very few people had even heard of the Warrior Met Coal strike, which happened in a right-to-work state in the South, where a victory would have had momentous implications for the labor movement.
“What these workers are left with in terms of material support from political leaders is virtually nothing, and at a time when the need could not be more urgent,” the team at In These Times wrote in 2022.
The efforts from workers at Warrior Met Coal demonstrate just how critical it is for labor advocates to work together to protect workers’ rights. “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,” writes David Griscom, co-host of Left Reckoning podcast.
As unions come together to grow the labor movement, they can use a tool like UnionTrack® ENGAGE® to engage members in constructive conversations about what they need from their unions and promote solidarity.
Images used under license from Shutterstock.com.