Coal miners in Alabama stand up to Warrior Met

By Susan Lamont
April 19, 2021
United Mine Workers of America Local 2397 members on picket line at Warrior Met mine No. 7, April 2. At left is Tyler Bittle; right, Antwon McGee. Over 1,100 went on strike day before.
Militant/Susan LaMontUnited Mine Workers of America Local 2397 members on picket line at Warrior Met mine No. 7, April 2. At left is Tyler Bittle; right, Antwon McGee. Over 1,100 went on strike day before.

Members of the United Mine Workers voted April 9 to reject the tentative agreement reached with the owners of Warrior Met Coal April 5. The strike continues.

BROOKWOOD, Ala. – More than 1,100 United Mine Workers of America members struck Warrior Met Coal April 1, after contract negotiations with the bosses failed to reach an agreement acceptable to the union.

“I was at the picket line all night last night after the strike started,” Antwon McGee told Militant worker-correspondents at the UMWA Local 2397 union hall, which represents miners at the No. 7 mine. “I’ve been over there all day and now I’m taking a short break and getting ready to head back over to the line again.”

The strike includes the company’s No. 4 and No. 7 mines, their coal preparation plant and a central shop, all located in Tuscaloosa County.

Spirited picket lines are up at all the strike sites, where union members are getting organized with supplies, burn barrels and portable bathrooms. Young miners and veterans together hold the “United We Stand with UMWA Miners” picket signs and wave back at the many trucks and cars whose drivers honk their horns and wave in support. This is the first UMWA strike here in Brookwood in decades. Many strikers are second- or even third-generation miners.

“The company can’t keep mistreating us and not expect to get a reaction,” 61-year-old Rocky Davis said on the picket line outside the prep plant. “We feel like the company is trying to get rid of the union.” He said he had started in the mines when he was 17 years old.

The Warrior Met mines mainly produce metallurgical coal used in steel production by manufacturers in Europe, South America and Asia. The company was set up in January 2016 following the bankruptcy of Jim Walter Resources and its parent company, Walter Energy, the year before.

The Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Alabama approved the sale to a couple of hedge funds that were senior creditors of Walter Energy.

The “new” mine owners used the capitalist bankruptcy court and subsequent company reorganization to press for concessions on wages and working conditions that UMWA members had fought for and won over decades.

Under the five-year contract the union agreed to in 2016, several miners told us, the company forced wage cuts, loss of sick days and holidays, higher costs for health care, no overtime pay until after 40 hours work, widening wage gaps between job classifications, loss of paid lunches, forced Sunday work, increased use of outside contractors, and attempts to shortcut safety to speed up production, along with other measures.

Before the strike, company officials had announced plans to spend millions to expand their mining operations, but claimed they couldn’t meet the union’s demands due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, upper management recently paid themselves $35,000 bonuses.

“The company is using more and more contractors to do jobs that used to be worked by union members,” said veteran miner Efren Barrientos, originally from Mexico, at the prep plant picket line. Formerly there was a contractual limit on how many outside contractors the company could use, a limit the company now regularly exceeds, he and other miners said.

“‘We are one’ — that’s us!” Tyler Bittle, 22, who has worked at the No. 7 mine for two years, told us while picketing at the mine entrance. Like many other younger miners, he first came in as a contract worker and then was hired by the company and joined the union. “We are standing together, all the men — and the women too!”

Miners in Brookwood are very aware of the union-organizing drive going on at the Amazon fulfillment center in nearby Bessemer. UMWA Local 2397 President Carl White attended a solidarity rally for the drive held in February. “I hope they win the union, they really need it,” many striking miners told us.

The strikers have begun receiving support from area workers and unions. Volunteers and staffers from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union — the union Amazon workers are trying to win recognition for — visited the miners’ picket lines April 3.

A United Steelworkers union official from the U.S. Steel pipe mill near Birmingham brought burn barrels for the picket lines April 2, promising further solidarity from the USW.

Warrior Met bosses said they have contingency plans to “continue meeting the demands of our key customers.” Miners are alert to any steps by the company that point toward an attempt to restart production, such as bringing in more contract workers.

“This strike is helping educate the young miners on what the union is all about,” said veteran miner Steve Mote at the No. 7 picket line. “The company has money and they’re spending it,” he said. “They just don’t want to spend it on us.”

Messages of support and solidarity can be sent to: UMWA District 20, 21922 Hwy. 216 (Miners’ Memorial Parkway), McCalla, AL 35111. Email: Phone (205) 477-7500. Fax: (205) 477-0004.