BROOKWOOD, Ala. — Some 1,100 United Mine Workers of America union members have been on strike since April 1, seeking to win back concessions forced on them five years ago by Warrior Met Coal company. They have set up a dozen or so picket shacks at mine portals, railroad crossings, and other mine facilities and are reaching out for solidarity.
Henry Clay Dennison, a rail worker and former coal miner from Seattle, and this worker-correspondent stopped by picket lines here May 21-22 to talk with strikers about their fight and to bring solidarity from rail workers in western Washington.
At a picket shack by the main entrance to the Warrior Met No. 4 mine we met Chris Daniel, a miner with over a decade of experience in West Virginia and Alabama.
“The main reason we are out here is because of Warrior Met’s unfair labor practices,” he said. “We need better wages and better benefits, like we had before. We need better working conditions and safety.”
Five years ago, Warrior Met miners gave up major concessions in wages, benefits and working conditions under pressure from the bankruptcy courts and the mines’ new owners after the previous owner, Jim Walter Resources, went belly up. Warrior Met is highly profitable.
“I work in Seattle,” Dennison told Daniel, “but I worked in the coal mines in West Virginia and Alabama for 18 years, including five years near here at the Oak Grove mine.
“I came to Brookwood to bring a solidarity message from Pete Gushwa, president of my union, SMART-Transportation Division Local 324,” Dennison said. “Workers in many industries face attacks by the bosses. My co-workers agree we have to stand together and use our unions to strengthen each other.”
“If people don’t think this strike affects them, they should remember the air traffic controllers,” Daniel said, referring to the 1981 firing of 11,000 striking air traffic controllers by then-President Ronald Reagan. Members of other airport unions were not mobilized to honor and defend the strikers’ picket lines, and the strike went down to defeat, setting up a long series of union-busting drives by employers in major industries.
“Three days ago was the 101st anniversary of the battle at Matewan,” Daniel said, referring to the 1920s battles by the UMWA to organize nonunion mines in southern West Virginia. “The company hired goons who went into striking miners’ houses and put their things out on the street. In Matewan, the miners fought back,” Daniel said. “I don’t want people to forget our history.”
“The railroad bosses want to lower the price of our labor and are laying the groundwork for major attacks on wages and working conditions,” said Dennison. “We talk about this in our union. That’s why my local president wrote a letter of support for the UMWA here.”
“We need to rebuild the habit of solidarity with other unions to get ready for what the bosses are preparing to do to us on the railroads,” Dennison said. “It’s how we can gain the confidence to do what we need to defend ourselves and move forward. We have to use the unions we have — and organize unions where there aren’t any.”
Miners from the Oak Grove mine have been visiting the Brookwood miners’ picket lines and attending the weekly solidarity rallies organized by the union at Tannehill State Park, each Wednesday at 6 p.m.
Dennison and I also went to an “Alabama Strike Fest” concert, organized by The Valley Labor Report, a weekly talk radio show, outside UMWA Local 2397’s union hall May 22 to raise funds for the union’s strike fund. The concert was attended by several hundred miners, family members and strike supporters. It was also livestreamed on YouTube, making it possible for people around the country to send in donations.
Help spread the word about the strike! Support and solidarity are needed. All donation checks should be made out to UMWA 2021 Strike Aid Fund and sent to: UMWA Strike Aid Fund, P.O. Box 513, Dumfries, VA 22026. Messages of support can also be sent to UMWA District 20, 21922 Hwy. 216 (Miners’ Memorial Parkway), McCalla, AL 35111. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Henry Dennison is the Socialist Workers Party candidate for Seattle mayor.