MCCALLA, Ala. — “This strike is so important,” retired United Mine Workers of America member Shirley Hyche said June 30 at the UMWA’s weekly solidarity rally here. She joined several hundred striking miners, family members, retired miners and other unionists to back the 1,100 UMWA members who have been on strike at Warrior Met Coal in nearby Brookwood since April 1.
Hyche, who retired in 2008, worked underground for 27 years at Jim Walter’s No. 5 and No. 7 mines. She was among the pioneering women who got hired in the mines in the late 1970s and early ’80s. She was a leader of the Coal Employment Project, which aided women getting and keeping jobs in the mines.
“These miners gave up so much,” Hyche told the Militant. “It’s time for the company to do right by them. They were promised that when the company got back on its feet, Warrior Met would restore what they gave up.
“Prices for everything now are so high and the miners aren’t making the money they need to support their families,” she said. “Many of the strikers are young miners, with families and small kids. The company isn’t doing what they promised, so the workers had to do something. That’s why they went on strike.”
In 2016 the mines’ previous owner, Jim Walter Resources, filed for bankruptcy. The company’s biggest creditors, hedge funds like BlackRock from New York, organized Warrior Met Coal, and told miners they would only keep the mines running if they got concessions. They promised to make them up later.
Along with being forced to take a $6-an-hour pay cut, miners’ health care costs were increased from a $12 co-pay to a $1,500 deductible. And the union had to negotiate a $25 million Voluntary Employees’ Beneficiary Association plan to continue retirees’ health care. Extra overtime pay for Sundays and holidays was eliminated; 13 annual paid holidays were cut to three; a draconian attendance policy was instituted, along with no cap on forced overtime, among other concessions. The cuts amounted to losses for the workers of $1.1 billion over the last five years, the union calculated.
Meanwhile, the new owners raked in big profits.
Instead of restoring the cuts when the 2016 contract expired this spring, Warrior Met offered union members a $1.50 an hour raise over five years, an offer rejected overwhelmingly by union members.
After walking out April 1, union members have staffed picket lines 24/7 at the No. 4 and No. 7 mines, the preparation plant, central shops and at several railroad crossings.
The company has been using scabs and management personnel to mine coal at the No. 7 mine.
Strikers win solidarity
UMWA International District 20 Vice President Larry Spencer welcomed everyone to the rally, pointing to representatives of the United Auto Workers, United Steelworkers, Communications Workers of America and other unionists who came to bring solidarity to the strike. He and UMWA President Cecil Roberts also thanked the unions and other organizations for their generous contributions to the union’s strike fund. The local community group Hometown Action, together with the Sierra Club, recently contributed $10,000 to the strike fund. The growing list of contributing unions and individuals is available on the UMWA.org website. Some $4.3 million has been paid out to striking miners so far, Roberts told the rally.
He reiterated his call for the company to sit down and negotiate seriously with the union.
“Respect and dignity don’t come from money,” Clayola Brown, AFL-CIO director of Civil, Human and Women’s Rights, told the rally. “Pride and dignity is what we get by not crossing the picket line.
“People try to separate us by color,” Brown said. “Here in the UMWA, you have workers of all colors. That’s what unions look like, it’s what fighters look like.”
There have also been three incidents of miners being hit on the picket line by scabs’ vehicles, with several causing injuries to strikers. The company has also reported three incidents of damage to electrical transmission and distribution equipment on company property since May. “We have to be careful on the picket lines,” Spencer said. “The company is pointing at the union for this.” The Alabama Mining Association is offering a cash reward of $10,000 for information about these incidents.
The union “does not condone or believe in destruction of property in any form, or violence of any kind,” said UMWA staff member Phil Smith.
Support and solidarity are needed and well deserved. Help to spread the word about the strike! All donation checks should be made out to UMWA 2021 Strike Fund and sent to UMWA Strike Fund, P.O. Box 513, Dumfries, VA 22026.
Messages of support can also be sent to District 20, 21922 Hwy. 216 (Miners’ Memorial Parkway), McCalla, AL 35111. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lisa Potash contributed to this article.