BROOKWOOD, Ala. — In a calculated attack on workers’ right to strike, the National Labor Relations Board Region 10 on Aug. 2 ordered the United Mine Workers of America to pay $13.3 million to Brookwood-based Warrior Met Coal, where hundreds of UMWA miners have been waging a hard-fought strike battle for more than 16 months.
“This is a slap in the face not just to the workers who are fighting for better jobs at Warrior Met Coal, but to every worker who stands up to their boss anywhere in America,” said UMWA President Cecil Roberts the next day.
“What is the purpose of a strike if not to impact the operations of the employer, including production?” asked Roberts. “Is it now the policy of the federal government that unions be required to pay a company’s losses as a consequence of their members exercising their rights as working people? This is outrageous and effectively negates workers’ right to strike. It cannot stand.”
The supposedly nonpartisan NLRB ruled that Warrior Met Coal was due payment for a wide variety of costs the board claimed the union was responsible for — including hiring increased security, for buses to ferry scabs across the picket line, damage repair, as well as lost revenues from unmined coal. It also said individual scabs and management personnel were due $30,000, mostly for damages to their vehicles while crossing the picket line.
“The company is spending millions to try to defeat us,” striker Antwon McGee, who was a longwall helper before the strike started, told the Militant after learning about the ruling. “But it won’t work. I’m going to be on that picket line until the end!”
McGee, who has worked at the mine for 17 years, spoke about union members’ determination to continue the fight.
“With all the money the company has spent to defeat us, they could have given us a decent contract,” said McGee.
“The company thinks if they can defeat the UMWA, they’ve taken a step against other unions too,” he said. “It will make it harder for smaller unions at other companies to win their fights. That’s why solidarity is so very important!
“We’re fighting for our worth as workers, for our dignity,” he said. “This strike is a real struggle.”
The latest NLRB decision came as a result of a settlement the union and company entered into in June, in response to charges made by Warrior Met about union activity on the picket line. In order to save members and families from “days of hostile questioning by company lawyers,” the union signed the agreement, according to the union. But on July 22, the NLRB sent the union the $13.3 million bill for a detailed list of damages, more than 33 times the estimated amount NLRB lawyers had initially indicated.
“What’s extremely troubling here is that the NLRB appears to have taken up the company’s cause without a second thought,” Roberts added. “Warrior Met Coal instigated this strike and has brutally extended it through its sustained unwillingness to reach a fair and reasonable agreement,” he said. “We have no intention of paying its costs for doing so. The right to strike in America must be preserved.”
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters issued a statement of solidarity with the UMWA Aug. 5, rejecting the NLRB’s ruling.
16-month-long bitter strike
The strike began April 1, 2021, when some 1,100 union members walked out at Warrior Met’s operations in Tuscaloosa County, which include the No. 4 and No. 7 mines, a preparation plant and central shop. Picket lines were also set up at several railroad crossings. About 900 workers remain on strike, the union reports.
According to The Associated Press, the company reported net income of $146.2 million in the first quarter of 2022, producing metallurgical coal for steel manufacturers in Europe, South American and Africa.
In 2015 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 major concessions from the union, which they promised to make up later when they began making a profit.
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. 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. The union estimates the losses to workers totaled $1.1 billion over the five years of the contract. The union members say, “No more!”
As the strike has gone on, many union members have gotten other jobs, while maintaining their picket duty. Miners report several dozen have gotten jobs at other union mines in the area.
In October 2021, the company won a court order from a Tuscaloosa County Circuit Court judge to force a stop to all picketing or other union activity within 300 yards of Warrior Met Coal. The order was extended several times. Picketing was finally allowed to resume in February 2022, but with some restrictions.
In May the union reported the company had insisted a settlement won’t be reached unless the UMWA agrees that 37 union members be fired for picket line activity, which the union refuses to do.
The company has been producing coal at both struck mines, using management personnel and scabs, including some union members who have crossed the picket line.
Recently union members have been picketing only at shift change times twice a day. Now the union is stepping up its presence at mine entrances, while complying with the court’s current restrictions.
While the company has been violence-baiting union members for picket line activity, local, county and state police continue to act as escorts for the scabs and refuse to take any action against Warrior Met management personnel and other scabs who on several occasions have purposely struck miners or family members peacefully picketing at the No. 7 mine entrance. Last August, the NLRB dismissed out of hand union charges about these assaults.
The union has been organizing regular solidarity rallies since shortly after the strike began. These often draw unionists from Alabama and beyond, in addition to UMWA strikers, family members and retirees. Now scheduled for every other week due to heat considerations, the next rally will be Aug. 17 at 6 p.m. at UMWA Local 2397’s union hall here.
Meanwhile, UMWA locals and districts in other parts of the country, as well as many other international unions, locals, and individual workers continue to contribute to the strike fund, which pays weekly benefits to strikers. A well-organized auxiliary organized by strikers’ spouses helps gather and distribute food and other donations.
Solidarity with the UMWA strikers! Come to the Aug. 17 rally in Brookwood! Send checks made out to UMWA 2021 Strike Fund to UMWA Strike Fund, P.O. Box 513, Dumfries, VA 22026. Send messages of support to UMWA District 20 at 21922 Hwy. 216, McCalla, AL 35111. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.