UMWA coal miners return to work, contract fight continues

By Susan Lamont
March 20, 2023
Members of International Longshoremen’s Association from three East Coast ports join miners’ rally in Alabama Aug. 4, pledge to spread word, build support for hard-fought strike.
Militant/Susan LaMontInternational Longshoremen’s Association members from three East Coast ports joined solidarity rally of 1,500 for striking Warrior Met miners in Brookwood, Alabama, Aug. 4, 2021.

ATLANTA — Coal miners who had been on strike for 23 months at Warrior Met in Brookwood, Alabama, one of the longest and most bitter strikes in recent years, began the process of returning to work March 2. The steps to end the hard-fought strike followed the company’s acceptance of the United Mine Workers of America’s “unconditional offer to return to work” made in mid-February by UMWA President Cecil Roberts.

Warrior Met Coal said it asked for the union’s “cooperation and assistance so that we can begin the process for a safe and orderly return to work” by striking union members. “We look forward to the UMWA’s cooperation in these efforts to return the striking miners to work while we continue to negotiate in good faith to reach a new contract,” said the company in a statement quoted by the online news site Feb. 20.

Starting March 2, strikers seeking to return to work at Warrior Met must pass a drug test, followed by a physical. Once those tests are completed, miners will wait for a call from the company to take an eight-hour safety retraining course, veteran miner Otis Sims told the Militant March 3. After that, they can return to work underground. Workers can request their old job, but there are no guarantees they will get it. Sims was working as a longwall operator at the No. 4 mine when the strike started.

Warrior Met imposes deep cuts

Warrior Met was set up by the biggest outstanding creditors when the previous owner, Jim Walter Resources, declared bankruptcy in 2015. The new owners told miners they had to accept deep cuts in wages, benefits and working conditions or the mines would be closed, with a promise to restore cuts as the company got back on its feet.

But when the contract expired in 2021, the new company proposal offered little change over the previous contract. The miners overwhelmingly rejected it, vowing to stay out until they won more. Picket lines went up April 1, 2021, and the miners began their long fight to defend themselves and their union against Warrior Met’s assaults. They won solidarity and financial support from other UMWA locals and districts, as well as from unions around the country.

Company bosses hired scabs to restart production at Warrior Met’s two mines, No. 4 and No. 7, and at the prep plant and central shops. These replacement workers are a combination of experienced miners from other states as well as Alabama, new workers who recently got their mining papers, and some union members who crossed the picket line.

Over time the company was able to get production going at both mines, filling orders for metallurgical coal used in steel-making around the world and raking in big profits for company owners, despite the strike.

Warrior Met reported Feb. 15 that the company’s fourth quarter of 2022 earnings “marked the conclusion of an exceedingly strong financial year for Warrior,” reported.

Union members will continue to get union strike benefits until they get their first Warrior Met paycheck. As of March 2, the union picket lines had been taken down, Sims said.

Many of the original 1,100 miners who went on strike in 2021 have gotten other jobs, including at two other union mines in the area.

The union will fight to get the jobs back for 41 workers whom the company refuses to allow to return to work, claiming they were responsible for picket line violence. This group includes some of the union’s most active members, like Antwon Mcghee, who worked at the No. 7 mine for 17 years.

“Our strike was very important,” Mcghee told this Militant worker-correspondent March 5. “We set an example of what solidarity can accomplish and let the world know about our fight.”

He and others who have been blacklisted by Warrior Met face trespassing and other trumped-up charges, but so far no court dates have been set, Mcghee said. “We did nothing illegal, but the company wants to silence us.”

“Union members will go back to work with their seniority and with their union,” he said. “Then we will pursue negotiations to win a contract. Some of us are going back with mixed emotions, but this seems to be our best alternative at this point.” The company had refused to negotiate seriously with the union for some time, Mcghee said. “There was no positive motion.”