Coal miners in Alabama have been on strike for months now and it is finally getting some attention from the media. Here’s a good piece on it from Luis Feliz Leon in The American Prospect.
WARRIOR MET COAL is a unique example of that phenomenon. In 2016, the previous owner, Jim Walter Resources, went bankrupt, and auctioned off its two mines and one preparation plant. The new owners brought together investment firms BlackRock Fund Advisors, State Street Global Advisors, and Renaissance Technologies as the company’s majority shareholders.
The miners agreed to cuts in wages and benefits, reasoning that digging the company out of a financial hole was a small price to pay to stave off another mine closure. But the cuts were drastic. Hourly wages were slashed by $6, paid holidays whittled down to three days a year, and overtime pay eviscerated, with schedules extending to seven days a week. Health insurance costs shot up, as workers were responsible for 20 percent of their premium, with higher co-pays and deductibles. This is particularly crucial in mining work, where conditions lead to diseases like silicosis and black lung, which is caused by breathing in coal dust and has a high incidence among miners.
“We’ve been in prison for five years,” said UMWA Local 2245 President Brian Michael Kelly, a miner for 25 years. “We used to have off all holidays. We used to get paid time and a half on Saturdays, double time on Sundays.”
Invoking shared sacrifice, Warrior Met promised lots of improvements once the company attained financial solvency. Five years later, workers have realized that they were duped. Aside from the cuts to health care and wages—reversing advances earlier struggles forced the coal bosses to concede—their grueling work hours hark back to the 19th century, the era before miners first won the eight-hour workday in 1896. Even the company’s offer to avoid the strike promised only a $1.50-an-hour pay increase, and would have locked in punitive firing policies and unsafe working conditions the union had agreed to in 2016.
“They were trying to rule with an iron fist, making us work seven days a week,” Brian Seabolt, a miner for 16 years, said on the New York picket line. “We’re going to hold our ground.”
“I was not even in the center of the road and he hit me on the right side of my body and kept on going,” said Amy Pinkerton, the wife of Local 2245 member Greg Pinkerton, who was also hit in an earlier incident.
“I’ve been hit twice, and we’re not going to let that scare us away,” said Seabolt.
Capitalism of the New Gilded Age sure looks a lot like capitalism of the first Gilded Age.
In any case, that’s not the only thing going on here. The United Mine Workers of America knows very well the future is renewable energy. What it wants is a just transition. That means good union jobs for its members.
“We have to be realistic,” said UMWA President Cecil E. Roberts. “Whether people agree that it needs to happen or not, an energy transition is going on in the United States. We need to be upfront about that.”
The type of metallurgical-grade coal mined at Warrior Met still gets used in steel production, which rebounded in the United States slightly when the Trump tariffs were issued in 2018. Lee Adler, who teaches at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations and has represented miners as an attorney for over 40 years, believes that if the economy rebounds, miners at Warrior Met will have a modicum of leverage over the hedge funds.
“If the economy really starts galloping and the need for the kind of steel that this coal is used to make, then the scabs aren’t going to be sufficient for productivity levels that might be required,” said Adler.
Yet the coal industry will not be saved through steelmaking alone. “The first victims of climate change are workers themselves,” said labor scholar Kate Bronfenbrenner, also from Cornell’s ILR School. She adds that job growth has been restricted to food service and janitorial jobs, which is at odds with the “dignity quotient” of how miners have come to be socialized as skilled workers, and the intrinsic self-worth they find in the work they do.
A JUST TRANSITION would find new purposes for skilled workers. Underwood, North Dakota, is a town with no traffic lights and an economy built on agriculture and coal. With 700 coal jobs on the line, local leaders found a buyer for a coal-fired power plant, who agreed to retrofit it for carbon-capture technology and to develop a wind farm. The plan has been hailed as a model for saving other plants.
“I can speak for the whole community when I say prayers were answered,” said Mayor Leon Weisenburger Jr., himself a coal miner. The plan fit within the UMWA’s belief that an energy transition should “construct facilities on former coal mine property.”
Zach Cunningham, from the Cornell ILR School’s Worker Institute, proposes focusing on making the transition to renewable-energy sources one that provides good-paying jobs, rather than a narrative of “good jobs versus the environment.” He cites the project labor agreements advocated by the Climate Jobs New York coalition, which would contain sustainability and climate-protection provisions and create good union jobs, and the strong labor standards for green-energy work included in a bill that became law in Connecticut this year.
“They’re going to be good jobs if workers and unions fight for them to be good jobs, which is what we’re seeing in Alabama right now, and that’s really what the history of coal mining has been,” Cunningham said. “These are to this day dirty, dangerous jobs, but because of efforts over decades and decades, they’ve been jobs that are family-sustaining, community-sustaining, and that has to guide our efforts as we’re rebuilding our green economy.”
At the first New York City picket line, coal miner Brian Kelly told the Prospect how his family contained generations of miners and electrical workers. “We always sat down on Sundays and ate dinners together and talked the history of why we need unions in this country,” Kelly said. “I hope by 2030, 2035, that this young generation realizes the importance of having a fairer wage, of having time off, of having health and safety in their workforce, of being able to stand up to their foremen, to their bosses and people who just bully over ’em.”
These points are critical. If we want workers to support the transition to green energy and other climate fighting measures, we have to…wait for it…actually listen to workers. We have to provide good union jobs in places where the workers live. We have to ensure that their lives don’t get worse because of this transition. The problem with green capitalism is that it is still capitalism and those industries don’t want unions anymore than any other industry. But if a green capitalist puts their anti-union interest over their saving the planet interest, it’s quite clear they don’t care about saving the planet. There are more states getting series about making real alliances between labor and environmentalists on these issues, including here in Rhode Island, where an impressive coalition has developed that, among other things, is fighting for vastly improved public transportation. But these conversations require having workers and their unions at the table from the very beginning, not as an afterthought after environmentalists and their allies have already decided what they want to do.