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What To Do About Strikebreakers?

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For a year now, there’s been a pretty rough strike of United Mine Workers of America workers in Alabama. There’s been some frustration with strikebreakers, leading to some shoving, some flat tires, some broken windshields. Nothing like real violence, especially in the context of the violence of American labor history, but low-level stuff nonetheless. I gave an interview for a story about the issue of violence in our labor history. None of it made this story about the Alabama strike (I guess some of it is on the radio version but not the written version), but in any case, I’m happy to promote this a bit because it gets at useful issues. What is the appropriate action to take with strikebreakers?

The Brookwood miners’ frustrations all started with the price of steel — made from the type of coal these workers mine — plummeting in 2016. Walter Energy, which ran the Brookwood mines at the time, went bankrupt. In its place, Warrior Met Coal was formed by the debt owners to run the mines and offered the workers a deal — take a cut on pay and benefits so the mines could afford to stay open, or risk losing their job. The miners agreed to the cuts. Now, steel prices are booming, amidst tariffs on Chinese steel and a global construction surge prompted by COVID-19 stimulus packages. But Warrior Met Coal isn’t offering enough to restore what the miners gave up — causing the strike.

Once the strike began in April 2021, the miners regularly formed picket lines outside the many entrances to the Warrior Met Coal mines, stretched out over dozens of miles weaving through the backwoods of Brookwood. Miners set up grills and built makeshift shacks to protect themselves from the sun during the long hours they would be protesting. They joked together on lawn chairs between the mine’s shift changes to pass the time.

But videos released from Warrior Met Coal show a shift in demeanor when strikebreakers try to pass them. One edited video, just under four minutes long, appears to show multiple scenes involving miners tossing a cement block through a car’s rear window, swarming a bus full of strikebreakers and the presumed aftermath of fights that left the faces of workers bloodied. A separate video shows security camera footage of a fistfight.

Seven months into the strike, a Tuscaloosa County judge prohibited strikers from picketing outside of the mine entrances. Those restrictions have slowly loosened up, but miners must now provide their full name and address before going to the picket line.The union later agreed to settle and pay a fine from the National Labor Relations Board to cover damaged vehicles and one worker’s medical bills. Federal labor officials estimated the penalty would be around $400,000, according to the union. But in July, Warrior Met Coal instead insisted the union pay $13.3 million to cover the cost of extra security, transportation, cameras and lost revenue for unmined coal.

In a recent report, Warrior Met said the strike cost the company $8 million in the second quarter of 2022 for things like increased security and idle mines. But that didn’t stop the company from also reporting $297 million in net income — a record for the company.

The union is fighting the company’s claim, calling it ridiculous.“

The company is supposed to suffer because of the fact that workers aren’t working,” Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers, said while referring to the idle mines. “This is a total reversal of what the NLRB is supposed to stand for.”

\Historians say the labor protections have been weakening for decades, contributing to union membership being tied for its lowest number in 2021. But they also say turning to violence is a bad idea for the labor movement and leads to more restrictions on strikers, like the injunction in Brookwood that’s kept miners from picketing by the mines. Miner Aaron Parker agrees that going after strikebreakers is a mistake. He’s still friendly with many of the workers that have crossed the line and talks to them on the phone. But if one of those workers gets a car window smashed in, Parker doesn’t care — they’re undermining the union and miners who are holding the picket line.

“I have no sympathy for their misfortune because I’m going through misfortune every day,” Parker said. 

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