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The End of a Very Long Strike

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NEW YORK, NEW YORK – NOVEMBER 04: Hundreds of members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) march to the Manhattan headquarters of BlackRock, the largest shareholder in the mining company Warrior Met Coal on November 04, 2021 in New York City. The miners and their supporters held a rally outside of BlackRock in support of over 1,100 UMWA members have been on strike for seven months at Warrior Met Coal over demands for better pay and benefits. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The United Mine Workers of America members on strike in Alabama are giving up the fight after two years.

Hundreds of coal miners in Alabama have been told by their union that they can start returning to work before a contract deal has been reached, bringing an unceremonious end to one of the longest mining strikes in United States history.

The move by the United Mine Workers of America to conclude their nearly two-year work stoppage is a blow to the union, a storied and powerful labor organization, which has been pushing for higher pay and improved working conditions at the Warrior Met Coal mine, near Tuscaloosa, Ala.

The decision came after negotiating sessions between the union and the company became more infrequent in recent months, said Larry Spencer, a vice president in the United Mine Workers of America, who has helped lead the Alabama strike.

“It didn’t seem like the strike was going in the direction it needed to be,” Mr. Spencer said.

Labor unions across the world voiced support for the miners, but the group failed to muster broad political support. Coal mining in the deeply red state of Alabama was not a popular cause for many prominent Democrats, who are trying to encourage less carbon-intensive industries. Most national Republicans, despite promises by former President Donald J. Trump to save the coal industry, did not publicly back the Alabama strike.

Probably the biggest factor undermining the strike was the price of coal, which soared over the course of the walkout. The Warrior Met mine produces mettalurgical coal, which is used in steel-making and is in high demand.

Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, said the company was able to profitably operate the mine with relatively few nonunion replacement workers because of high coal prices.

In truth, if your strike goes on for more than a week or so, you probably have already lost. And if it goes on for a month? Forget about it.

I may be literally the author of the book on strikes in America, but that doesn’t mean I romanticize the strike. Strikes can be a great idea or they can be a disaster. I don’t think the UMWA really messed up here or anything. The workers just had a really bad hand. They withheld their labor, but so little labor is really needed to mine coal anymore that it just didn’t matter much. And of course they can’t control the price of fuels. So this is by no means a condemnation of UMWA leadership.

The only thing I am really saying here is that while we should support workers on strike, the strike is not the answer to our problems as workers. I mean, it can be in a limited sense if you have leverage and good organizing. But it’s not a panacea in general.

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