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1,100 Union Miners in Alabama Are Now in Their Fifth Month on Strike

By Nora De La Cour - Jacobin, August 6, 2021

Although coal-mining jobs comprise a rapidly shrinking share of the US economy, they became potent symbolic fodder during the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns. Candidates from both major parties devoted considerable airtime to the subject, with varying degrees of success. And yet, as 1,100 metallurgical coal miners in Brookwood, Alabama, entered their fifth month on strike earlier this week, the political establishment remained conspicuously silent.

The miners, represented by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), first hit the picket lines on April 1 after contract talks broke down with their employer, Warrior Met Coal. Last week they took their protest to Wall Street, where they gathered outside the headquarters of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager and Warrior Met’s most powerful shareholder.

The miners, who extract the coking coal used to make steel, contend that BlackRock is wresting profits from their community with little regard for workers’ well-being.

Warrior Met Coal, Inc., was formed to purchase the remains of Walter Energy after the company declared bankruptcy in 2016. Bankruptcy court proceedings, which tend to value company assets over workers’ well-being, established that Walter Energy’s holdings would be sold “free and clear,” meaning Warrior Met need not honor the commitments its predecessor had made to miners and their union. In a bid to keep the mines open and save the pensions and health coverage of retirees, UMWA members in Brookwood accepted a subpar contract mandating excruciating sacrifices.

Coal mining is one of the most physically hazardous professions in the United States, with high rates of life-altering injuries and diseases like silicosis and black lung. Unionized miners have fought hard for premium health insurance to alleviate the physical toll of their work. Under the contract with Warrior Met, miners saw their 100 percent coverage downgraded to an 80/20 system with massive out-of-pocket costs for members. Pay was slashed by between $6 and $8 dollars per hour, bringing it well below the industry standard for unionized miners. Hard-earned pensions were replaced with shabby 401Ks.

Warrior Met’s scheduling and firing practices became increasingly draconian even as workers’ ability to earn overtime pay was gutted. Miners were expected to work shifts as long as sixteen hours, for as many as seven days a week. “You could be scheduled seven, ten, twenty days straight,” says Haeden Wright, president of the auxiliary for two striking UMWA locals.

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