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United Mine Workers of America (UMWA)

NLRB demand for UMWA to pay Warrior Met Coal strike costs “outrageous,” threatens American workers’ right to strike

By staff - United Mine Workers Of America, August 3, 2022

The United Mine Workers of America today made it clear that it will vigorously challenge an outrageous assessment of damages made by the National Labor Relations Board Region 10 regarding the UMWA’s 16-month strike against Warrior Met Coal in Alabama.

“This is a slap in the face not just to the workers who are fighting for better jobs at Warrior Met Coal, but to every worker who stands up to their boss anywhere in America,” UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said. “There are charges for security, cameras, capital expenditures, buses for transporting scabs across picket lines, and the cost of lost production.

“What is the purpose of a strike if not to impact the operations of the employer, including production,” Roberts asked. “Is it now the policy of the federal government that unions be required to pay a company’s losses as a consequence of their members exercising their rights as working people? This is outrageous and effectively negates workers’ right to strike. It cannot stand.”

The union entered into a settlement agreement in June with NLRB Region 10 regarding charges the company had made about picket line activity in order to save striking members and families from days of hostile questioning by company lawyers. On July 22, the NLRB sent the union a detailed list of damages totaling $13.3 million dollars, more than 33 times the estimated amount NLRB lawyers had initially indicated would be assessed.

Warrior Met has reported millions of dollars in costs it has incurred over the course of the strike. “It appears that Warrior Met wants us to reimburse it for those costs, including costs it incurred before the strike even began,” Roberts said. “What’s extremely troubling here is that the NLRB appears to have taken up the company’s cause without a second thought.

“I want to be clear: Warrior Met Coal instigated this strike and has brutally extended it through its sustained unwillingness to reach a fair and reasonable agreement at the bargaining table,” Roberts said. “We have no intention of paying its costs for doing so. The right to strike in America must be preserved. We will fight this at every level, in every court. We will spend every penny of our resources rather than give in to something like this from the NLRB, Warrior Met or any other entity.”

TESTIMONY: Alabama's Warrior Met Coal and Wall Street Greed

By Braxton Wright - Facing South, April 20, 2022

This month marks one year since 1,100 members of the United Mine Workers of America went on strike at Warrior Met Coal in Alabama following the failure of the union and company to agree on a labor contract. The strike continues today.

Warrior Met was created to buy the assets of Walter Energy after that company declared bankruptcy in 2015. A number of hedge funds own shares in Warrior Met, with New York-based BlackRock — the world's largest asset manager — controlling the most, at about 13% at the end of 2021.

Earlier this year, Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) held a hearing on Wall Street greed and growing oligarchy in the United States that used Warrior Met as a case study. Sanders invited the CEO of BlackRock to appear at the hearing, along with those from two other hedge funds and Warrior Met, but they all declined to testify.

When Warrior Met was facing bankruptcy, workers agreed to an across-the-board wage cut of 20% along with cuts to their health care and retirement benefits as part of a restructuring deal made by the private equity firms, saving the company an estimated $1.1 billion over the past five years. Since 2017, Warrior Met has paid over $1.5 billion in dividends to its shareholders while paying its CEO over $4 million per year.

"Yet, now that the company has returned to profitability and has seen its stock price skyrocket by 250% during the pandemic, Warrior Met has offered its workers an insulting $1.50 raise over five years and has refused to restore the health care and pension benefits that were taken away from them five years ago," Sanders said in a statement announcing the hearing. "Outrageously and unacceptably, the company has also demanded the power to fire workers who engage in their constitutional right to strike and give seniority to new hires, rather than miners who have given their adult lives to Warrior Met."

Among those who spoke at the hearing was Braxton Wright, a Warrior Met miner and striking UMWA member. He called on lawmakers to support the "Stop Wall Street Looting Act," a measure sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, both Democrats, to help to reform the private equity industry and to give employee compensation higher priority in bankruptcies. This is Wright's written testimony from the hearing.

One day longer. One day stronger. One year later

By Kim Kelly - The Real News, April 13, 2022

It was supposed to be a terrible day. Thousands of United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) members and supporters were scheduled to convene in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, on the morning of April 6, 2022, to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the Warrior Met Coal strike. But, much like the coal bosses themselves, the forecast was not cooperating. The weather report, in typical fickle Alabama fashion, had been fluctuating between rain, more rain, and certain waterlogged doom; the union had bought ponchos in bulk to prepare. As UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said before the rally, “A little bad weather isn’t going to slow us down.”

By the time I arrived at Tannehill State Park that morning, I was fully prepared to spend my day stuck in the mud impersonating a drowned rat. I was not surprised to see that the day’s schedule had been moved up in a bid to outrun the rain. The original start time was slated for 11AM, but the rally was already in full swing by 10:30AM. Like all UMWA rallies, this one opened with a prayer, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only person in the crowd hoping (or praying) that the universe would see fit to send us some good luck after all.

Buses were still arriving as speakers took the stage; according to an emailed UMWA press release, at least 1,200 UMWA members and retirees had bused in from Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia, and they were joined by union members from across the South. It was a family reunion, with a greater purpose—when the call for solidarity went out, folks listened. They came to pay their respects by the hundreds, traveling across rivers and valleys and up from hills and hollers to be there alongside their afflicted siblings.

'Coal Country' Mines Seam of Class Anger in West Virginia Explosion

By Alain Savard - Labor Notes, April 4, 2022

If Don Blankenship were a fictional character, critics would say he was a cartoon evil capitalist. Unfortunately, he’s real. One of his lesser crimes was to dump toxic coal slurry into disused mineshafts, poisoning the water of his neighbors, all to save $55,000. While they sickened, he piped his own water from the nearby town of Matewan. Yes, that Matewan. He has characterized strikes as “union terrorism.”

As chair and chief executive of Massey Energy, he received production reports from Upper Big Branch mine every half hour, including weekends. And no wonder, Blankenship’s compensation was tied to production, and UBB produced $600,000 worth of top-quality coal every day in a mile-deep operation near Whitesville, West Virginia.

That is, until it exploded in a completely preventable disaster that killed 29 miners on April 5, 2010.

The workers knew something bad was bound to happen. Methane readings were too high, the ventilation and air control systems were a shambles. One day the mine was sweltering, the next freezing cold. They operated in a fog of coal dust and exhaustion. Management threatened anyone who spoke up.

“Coal Country,” a play recently re-opened at Cherry Lane theater in New York, tells the story of the disaster through the words of the miners and their families. They are backed up by stunning original songs by Texas songwriter Steve Earle, who accompanies himself on guitar or banjo from the corner of the stage. “The devil put the coal in the ground,” he growls, and you can believe it. Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen created the play, and Blank directs it.

Performance Coal, the subsidiary of Massey that ran Upper Big Branch, was created specifically to exclude the union. Gary Quarles (played by Thomas Kopache), recalls that when he first hired into the mine, he couldn’t believe how management shouted at the men. That wasn’t tolerated on his union jobs. Unrelieved overtime was another difference.

Managers brought in experienced miners like Quarles for their knowledge about extracting coal, but dismissed their knowledge about how to run a safe mine. Union mines are safer according to Phil Smith of the United Mineworkers of America, "because workers elect their own safety committees and they know they can report hazards without fear of retribution.”

United Mine Workers Partner for 350 Electric Battery Jobs in West Virginia

By staff - Labor Network for Sustainability, March 2022

The United Mine Workers just announced that it will partner with energy startup SPARKZ to build an electric battery factory in West Virginia in 2022 that will employ 350 workers. The UMWA will recruit and train dislocated miners to be the factory’s first production workers.

“We need good, union jobs in the coalfields no matter what industry they are in,” said UMWA International Secretary-Treasurer Brian Sanson. “This is a start toward putting the tens of thousands of already-dislocated coal miners to work in decent jobs in the communities where they live.”

The first markets for the company’s batteries are expected to be for material handling vehicles like forklifts, agricultural equipment, and energy storage.

Source: bit.ly/UMWAEnergyJobs

Solidarity with Striking Warrior Met Coal Mine Workers

By Kooper Caraway, Larry Prencer, Haedon Wright, Braxton Wright, et. al. - Worker Solidarity, February 22, 2022

Texas’s Power Woes Are Just the Latest Reminder of the Danger of Privatization

By Donald Cohen - Truthout, February 17, 2022

Texas dodged a bullet earlier this month when its statewide power grid, operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), held up during a drop in temperatures. But that’s not because state leaders, particularly Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, learned anything from last year’s horrific storm.

As Truthout’s Candice Bernd reported last week, not only did 70,000 Texans still experience power and utility services outages during the recent cold snap, but fracked gas production also saw its biggest dip in production since the February 2021 grid failure, revealing the industry’s continued vulnerability to extreme weather.

Last year, Winter Storm Uri blanketed the entire state with freezing temperatures and snow for several days, causing record energy demand. This forced ERCOT to tell energy providers to cut power as they tried to avoid a total collapse of the energy system. Nearly 5 million people lost power and at least 246 died as a result of the storm.

The latest freeze was a more typical Texas cold front. Local power outages were caused mainly by downed power lines due to trees and ice. Still, Abbott is claiming that the system is more reliable and resilient than it’s ever been.

Experts disagree. “The thing about [this month’s freeze] is, we passed the test, but it was also a really easy test, and we didn’t pass it with perfect scores,” Michael Webber, Josey Centennial Professor in Energy Resources at the University of Texas, told Truthout’s Bernd. “There’s a lot of people who had problems with their power, and there was still the gas production drop, so I think we shouldn’t take away too much false confidence that we’re all good now.”

Texas’s energy system is controlled by a complex mix of public and private actors, including the nonprofit ERCOT, oil and gas companies, the Texas Railroad Commission, and others. The details don’t matter as much as what makes the state’s system unique: It’s independent; not connected to the country’s two other national grids, the Western Interconnection and the Eastern Interconnection; and not subject to federal oversight.

This has allowed it to become one of the country’s most marketized systems, according to Johanna Bozuwa, director of the Climate and Community Project. It’s heavily deregulated, designed to allow for intense competition in the retail sale of electricity. As one portfolio manager at a financial firm put it, it’s a “Wild West market design based only on short-run prices.”

Miners vs. Vultures

By Sarah Jones - Intelligencer, January 20, 2022

Over the last ten months, Brian Kelly has traveled, twice, from his home in Alabama to New York City. Kelly, along with roughly 900 of his co-workers, has been on strike since April 2021, a lengthy ordeal they pin on their employer Warrior Met Coal’s lackluster proposals for a new contract. In an unusual move for a labor strike, he and hundreds of workers came to protest the three hedge funds that own Warrior Met and pressure them to pressure the company’s management. It hasn’t been easy: Last November, the NYPD arrested Kelly and several others in front of the headquarters of BlackRock, the largest shareholder in Warrior Met.

A third-generation coal miner, Kelly worked for Warrior Met’s predecessor, Walter Energy, for two decades until it filed for bankruptcy protection in 2015. That’s when a judge allowed the private equity firms that took it over, including Apollo Global Management, Blackstone, and KKR, to reject prior labor contracts with Kelly’s union, the United Mine Workers of America, as the Financial Times previously reported. Miners accepted a pay cut of $6 an hour to keep their jobs. Health-insurance costs increased. “Then they forced us to work seven days a week, up to 16 hours a day,” Kelly recalled. “Overall, we made a sacrifice during that time.” The firms say they saved jobs; instead, miners say private equity prospered from their suffering. Though private equity no longer owns the company, the strike is arguably their legacy.

“All told, we estimate that this conglomerate of private equity firms realized about $1.1 billion in savings coming out of the bankruptcy court just over the past five years, that were essentially taken out of the pockets of workers,” said Phil Smith, a spokesperson for the United Mine Workers. A bigger payday was still to come. “Before its initial public offering in 2017, Warrior paid them a $190m dividend from cash on hand,” the Financial Times reported. “A few months later it paid a $600m dividend funded with cash as well as a $350m debt offering.” Austerity for some can be a windfall for others.

In statements, Apollo, Blackstone, and KKR all emphasized that they are no longer intertwined with Warrior Met. “Our former investment in Warrior Met saved the company’s mining operations from the brink of collapse, allowed the company to deleverage and invest in its business and preserved more than a thousand high-paying jobs in Alabama,” a spokesperson for Apollo said. “During the time of Apollo’s investment until our ultimate exit in 2019, the company thrived — its stock price increased, they had positive relations with its workforce and the representative union, and employees, who rank among the top earners in Alabama, received significant pay increases and bonuses.”

That likely won’t persuade Smith or the miners who make up his union. Smith calls the firms “vulture capitalists,” which he explained in detail. “What the vultures do is they see something lying down on the ground and they come and they eat it, right?” he said. Warrior Met’s predecessor, Walter Energy, “was lying dead in bankruptcy court,” he explained, when private equity swooped in. “They’re preying on distressed and dead companies and figuring out ways to extract more money for themselves and for their investors from the bones and the remains of those companies,” he added.

UMWA statement on Build Back Better legislation

By Cecil E. Roberts, International President - United Mine Workers of America, December 20, 2021

“The United Mine Workers and Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) have a long and friendly relationship. We remain grateful for his hard work to preserve the pensions and health care of our retirees across the nation, including thousands in West Virginia. He has been at our side as we have worked to preserve coal miners’ jobs in a changing energy marketplace, and we appreciate that very much.

“The Build Back Better (BBB) legislation includes several items that we believe are important for our members and their communities – some of which are part of the UMWA’s Principles for Energy Transition we laid out last spring.

“The bill includes language that would extend the current fee paid by coal companies to fund benefits received by victims of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, or Black Lung. But now that fee will be cut in half, further shifting the burden of paying these benefits away from the coal companies and on to taxpayers.

“The bill includes language that will provide tax incentives to encourage manufacturers to build facilities in the coalfields that would employ thousands of coal miners who have lost their jobs. We support that and are ready to help supply those plants with a trained, professional workforce. But now the potential for those jobs is significantly threatened.

“The bill includes language that would, for the first time, financially penalize outlaw employers that deny workers their rights to form a union on the job. This language is critical to any long-term ability to restore the right to organize in America in the face of ramped-up union-busting by employers. But now there is no path forward for millions of workers to exercise their rights at work.

“For those and other reasons, we are disappointed that the bill will not pass. We urge Senator Manchin to revisit his opposition to this legislation and work with his colleagues to pass something that will help keep coal miners working, and have a meaningful impact on our members, their families, and their communities.

“I also want to reiterate our support for the passage of voting rights legislation as soon as possible, and strongly encourage Senator Manchin and every other Senator to be prepared to do whatever it takes to accomplish that. Anti-democracy legislators and their allies are working every day to roll back the right to vote in America. Failure by the Senate to stand up to that is unacceptable and a dereliction of their duty to the Constitution.”

Chomsky and Pollin: Protests Outside of COP26 Offered More Hope Than the Summit

By C.J. Polychroniou, Noam Chomsky, and Robert Pollin - Truthout, November 22, 2021

The legacy of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) this fall was perhaps best encapsulated by its president, who bowed his head and — close to tears — actually apologized for the process, which ended with a last-minute watering-down of participants’ pledges on coal.

“May I just say to all delegates I apologize for the way this process has unfolded and I am deeply sorry,” said Alok Sharma, the British politician who served as president for COP26. The conference ended on November 13 with a disheartening “compromise” deal on the climate after two weeks of negotiations with diplomats from more than 190 nations.

In the interview that follows, leading public intellectuals Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin offer their assessments of what transpired at COP26 and share their views about ways to go forward with the fight against the climate crisis. Chomsky — one of the most cited scholars in history and long considered one of the U.S.’s voices of conscience — is Institute Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and currently Laureate Professor of Linguistics and Agnese Nelms Haury Chair in the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice at the University of Arizona. He is joined by one of the world’s leading economists of the left, Robert Pollin, who is Distinguished Professor and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Chomsky and Pollin are co-authors of the recently published book, Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal: The Political Economy to Save the Planet.

C.J. Polychroniou: COP26, touted as our “last best hope” to avert a climatic catastrophe, has produced an outcome that was a “compromise,” according to United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, while activists conducted a funeral ceremony at the Glasgow Necropolis to symbolize the failure of the summit. Noam, can you give us your analysis of the COP26 climate agreement?

Noam Chomsky: There were two events at Glasgow: within the stately halls, and in the streets. They may have not been quite at war, but the conflict was sharp. Within, the dominant voice mostly echoed the concerns of the largest contingent, corporate lobbyists; rather like the U.S. Congress, where the impact of lobbyists, always significant, has exploded since the 1970s as the corporate-run neoliberal assault against the general population gained force. The voice within had some nice words but little substance. In the streets, tens of thousands of protesters, mostly young, were desperately calling for real steps to save the world from looming catastrophe.

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