Labor's Gotta Play Hardball to Win!

Showdown on West Coast Docks: The Battle of Longview
(November 2011). 
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Chicago Plant Occupation Electrifies Labor
(December 2008). 
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May Day Strike Against the War Shuts Down
U.S. West Coast Ports

(May 2008)

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  July 2021

Class Battle in Alabama:

Victory to the UMWA
Warrior Met Coal Strike!

Striking miners from Alabama were joined by hundreds of UMWA members and trade-unionists from New York in front of the offices of BlackRock, the largest stockholder in Warrior Met Coal, July 28. (Internatioinalist photo)

JULY 31 – For four months, some 1,100 coal miners organized in four United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) locals have waged a bitter strike against the Warrior Met Coal company in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama. Miners are striking to reverse the vicious terms of a 2016 contract, which imposed a pay cut of $6/hour, eliminated fully paid health and medical coverage – a key issue in this dangerous industry – and slashed benefits so that workers only receive three holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas) and two sick days per year. Now mine workers, black and white, are locked in a bitter struggle to reverse those cuts. The company is flat out refusing to do so, “offering” chicken feed while cynically saying it “will continue to work with the UMWA,” even as it uses scab labor to break their strike.

With contract negotiations stalled, on July 28, hundreds of miners rallied outside the Midtown Manhattan headquarters of Black Rock, the biggest shareholder in Warrior Met mines and by far the largest investment management company in the world. Wearing camouflage t-shirts with the slogan “We are one,” busloads of miners along with retirees from Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia filled both sides of the street, chanting, “No contract, no coal! Warrior Met Coal ain’t got no soul.” UMWA president Cecil Roberts, AFL-CIO bureaucrats, various union representatives, and actress/activist Susan Sarandon spoke. Members of IATSE (stage hands), RWDSU (retail/wholesale) and, PSC (City University faculty and staff) came out. Passing trucks and taxis honked in solidarity. But much more is needed to win this strike.

The strike begins, April 2. Key to winning the strike is shutting down scab production. (Internationalist photo)

The Internationalist was there as the strike began at 10 p.m. on April 1. On the picket lines the next day, strikers told us they are fed up with the brutal conditions. The half hour that miners’ get for lunch – underground – is deducted from their pay. Premium pay for working on Sundays and other overtime provisions were eliminated in the 2016 contract. The elimination of full health care coverage was a particularly heavy blow as mine workers suffer respiratory disease, injury and death at extremely high levels. Now there is a $1,500 deductible after which miners have to pay 20% of bills which can run into thousands of dollars. After the sick days are used up, miners could be terminated if they miss four days of work due to illness or injury. Workers regularly pull 10-12-hour shifts, six days a week. One told us, “Our kids don’t even know us.”

On April 7, angry strikers walked out of a “contract explanation meeting” held after the UMWA announced a tentative agreement with Warrior Met. Miners told us that the tentative deal offered only a $1 raise and another 50 cents after three years, adding up to $1.50 in a five-year contract, plus two more holidays and a $500 signing bonus. Not even a pretense of making up for the wages and benefits lost in 2016. Workers voted the deal down by an overwhelming vote of 1,006 to 45. One remarked that almost all members vote on contracts because they know that having a union contract can be the difference between life and death in the mines. They well remember that at Mine No. 5 on 23 September 2001, a cave-in caused a release of methane gas that caused two explosions, killing 13 miners.

Warrior Met Coal was founded in 2016 as the successor company to Walter Energy, which declared bankruptcy the year before after coal prices plummeted and demand fell. The company assets were sold to its creditors while the courts allowed Walter Energy to rip up its contract with 1,500 unionized miners. In February 2016, the UMWA then signed the concessionary contract with the creditors, Coal Acquisition LLC, which became Warrior Met Coal, headed by the same CEO, Walter Scheller, who was CEO of Walter Energy. Soon after, coal prices rapidly rebounded and Warrior Met hired and rehired 1,000 miners in 18 months. Due to mine closures globally (and China’s restrictions on its coal production, in order to limit carbon emissions), Warrior Met soon began making fabulous profits.

From 2017 to 2019 Warrior Met Coal had a rate of profit of 58%, raking in profits of $1.45 billion, while sustaining only a minor loss of $35 million during the pandemic recession year of 2020. Walter Scheller and the other bosses and creditors became very wealthy while the workers slaved away in the deep underground mines. Last year the company announced a major investment of $300 million to open new mines in northern Tuscaloosa County. Warrior Met produces high quality metallurgical (“met”) coal for the global steel industry, exporting to Asia, Europe and South America. It also sells natural gas, which is extracted as a byproduct of the coal production for the Blue Creek coal seam, which is expected to yield coal for another 50 years.

From the beginning, Alabama state troopers, Tuscaloosa country sheriff’s deputies and private security have patrolled entrances to the No. 4 and No. 7 mines, the No. 5 preparation plant and the central shop, in order to ensure that “contractors” and other scabs can enter freely. Initially, militant miners picketed the entrances but mostly just delayed the entry of the scabs, rather than stopping them. After a week, the courts issued an injunction limited the number of pickets at an entrance and designated their location, well away from the entrances. The union tops immediately bowed to the anti-union injunctions, as UMWA president Roberts said “Our members respect the guidance of the court.” But the cops and the courts are bosses’ tools – their very purpose is to ensure “order” for and to serve the capitalist ruling class.

On several occasion scab vehicles have run into union picketers resulting in injuries and hospitalization, while scab production has proceeded. In response to the refusal of Warrior Met bosses to negotiate and the frustration of the miners, subsisting on $700 every two weeks in strike pay, the union has carried out occasional actions. On May 25, union president Roberts, UMWA District 20 vice president Larry Spencer and nine others were arrested for trespassing after sitting in at the No. 7 mine entrance. On June 15, entrances were blocked after miners and supporters parked their trucks end-to-end. The police had the trucks towed away. These actions point to what has been missing from the strike: sustained mass, militant labor action to shut down the mines and the processing facilities.

For example, union train operators refused to cross the picket lines to pick up coal, but they just climbed out of the cab at the company entrance. This allowed supervisors to move the train into and out of the yard, and then they would resume transport of the coal. Just as picket lines mean don’t cross, real labor solidarity means no handling or transport of scab products, period. The bosses bellyache that this violates the Taft-Hartley law? Tough. The UMWA and other industrial unions were built through hard class struggle that defied court injunctions, scabherding cops and anti-labor laws. What’s been desperately needed to win this strike is a mobilization of Alabama workers and supporters of labor and black rights to build mass, militant picket lines that scabs can’t cross and that keep the cops at bay. Contractors who the bosses have brought in the mines over the years to do specialized tasks should be enrolled in the union.

Harlan County miners block CSX coal train, July 2019. (Photo: WKYT)

An example for miners to follow was the action by miners in Harlan County, Kentucky, two years ago, after 1,700 miners were left unemployed by a sudden bankruptcy of Blackjewel LLC, then the sixth-largest coal producer in the U.S. Miners blocked a CSX train loaded with coal, preventing it from leaving the mine. (See our article “Harlan Miners’ Fight: Inspiration for Workers Everywhere,” The Internationalist, August 2019.) After blocking the train for two months and filing lawsuits against the company, the miners won a settlement of $5.1 million for wages owed for 1,100 miners. This action recalled the long history of bloody class struggle in Harlan County, from the 1930s into the ’70s, where miners waged pitched battles against the bosses’ thugs, the cops and the National Guard.

One event early on in the strike was the appearance of an anti-labor group calling itself the World Socialist Web Site, or as we call it, the World Scab Web Site. This outfit goes around the country wherever there is a strike or an organizing campaign underway and puts out leaflets and articles agitating against the unions. In Bessemer, Alabama earlier this year, they called on Amazon workers to vote “no” in the union election! These phonies have no place on a picket line. Worse yet, by posing as “socialists” they confuse some strikers and give union bureaucrats an excuse to kick leftists off the picket lines. Don’t be misled. Real socialists are the most dedicated defenders of the trade unions and workers’ struggles against the bosses.

At the July 28 rally outside Black Rock in New York, UMWA president Roberts declared that the union would win and never be defeated. He referred to the eleven-month strike against Pittston Coal in 1989-90, saying “Pittston is no more, but the UMWA is still here.” Pittston was a hard-fought strike by 1,900 miners in which miners suffered 3,000 arrests, shut down scab operations and for several days occupied a coal processing plant. But the union tops, including Roberts and Richard Trumka, then head of the UMWA and now president of the AFL-CIO, throttled every attempt to spread the strike, refusing to stop trains carrying scab coal and ordering steel workers to cross picket lines set up by miners at steel plants across the Midwest. The final contract was a betrayal of the miners, with concessions on health care and work rules and 500 miners laid off, replaced by scabs, and the union stuck with $64 million in fines.

The strike by Warrior Met Coal miners should be linked with the struggle for unionization of the mainly black workers of the Amazon warehouse in nearby Bessemer. Mobilize  Alabama workers and supporters of labor and black rights to build mass, militant picket lines that scabs can’t cross!  (Photo: Bloomberg)

The Warrior Met strike began as the 5,800 mainly black workers at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer were voting in an NLRB election to decide whether the Retail, Warehouse and Department Store Union (RWDSU) would represent the workers there. Many striking miners, about a third of whom are black, supported that struggle, which unfortunately was defeated. We in the Internationalist Group called for a class-struggle fight to organize Amazon. That means strikes and labor solidarity action, and not playing by the rules of the bosses’ government and its agencies. Rather than looking to phony “friends of labor” in the Democratic Party to enact labor law reform like the PRO Act (don’t hold your breath), we need to revive the traditions that built the unions in the first place and build a class-struggle workers party.

Victory to the Warrior Met UMWA strike! ■