The United Mine Workers Strike at Warrior Met Coal

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Thank goodness Teen Vogue has a labor reporter, because without Kim Kelly, we might not be hearing anything about the United Mine Workers of American (UMWA) strike at Warrior Met Coal in Brockwood, Alabama, where over 1,000 miners have been on strike for over two months. Here is the UMWA strike page (which permits donations by check, but not online, which seems a little old school).

Warrior Met coal isn’t used for power; it’s a premium product, metallurgical coal. It’s possible to reverse engineer the high-level economics behind the strike from the Warrior Met company page. I have helpfully underlined the salient points:

Warrior is a U.S.-based, environmentally[1] and socially[2] minded supplier to the global steel industry. It is dedicated entirely to mining non-thermal metallurgical (met) coal used as a critical component of steel production by metal manufacturers in Europe, South America and Asia. Warrior is a large-scale, low-cost producer and exporter of premium met coal, also known as hard coking coal (HCC), operating highly efficient longwall operations in its underground mines based in Alabama. The HCC that Warrior produces from the Blue Creek, AL, coal seam contains very low sulfur and has strong coking properties and is of a similar quality to coal referred to as the premium HCC produced in Australia. The premium nature of Warrior’s HCC makes it ideally suited as a base feed coal for steel makers and results in price realizations near the Platts Index price.

So, high prices and low costs. And why are the costs so low? Well, there’s a history here. Warrior Met has a history. Coal barons gotta coal baron, and it’s been that way for some time. From the Montgomery Herald, “Recovery includes humane priorities“:

Warrior Met was once known as Jim Walter Resources, known also as a builder of affordable stick-built homes across the southeast, including West Virginia. In Alabama, the firm had North America’s deepest coal mines at 2,000 feet that produced methane gas and high-quality metallurgical coal. On Sept. 23, 2001, a cave-in caused a release of methane gas that sparked two major explosions, killing 13 UMWA members.

Then U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, spouse of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., cited Jim Walter for 27 violations and $435,000 in fines. She then approved MSHA reducing the fine to an insulting $3,000, which was appealed by the UMWA. MSHA then increased the fine to $5,000.

In the fulness of time, Jim Walter Resources went bankrupt — whether for-real bankrupt, or Sackler-style bankrupt, I don’t know — and emerged in 2016 as Warrior Met. The UMWA offered contract concessions: over five years Warrior Met become profitable. Now it’s payback time, except not. From WHBM, “Alabama Coal Workers Strike For Better Wages, Fair Treatment“:

Warrior Met Coal took over and workers agreed to cut their wages and benefits to keep the mines open. Employees said the company promised to restore some benefits after five years. Warrior’s latest offer is about a 10% pay increase, but that doesn’t cover what they lost.

“Oh it’s a slap in the face,” [miner Courtney Finklea] said. “All we wanted was a piece of the pie, and I guess the pie was never given to us.”

Sadly, the company’s initial offer was insultingly low:

Shortly after the strike was launched and more than three-quarters of the workers walked out, the company came up with a tentative agreement with UMWA negotiators, which only offered a wage hike of [$1.50] per hour increase, over the next five years. This deal was overwhelmingly voted against by union members with over 91 percent voting ‘no’. On April 12, union members voted along similarly large numbers to continue their strike.

$1.50? Really? (And what was the UMWA thinking?) But the strike isn’t just about Warrior’s broken promises, or wages. It’s also about working conditions. From AL.com, “Striking Alabama coal miners endure arrests, see little progress: ‘We’re just standing together’”:

Ramey Foster wanted to illustrate why miners have been on strike for more than two months against Warrior Met Coal, so he pulled out two small booklets.

One was thin, yellow, dog-eared and stained, while the other was a pristine, thick white paperback perhaps four times the size of the other.

“This is the contract we’ve been working under,” Foster said, holding up the smaller one, which he kept in the bib of his overalls while in the mines.

Somehow I don’t think the new contract is shorter because Warrior Met found a way to say the same thing with fewer words. Because this is what the new contract allows:

James Traweek has worked at Warrior Met Coal for four years at the No 7 mine in Brookwood. He explained miners accepted a $6-an-hour pay cut and reduction in health insurance and retirement benefits during the bankruptcy process five years ago, while adhering to a strict attendance policy.

“We were required to work six, sometimes seven days a week, for 12 hours a day. We worked on a four-strike system, which meant missing four days in a year resulted in termination,” said Traweek. “The only thing that was accepted as an excuse was a death in the immediate family. We had to work sick with the flu and many other illnesses in fear of losing our jobs.”

He noted the workers were just seeking to be compensated what they were worth in wages and benefits comparable to other unionized mines. Warrior Met Coal have brought in replacement workers as part of their continuity plan, the use of which Traweek characterized as “gut-wrenching”.

“We’re fighting for our families and every other member of the organized labor community across the world. We can’t allow corporate greed to rob us of our dignity and worth,” added Traweek. “After bringing a company from bankruptcy to record breaking production, we feel we deserve more.”

Meanwhile, the coal baron’s minions are running into striking miners with their cars. From WBRC, “Video shows trucks hitting workers picketing outside Warrior Met Coal“:

The United Mine Workers of America tells WBRC, some of its members have been hit by cars three times in the past three days while on the picket line.

In video, you can see a red truck bumping someone picketing outside Warrior Met Coal.

The other video shows a black truck hitting someone else as it made its way into the plant.

UMWA feels this is the company or some of its workers way of not allowing its workers to rightfully protest.

And meanwhile, nothing is complete without the usual cast of characters:

Blowhard Republicans. From Labor Notes:

A supposed defense of coal miners, their families, their way of life, and their culture has been front and center of the Republican agenda ever since the push for decarbonization began. It was a key part of the Right’s pushback against Obama and his “war on coal.” Hillary Clinton faced tremendous pushback for her awful statement on the 2016 campaign trail that she was going to “put a lot of coal miners out of business.” In contrast, Trump said, “we’re going to put these coal miners back to work,” even bizarrely donning a hard hat in coal country at one point.

As all this has unfolded, I was waiting for someone on the Right to speak out in support of these workers. This, at least in appearance, has all the trappings of a story that conservatives can rally around. You’ve got coal miners, in Alabama, many of whom are conservatives (I saw more than one MAGA hat while walking the picket lines with them), fighting for themselves, their families, and their communities. They’re demanding fair compensation against elites (Republicans hate elites now, right?), and the government is coming in and suppressing their freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom to protest. What’s missing for a good conservative culture war story?

Well, it isn’t what’s not there. It’s what is there. This coal miners’ strike has something that stories about the Great Cancellation of Dr. Seuss don’t: working-class solidarity wielded against bosses.

If the same right-wing talking heads who spent hours wailing about Mr. Potato Head a few weeks ago decided to rally around the strikers, many in the conservative rank and file would join them. But those conservative talking heads never will, because it threatens their class interests and the bosses they carry water for. Because if coal miners who are conservative and liberal, Black and white, in a deep-red state like Alabama can walk off the job to demand better pay and working conditions, then maybe the average Fox News watcher could, too. And we can’t have them thinking like that.

Wussy Democrats. From the Week:

Under the National Labor Relations Act, unions have a right to strike so long as they follow various rules. Assaulting a union picket [with a vehicle] should be something that triggers an investigation and possible sanctions from the National Labor Relations Board (which oversees union law), but so far there has been no sign of that.

This is an area where President Biden could accomplish a lot just by speaking up. To his credit, he did mildly encourage the union drive at Amazon months ago, but that was always going to be an uphill battle. This time the union already exists, and only wants a fair contract. The risk calculation for Warrior Met would change very quickly if the president was looking over their shoulder and directing a lot of media attention in the process.

The Fratricidal Left. From WSWS:

Top UMWA District 20 officials Larry Spencer and James Blankenship physically assaulted two members of the “Dixieland of the Proletariat” podcast, falsely believing them to be representatives of the World Socialist Web Site. Both Spencer and Blankenship are members of the executive board of the Alabama AFL-CIO.

During the assault, Spencer told the podcasters to “get the f**k out of here” and flipped over their table. Blankenship threatened to kill one of the podcasters, who is black, shouting: ““I’ll beat your mother f**king brains out, boy!”

I dunno. Did Spencer and Blankenship negotiate that $1.50 raise?

And finally, an unusual member of the cast of characters:

Wait, what? A highly principled organ of a deep Blue state working against a union? Doesn’t CalPERS have some sort of social justice policy that covers this situation?

* * *

The Warriot Met story has it all, doesn’t it? I can’t understand why “Rachel” doesn’t cover it every night….

NOTES

[1] From AL.com, “State blames coal mine after creeks turned black near Tuscaloosa“:

The Alabama Surface Mining Commission has issued a notice of violation to Warrior Met Coal after two local creeks ran black for weeks with dark colored sediment near the company’s Mine No. 7 in Brookwood, Tuscaloosa County…. The pollution in the creek was first reported by nearby residents, who lodged complaints with ADEM and the Surface Mining Commission on April 26. According to state records, ADEM inspected the site and collected water samples on April 27, and the mining commission inspected the site on May 6 and 7, informing Warrior of the violations on May 7.

[2] Come on, man.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

15 comments

  1. Harry

    This is very important. There is a serious shortage of steel, and while the US doesnt have many blast furnaces, there isnt that much Met Coal around the world either.

    Reply
  2. Darius

    These contracts are negotiated by white shoe law firm guns for hire now. They’re loaded down with all kinds of legalese “best practices” boilerplate that boil down to “screw the workers.” That’s how a former booklet contract bloats up to a phone book. If the UMWA workers can defeat this, it will be a big step forward. I wonder if the leadership and reps are listening to the members and acting on their wishes.

    Reply
  3. HotFlash

    Lambert, this is amazing, amazing work (and well-written, too). CalPERS and CalSTRS — if this were in a novel the editor would make the author take it out as jumping the shark. Thank you. It gives me furiously to think.

    Reply
  4. hemeantwell

    Thanks for pulling this together, Lambert.
    Wussy Democrats, yah. Forget Biden, the few left congressional Dems should be all over this.

    Reply
    1. orlbucfan

      The genuine progressives in the U.S. House are aware, but it will be a frigid day in h*ll before the captured corporate MSM reports it!

      Reply
  5. Jeremy Grimm

    Out of curiosity, are the workers at steel producing firms striking in ‘sympathy’? If they aren’t, they are missing an important support to themselves and the ability of US steel to compete in the world. I also wonder why the US Government is allowing this specialty coal to freely transit to world markets without constraints. I very much doubt the Chinese would be so foolish. Coal production is not a green priority, but I feel steel and the necessary coke is not optional to our future. Where would the US, in its heart of hearts … if the US still has a heart … prefer that steel be produced?

    Reply
    1. Zamfir

      I also wonder why the US Government is allowing this specialty coal to freely transit to world markets without constraints.
      US exports of coking coal are 40 to 50 million tonne per year. Based on steel production numbers, domestic consumption should be in 20 to 25 million tonne range*. The US is not going to run out of coking coal anytime soon. In the long term, the industry will probably have to stop using the stuff altogether and switch fully to DRI or similar techniques, but the timeline on that is uncertain.

      * US steel production is around 85 million tonne, 30% of that comes from blast furnaces that use coking coal. A blast furnace consumes around 0.75 tonne of coal per tonne of steel. Not all of that is coking coal, blast furnaces try hard to use as much cheap coal as they can.

      Reply
  6. Nikkikat

    Thanks for the terrific rundown on this Union strike. Coal miners have been killed in the coal strikes over many years. So now the bosses just have them run down on the picket lines instead of calling in the Pinkerton Guards. There are many old country and folk songs dedicated to these men and their families and a long history. God bless them.

    Reply
    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > Thanks for the terrific rundown on this Union strike.

      [lambert blushes modestly]

      Hopefully the strikers win (and none of that “Eewwww, MAGA hats!” from the peanut gallery, please. You must take the working class as you find it, not set up preconditions on how you would like it to be before engaging with it (IMNSHO).

      Reply
  7. Bob

    So wait a minute —

    Met coal can be mined in the US, processed in the US, shipped via US railways, loaded on to ships at US port facilities.

    All the while paying US workers (admittedly a pittance) and yet we are told incessantly that US wage rates are too high to compete in the world market.

    Reply
  8. H. Jowsey

    You cite the WSWS as The Fratricidal Left? The WSWS reported that the District 20 union leaders James Blankenship and Larry Spencer assaulted two supporters of the strike, who had publicized and raised funds for the strike, and been invited to set up a tent at the fundraising event. (The union leaders thought they were associated with the WSWS, which has reported on the strike)
    As you report, Spencer told the podcasters to “get the f**k out of here” and flipped over their table. Blankenship threatened to kill one of the podcasters, who is black, shouting: ““I’ll beat your mother f**king brains out, boy!” You can read the account here: https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2021/05/26/umwa-m26.html

    Reply
    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      In general, dumping a YouTube link in the comments with no summary or justification for readers spending their time listening to it is discouraged here. It’s also going to get Skynet to think you’re a spammer, since that’s what spammers do.

      Reply
  9. Turtle571

    I agree with some of what’s written but when the blogger starts going after the UMWA and it’s leadership, they lost me. They haven’t been part of negotiations, they don’t have a clue what’s going on in that regard.

    Trying to pit the rank & file against the UMWA leadership which is negotiating a new contract and has been since March with Warrior Met’s Wall Street hedge fund owners does not help the workers.

    Reply

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