Even after two months of strike action at Warrior Met Coal plant in Brookwood, Alabama, workers are not ready to concede grounds. Over 1,100 workers have been on strike since April 1, on the day when the existing contract expired. Two weeks before the strike negotiations for a new contract failed to yield one that workers could consider to be fair. Organized by the local branch of the United Mine Workers Association (UMWA), the strike is currently among the longest running walk-outs in the United States right now.
Negotiations have continued into the strike, but Warrior Met has refused to accept any of the demands put forward by the workers, citing losses made and market uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The union argued that workers made great sacrifices to keep the company afloat, after the company filed for bankruptcy in 2016 when it was owned by Walter Energy, after reporting a debt of USD 3 billion. The company was later sold to Coal Acquisition LLC, which went on to become Warrior Met Coal. This was followed by a renegotiated contract with the union that same year.
The union has argued that despite sacrifices made by the workers, the company’s shareholders continued to reap profits, while management and executives received hefty bonuses. Announcing the strike notice, UMWA International president Cecil Roberts argued that “Warrior Met has capitalized on their hard work, earning tens of millions in profits for their Wall Street owners. They have even rewarded upper management with bonuses of up to $35,000 in recent weeks”
Among the measures imposed by the company’s new owners in the name of bankruptcy include wage cuts as high as USD 6 per hour, loss of paid sick leave, loss of holidays except for three days a year, increased health care costs, 40 hours or above work requirement for overtime pay, significantly heightened pay inequality among different job classifications, slashing paid lunches, forced Sunday work, more outsourcing of work, and relaxed safety norms to boost production.
The workers have also complained of ruthless anti-worker measures, including lay-offs, as part of disciplinary measures. Workers are demanding reversal of all these measures, along with a substantial hike in wages and benefits, to compensate for the losses made by them during this period.
Warrior Met is currently one of the largest producers of metallurgical coal in the United States, which is used to produce steel in North America and Europe. In its financial report for the year 2020, the company reported a loss of USD 35 million, down from the reported net income of USD 305 million in 2019.
The company has decided against releasing the first quarterly report for this year, citing market uncertainty, making it unclear whether the company’s argument that it is suffering losses is based on facts.
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 USD 1.5 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.
Ever since, the union has also alleged that the company has become increasingly hostile towards them. A general lock-out was imposed that froze some of the non-wage benefits that workers and their families enjoyed despite the wage loss. The company has recently hired dozens of outsourced contract workers to replace the strikers, even while negotiations continued with UMWA. The height of which was on May 26, when 11 miners were arrested by the local police from a picket march against such outsourcing.
Despite the company’s hostility, striking workers have only received more support from outside the mines. The UMWA has set up a relief fund for the striking workers, to partially compensate for lost wages. Workers are receiving USD 650 per week for picketing duties.
The UMWA national leadership in association with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), to which it is affiliated, also held a fundraiser called the “Alabama Strike Fest” on May 22, to help fund the strike. The fundraiser had several local artists lining up in support.
Community support has also come pouring, many of whom have family members working in the mine. Funds are being raised by family members who have taken to running “Strike Pantry” selling household goods and farm produce for cheap. AFL-CIO’s treasury-secretary, Liz Shuler, also joined the workers on the picket line, echoing the striker’s slogan of “one day longer, one day stronger.”
All of this only indicates a growing national prominence the strike is set to take as it continues into the third month.