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Opinion | As strike stretches on, Alabama coal miners could use Democrats’ support

National Democrats have talked plenty about supporting labor unions, but as the strike at Warrior Met Coal continues, they’re mostly absent.

Warrior Met coal miners on strike.
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Coal Miners in Alabama, organized with the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), recently hit 500 days on strike against Warrior Met Coal, which was previously known as Walter Energy before it went into bankruptcy in 2015 and was subsequently purchased by a consortium of private equity firms.

The miners went on strike in April of 2021 over a host of grievances: little-to-no raises, long working hours, cuts to healthcare, and cuts to their retirements. They accepted many of these concessions in 2016 to bring the company out of bankruptcy, at a cost to the miners of around $1 billion over the term of the contract, according to the union. The workers simply wanted something approximating a restoration of the pre-bankruptcy status quo. Warrior Met instigated the strike by refusing these modest demands. 

Republican politicians have responded to this long-term work action with characteristic indifference, or overt support for the company. But the strike has also been largely met with silence from Democrats, including at the federal level, despite the Biden administration’s claim to stand with unions.

On the state level, prominent Republicans are openly siding against the workers. Alabama Governor Kay Ivey has mobilized state resources through the state troopers to support the company, using our tax dollars to fund emergency escortsto scabs crossing the picket line. Workers say that miners and their families have been ticketed for going the speed limit in front of these escorts. (The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

Others are missing in action. When Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville was running for U.S. Senate, he sought the UMWA’s endorsement. Given then-Senator Doug Jones’, D-Ala. friendly relationship with the miners, the union refused. However, the workers told Tuberville that if he wins, they’d watch him and consider an endorsement the next time if he was a friend of miners.

The Alabama AFL-CIO recently had its special Committee on Political Education convention where unions send delegates to hear statements from politicians and vote on endorsements. Larry Spencer, UMWA District 20 Vice President, addressed the delegates about the strike. Spencer told us during his address that he was given what he was assured was then-candidate Tuberville’s personal phone number, and that even though the union wasn’t endorsing him, Tuberville said the union could call him if it ever needed anything. Spencer said that the Senator has never returned one of the union’s calls since the strike began. 

(A spokesperson from Tuberville’s office told In These Times, ​“We have no record of a meeting on the official side, but I cannot speak for the campaign. Senator Tuberville’s office is always willing to meet with constituents. Additionally, the Senator’s Legislative Director and Regional Director visited the mine earlier this year.” The mine visit was at the invitation of Warrior Met.)

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When Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., invited the Alabama miners to Washington, D.C. to testify about the effect that international private equity ownership has had on their work and their relationship with the company, Senator Tuberville read from a Warrior Met press release.

Spencer told In These Times that the only Republican to address his members at one of their regular rallies has been State Senator Greg Reed. I was there, and in my opinion, the address to the striking miners was about what you would expect from a local politician without any intent to actually do anything while not wanting 1,000 motivated constituents angry at him: a whole lot of ​“both sides” talk and very little on commitments. 

This lack of support from Republicans is both typical, and shameful. What is different with this strike, though, is that the response from Democrats in Alabama has not been much better.

While local parties and rank-and-file Democrats have helped by donating to the strike fund and collecting donations for the strike pantry and for their school supply drives, office holders have been totally insufficient. Some have spoken at rallies, yet Spencer told In These Times that only one elected Alabama Democrat, Tuscaloosa State Representative Chris England, has been to a picket line, and asked how he can help. 

To be sure, as a superminority in the state government, there is not much Democrats can do: They have no power to pass things. Often the only thing they can do is fight the worst impulses of the Republican Party in the state, and even that they can only do so much of. In recent years Republicans have passed a total abortion ban without exemptions for rape or incest (which the current Democratic nominee for Governor did not say she would repeal, only saying she would support those exemptions), ​“critical race theory” bans, and most recently constitutional carry. 

However, Democrats are not powerless. They were able to successfully fight off an anti-protest bill. This measure would have prescribed a six month prison sentence for spitting on cops, wildly increased police discretion for arrests, created mandatory holds for people arrested for rioting, and created mandatory prison sentences on conviction.

While it is great Democrats beat this back, they missed an opportunity to tie it to the miners’ strike, even though under this new definition and sentencing protocol many of the miners could be staring down long jail sentences. When Representative England, who is the chair of the Alabama Democratic Party, came on my radio show, I asked him why Democrats didn’t take the opportunity to put forward a bill to broaden the free speech rights of Alabamians instead of restrict them.

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In a separate but related issue, on October 27, 2021, a Republican Tuscaloosa County Judge issued an injunction telling Alabama coal miners that they are not allowed to protest their employer. For several months, striking workers were limited in the number of picketers they could have on the line, and for a few months they could have none at all. Why not change the law to protect workers against these kinds of actions by judges? On my radio show, it became clear that the idea to go on the offense hadn’t occurred to England.

Whatever limits there are to the state power of Democrats, federal leaders of the party could be doing far more. Yet, the White House and the Labor Department have both been mostly mum. Why?

Labor Secretary Marty Walsh has been on picket lines since taking on his role as Secretary of Labor, and even helped broker a deal in the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco, and Grain Millers Union (BCTGM) strike against Kellogg’s. Why hasn’t he been loudly commenting on the Warrior Met strike? On January 25, the Guardian reported, ​“The U.S. Department of Labor did not comment on whether its secretary, Marty Walsh, intended to intervene to assist in negotiations as he did with the 10-month-long nurses strike at St Vincent hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, which ended with an agreement on 3 January.” He came to Birmingham to promote Biden’s infrastructure deal and was only minutes away from the picket line but couldn’t be bothered to make it part of his trip. 

Alabama Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim James, for all his hateful rhetoric towards gay and transgender people, did make significant material commitments, including an immediate end to state funding of scab escorts, a revocation of the injunction, and the use of state agencies to investigate Warrior Met. Who knows if he meant any of it; it’s likely he didn’t as he has slunk back to his private toll road construction company after coming in an embarrassing third place. But these are commitments the Biden administration could be making, especially regarding safety and environmental regulations. We’ve seen increased pollution and severe injuries in the mines since the strike began — why is the place not swarmed with federal investigators?

The workers have been complaining about the silence of both sides of the aisle since it became clear that none of the politicians cared: The Republicans hate them because they’re union, and Democrats hate them because they’re coal miners. Alabama miner Braxton Wright did mention on the episode of ​“The Daily,” a podcast of the New York Times, the ongoing support workers have received from the local Birmingham Democratic Socialists of America and from Senator Sanders. But one small group of socialists in Birmingham and an independent Senator from Vermont can only do so much.

What these workers are left with in terms of material support from political leaders is virtually nothing, and at a time when the need could not be more urgent. The company is trying to shake the union down for millions in reimbursements for ​“unlawful strike activity,” including lost production. And with the skyrocketing price of steel, even operating the mines at a lower capacity has allowed the company to turn a profit (even though it is missing out on $1 billion dollars in potential revenue, according to UMWA). It is unconscionable that the ​“most pro-union president in history” and nearly the entire political party that he leads has allowed this strike to go on this long without material support.

Jacob Morrison is president of the North Alabama Area Labor Council, a regional body of the largest federation of unions in the country, the AFL-CIO.

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