On February 15, 23 months after more than 1,000 coal miners in Brookwood, Ala., walked out on their employers at Warrior Met Coal, representatives from the United Mine Workers of America gathered them in a union hall to share some bad news. The company had reported its results for the fourth-quarter and full-year earnings, and thanks to the skyrocketing price of coal, Warrior Met raked in huge profits. The strike, believed to be the longest in Alabama history, had not had the desired economic impact. It may have cost the company over $1 billion in potential profits, but the high coal prices and the replacement workers that the company brought in meant that the strike hadn’t made a sufficient dent in the company’s bottom line. In 2022, Warrior Met Coal pulled in more than $640 million in net income.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2019, the company did not shut down. Instead, while demand was low, it kept its miners working and stockpiled more than 2.8 million tons of coal. Thanks to that surplus, which Warrior Met sold off early in the strike, and the scabs—who are paid supersized wages and monthly bonuses, and have worked nonstop to keep the mines running—the company hit its production quotas and fulfilled its orders. The miners found themselves in a difficult position: They and their families were suffering, while company bosses were not.
UMWA International President Cecil Roberts informed the members of the union’s plan, and asked them not to post on social media about it until the news went public. Emotions ran high during the meeting, but they did as he requested. The following day, Roberts sent a letter to Warrior Met Coal CEO Walt Scheller to let him know that the striking miners were willing to return to work on March 2. That “unconditional offer to return to work,” to use the legal term, would “implement the return to work of hundreds of UMWA members while giving the union and the company time to work out a new agreement.” According to AL.com, the company confirmed that it received the letter, but had no additional comment. After the news broke, the union emphasized that the strike had not ended and would not end until they walked back into the mine, and that the fight had instead moved into “a new phase.”
The roots of this strike go back to 2015, when the mines’ previous owner, Walter Energy, went bankrupt and laid off most of its workforce. Warrior Met Coal stepped in and hired them back with a caveat: In exchange for their jobs, the workers would accept a union contract that cut their pay, benefits, and vacation time. The company implied that when the contract ran out, five years later, the company would be in a position to make them a better offer. As the years went by, Warrior Met profited handsomely off the miners’ labor, and when it came time to negotiate a new contract, the miners expected an upgrade. Instead, in 2021, the tentative agreement reached between the company and the UMWA offered few improvements. The workers walked out on April 1, and a few days later voted down the contract 1,006 to 45.
The UMWA leadership says it hit upon this return-to-work maneuver as the best possible option to create some movement. “We have been locked into this struggle for 23 months now, and nothing has materially changed,” Roberts explained in a statement. “The two sides have essentially fought each other to a draw thus far, despite the company’s unlawful bargaining posture the entire time.”
After all, Warrior Met’s refusal to bargain in good faith is what started this whole thing in the first place, and the ensuing strike over unfair labor practices was a direct response to the company’s stonewalling at the bargaining table. According to the union’s April 2022 post-hearing brief to the administrative law judge, Warrior Met failed to bargain in good faith by refusing to provide financial records and other information that the union deemed “relevant and necessary to the Union’s ability to represent the bargaining unit during the parties’ ongoing negotiations” in a timely fashion. By withholding relevant financial information, UMWA said, Warrior Met had the ability to plead poverty during negotiations over proposed changes to wages and benefits, and the union had no way to determine the accuracy of the statements being made at the bargaining table. All the while, the company was paying out hefty bonuses and salaries to its executives, offering replacement workers inflated wages, and paying a high-priced Los Angeles–based public relations firm to smear the striking workers in the press.
On February 17, the Warrior Met CEO responded to Roberts’s letter, and accepted the union’s offer. The company is asking that the UMWA provide a list of miners who will be returning, as well as those who will not, and will require those who are coming back to complete a mine safety refresher course and undergo a physical examination and drug testing. However, there are 41 miners whom they will not be allowing to return, a decision that the union has already been fighting them on for months. The company is insisting that these workers engaged in misconduct related to the strike; the unions says the workers did everything from defending themselves from a vehicular attack to accidentally stepping onto company property. It’s likely that the UMWA will push back against this, but as of this writing, the union has not yet made a public statement in response to Warrior Met’s letter.
The workers who do choose to return to Warrior Met on March 2 will be doing so under their previous contract, with its attendant benefits and protections. It’s not the contract the workers want, but it will provide a baseline level of stability as the union continues to negotiate with Warrior Met. After spending 23 months (and over $35 million), the union said, it was time to try a new tactic. “For several months, we have been stuck in a status quo that is not favorable to the workers,” explained Phil Smith, executive assistant to the UMWA president and the chief of staff. “With the price of coal continuing to stay at record highs, the company is making more revenue than it ever has, even with lower production. The company executives are doing well, and they are paying astronomical bonuses to the out-of-state temporary replacement workers and others who have crossed the picket lines. If they are going to pay that kind of money, we want Alabama miners to get it and not scabs from Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia.”
This strategy will also depend on the number of workers who heed the UMWA’s call to return to the mines. Braxton Wright is one miner who’s unsure. He’s been active in the strike since the beginning (and so has his wife, Haeden, a teacher and local Democratic official who serves as auxiliary president and helps run the strike pantry), but recently got a job at a factory making iron pipes. The pay and the work environment are both better than what he’d be returning to at Warrior Met, and Wright is wary of giving that up without a solid guarantee of an improved situation. “Everybody’s kind of disappointed and confused about what is going to happen,” he told me.
So what went wrong? As the strike dragged on and coal prices remained high, the union struggled to keep morale high and the membership active. A core group of dedicated strikers and supporters did their best to build momentum, but attendance at rallies, events, and even on the picket line dwindled as many miners lapsed into apathy or found other work. The seemingly never-ending series of injunctions and restraining orders that Warrior Met convinced the local judiciary to issue didn’t help matters, especially after workers lost the right to picket. With law enforcement watching carefully, the union did its best to avoid taking risks that could land its members in jail. This cautious posture frustrated some miners who wanted to take more militant action, while others believe it helped embolden the company. “It felt like we were blamed for the strike lasting this long, because we didn’t do enough to keep the scabs out of the mines,” Wright said. “It was hard to hear that it was kind of our fault that we let the scabs cross the picket line, and didn’t shut down production like we should have. But every time we did try to plan something, every time we had the numbers, nothing happened.”
Wright also said that he and the miners felt that they and their union had been abandoned—left to fend for themselves against a hostile company in a right-to-work state run by anti-labor government officials and business-friendly local media. “Alabama’s a hard state to organize,” he said. “So many people, from our local government, to the local news, to the National Labor Relations Board, to the supposedly most pro-union president and labor secretary that we’ve ever had, did not even mention us, you know? We were just abandoned by everybody, except a few different groups that supported us and maybe a few politicians. Bernie Sanders from Vermont can support us, but the people that live here, they can’t even be bothered to speak on it or to mention it.”
For now, the miners are in a holding pattern. The return-to-work date is set for less than two weeks away, and the miners are worried about how it’s going to go. Twenty-three months is already a long time to be away from your workplace, and when your office is 2,000 feet underground in a methane-filled cavern full of rats, coal dust, and knee-deep standing water, going back on such short notice will be an adjustment. Now, factor in the animus born of a contentious strike, the uncomfortable fact that the miners could be working alongside managers who sided with the company, the reality that some of the miners have found other jobs that pay better than Warrior Met does under the old contract, and the unknown safety conditions within the mine, which may have deteriorated due to the use of poorly trained replacement workers. It’s a recipe for potential disaster.
There are also currently hundreds of scab workers who have been brought in from as far away as West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee operating the Warrior Met mines, many of whom proudly drive through the miners’ picket lines and boast about their lucrative non-union gigs on Facebook. During the strike, there have been few altercations between union and replacement workers. But if those scabs stick around and are given permanent positions that union workers believe should rightfully belong to them, tempers may flare. What happens underground, stays underground—and there are a lot of very, very angry men heading back into those mines. If I were in the company’s position, I’d want to resolve this conflict as quickly as possible for everyone’s sake.
The Brookwood miners may not have caused quite as much of a ruckus as their predecessors at Pittston or Blair Mountain, but after 23 months, the tone of the Facebook posts that surfaced after the social media blackout lifted suggest they are in no mood to tolerate further disrespect. The union’s tactics have changed, but the miners are still hoping for a win. “If you pray, please pray,” Cheri Goodwin, an auxiliary member whose husband, Chad, has been involved in the strike since it began, asked of the strike’s supporters on Twitter. “We’re hoping this new phase brings action, actual negotiating in good faith by the company, & a good contract for all the men, women, and families on strike.”