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Alabama coal miners begin their 20th month of strikes

Hundreds of miners in Brookwood, Alabama, reached a milestone Thursday: they have spent 20 months on strike.

That’s well above the six-week average for strikes, according to Bloomberg Law. Miners believe it is the longest strike in Alabama history.

They continue to urge their employer, Warrior Met Coal, to restore wages and benefits cut in 2016 as a cost-saving measure to keep the mines from closing.

Of the 900 miners who started the strike a year and a half ago, 500 remain, according to the United Mine Workers of America. And many of them say they’re doing fine despite not having six-figure salaries. They’re sticking to a classic union catchphrase – they’re “lasting a day longer” than the company.

Warrior Met has also remained resolute. As negotiations stagnate, the mines continue to operate, bringing the company millions in profits.

This is how the miners – and the company – survived the strike.

Forwards rely on a support system, an understanding of history and anger

If there’s one group of American workers used to industrial action, it’s the miners. Consider the literal shootings in the West Virginia mountains a century ago, or the 50,000 coal miners who went on strike in 11 states during the 1989 Pittston Coal Strike. Also, keep in mind that coal is a feast-or-starvation industry, and miners know the importance of saving heavily.

“Any old miner tells you that you’re preparing for the next day because you don’t know what the next day will bring,” said Antwon McGhee, a striking Alabama miner.

Of course, many miners’ savings have now dried up. This is where a strike-tested union can help, like the United Mine Workers of America in this case.

The union knows it has to look after those most vulnerable, said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Labor Education Research at Cornell University — like helping a young miner with a mortgage and a new baby, or an older miner with health problems and higher medical bills .

“They work as a community to do that,” Bronfenbrenner said.

Every two weeks, the striking miners gather outside a local union hall in Brookwood before shuffling in to collect $800 checks. After about a year, the United Mine Workers of America said they spent $20 million on workers.

Union dues collected from miners across the country were supplemented by donations from other unions and individuals. Together they have built up a war chest that could allow strikers to stay on the picket line for years, according to a local union leader.

“Strike checks are my way,” said Brian Kelly, President of Local 245 UMWA. “There’s no doubt about that.”

Striking miners gather in Brookwood, Ala.

Stephan Bisaha / Newsroom of the Gulf States

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Newsroom of the Gulf States

Striking miners gather in Brookwood, Ala.

The community stands behind the strikers, offering donations and jobs

Locals also help out the miners, whether it’s stocking the local pantry, providing backpacks for school, or providing toys as Christmas approaches.

But perhaps the most helpful support has come in the form of side jobs. Thanks to the tight labor market, strikers have found jobs in nearby opencast mines and a Mercedes factory. The money isn’t usually anywhere near what it was before the strike, but together with the strike checks it’s enough to cover at least some bills.

McGhee has done plumbing and home remodeling jobs for his friends and family. They could have hired professionals, he said, but wanted to make sure the check went to him. He said it was more important than the money.

“You can go out and make the money,” McGhee said. “But you can’t do it without that morale and mental support.”

In addition, miners are also being fueled by old-fashioned anger — at the scabs crossing the picket lines and at Warrior Met’s refusal to give them the pay and benefits they want.

“They are purposely holding us back and not giving us the contract that we deserve,” McGhee said of the company. “I think it’s evil. Pure evil.”

Warrior Met declined to comment on this story.

The anger backfired at times. The National Labor Relations Board fined the union $13.3 million for damages, in part for picket-line violence. The union challenged that amount, and the NLRB agreed to lower it to $435,000. At a recent rally, union leader Cecil Roberts called for nonviolent civil disobedience.

Rising steel costs helped Warrior Met’s profits during the strike

The aim of a strike is to put pressure on an employer by hurting them where it matters – in their bottom line. Enough financial pain from work stoppages will cause a company to cave in to workers’ demands, the idea goes.

But not when the company is making record profits.

Warrior Met Coal reported nearly $100 million in net income between July and September — a significant increase from the same time last year. It estimated that the strike had cut its revenue by about $7 million over the same period – a dent in the company’s profits.

The metallurgical coal mined by the company is not used to generate energy, but to produce steel. Though steel prices have fallen, which many miners believe will force Warrior Met to negotiate, they remain high.

“The economy was in their favor,” said Greg Freehling, an associate professor at Michigan State University who was formerly the director of labor relations at aluminum maker Arconic. “Every time the company is in a position where it’s making money, it gets a little bit easier to get through things like that.”

Warrior Met fills positions with out-of-state workers and scabs

The high price of steel right now wouldn’t mean much if Warrior Met couldn’t find workers to mine that coal.

Some miners have gone over the picket lines simply because it’s hard to go without a six-figure salary for more than a year and a half. And miners from West Virginia and Pennsylvania who have volunteered for the union said they saw Warrior Met recruit workers in their states, which are home to many former coal miners thanks to the decline in coal jobs across the country.

Freehling said that the fact that the company has been able to work with its current workers for so long is a bad sign for the union – and a clear sign the standoff will last well over 20 months.

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