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From Black Lung to BlackRock: Striking Alabama Coal Miners Protest Wall St. Financiers of Warrior Met

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Image Credit: YouTube/More Perfect Union

More than a thousand coal miners at Warrior Met Coal are now in the third month of their strike in the right-to-work state of Alabama. The miners walked off the job on April 1 after their union, the United Mine Workers of America, called the first strike to hit the state’s coal mining industry in four decades. Workers are fighting for improvements to wages and benefits after they agreed to drastic cutbacks in 2016, when Warrior Met Coal took control of the mines after the previous company went bankrupt. Today a group of striking mine workers traveled from Alabama to Wall Street to protest the investment firms backing Warrior Met. “These are the companies that fund Warrior Met and allow Warrior Met to pay their executives millions of dollars a year, while the miners, the workers themselves who are creating that value, are struggling to get by on sometimes as little as $22 an hour,” says labor journalist and organizer Kim Kelly.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

More than a thousand coal miners are now in the third month of their strike in the so-called right-to-work state of Alabama. The struggle is attracting national attention not long after workers in Bessemer, Alabama, tried to organize a union at their Amazon warehouse. About 30 miles from Bessemer, miners at Warrior Met Coal in Brookwood walked off the job April 1st, after their union, United Mine Workers of America, called the first strike to hit the state’s coal mining industry in four decades. Workers are fighting for improvements to wages and benefits, after they agreed to drastic cutbacks in 2016, when Warrior Met Coal took control of the mines after the previous company went bankrupt.

This is part of a report by independent labor journalist Kim Kelly about the demands of the miners and their union. This was done for The Real News Network.

KIM KELLY: One of their key demands concerned their healthcare plans. Under a prior contract, when the mines were still controlled by Jim Walter Resources, the company had covered 100% of the miners’ medical costs. But after they went bankrupt in 2015 and Warrior Met bought the mines, that changed.

HAEDEN WRIGHT: They threatened to take away all the retirees’ pensions and retirement. And they kind of forced the guys into taking a contract basically saying, “If you don’t accept this, then you’re going to lose everything. We’ll just close.” So, they took a huge cut in pay, and they cut their insurance and their benefits. Used to we had almost 100% coverage for insurance, and now it’s thousands of dollars even to meet your deductible.

AMY GOODMAN: That last voice was Haeden Wright, president of the local chapter of the United Mine Workers of America.

Last month, nearly a dozen miners were arrested trying to shut down the mine and stop nonunionized workers from getting in and out. Kim Kelly documented the standoff in this report for More Perfect Union.

STRIKING MINERS: No contract? No coal! No contract? No coal!

RICK KARLE: Miners at the Warrior Met Coal in Tuscaloosa County have been on strike. … The union and the company still trying to agree on a contract.

WVTM REPORTER: The union says the miners helped get the company out of bankruptcy over the past five years, but have never received fair compensation for their efforts.

JAMES GIBBS: You took cut in pay. You took cut in your days, cut in safety — health and safety, cut in your benefits. Now the company is getting back on their feet, making all kinds of money, and they don’t want to share that same profits with us.

STRIKING MINERS: Warrior Met Coal ain’t got no soul! Warrior Met Coal ain’t got no soul! Warrior Met Coal ain’t got no soul! Warrior Met Coal ain’t got no soul!

JAMES GIBBS: Well, we want the world to know that we want a fair and just contract. And we’ve got to do whatever we’ve got to do to make that happen. And we don’t feel like we’re breaking the law, when this company is trying to starve our people and our families from their livelihood.

STRIKING MINER: I’ll die for my family, and I’ll do whatever it takes for this union right here.

JAMES GIBBS: It’s a spiritual — it’s spiritual.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as the United Mine Workers of America has documented at least three separate incidents of cars driving into the workers on the picket lines during their strike.

Today, a group of striking mine workers have traveled from Alabama to New York to protest the Wall Street hedge funds backing Warrior Met, including BlackRock Fund Advisors, SSgA Funds Management and Renaissance Technologies.

For more, we’re joined by Kim Kelly. She’s an independent labor journalist and organizer. Her series for The Real News is titled “Battleground Brookwood.”

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Kim. It’s great to have you with us. So, why don’t you give us further background on this strike and exactly what the mine workers are doing in New York today?

KIM KELLY: For sure. So, these miners have been on strike since April 1st, on unfair labor practices strike. They have been out for almost three months now. On April 8th, the local union leadership and the company, they came together with a tentative agreement that they presented to the membership, and the membership overwhelmingly voted that down and voted to stay out on strike. And now they’ve been out there on the picket lines every signal day ever since. They haven’t gotten very much outside media attention. They’ve gotten a lot of local support and support from within the labor movement.

And today, a group of them, a group of the miners and UMWA officials, as well as some international labor leaders — Sara Nelson from AFA and Stuart Appelbaum from RWDSU — are out here protesting, picketing in front of these venture capital investors’ offices, because these are the companies that fund Warrior Met and allow Warrior Met to pay their executives millions of dollars of year, while the miners, the workers themselves who are creating that value, are struggling to get by on sometimes as little as $22 an hour, to spend six days a week, 12 hours a day, underground in one of the deepest mines in North America, which also happens to be filled with methane gas.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Kim Kelly, could you talk a little bit more about Warrior Met and what it’s been able to take out in revenue and profits since it took over the mine?

KIM KELLY: Right. I don’t have the exact numbers in front of me, but they have done very well for themselves. Their latest quarterly report, they did have a loss in this past quarter because of the pandemic and various factors within the industry, but they have made their money back. They are very robust. They’re doing fine.

And one of the key issues with this strike is that, you know, back in 2016, when the miners signed on that dotted line and agreed to take this subpar contract, it was with the understanding that once this then-new company got on its feet and made its profits, that when it came time for the new contract, then the miners would see their fair share of those profits. And now that obviously has not happened. And that’s one of the primary factors here, is that this company, that has investors based on Wall Street, who is sending all of its product overseas and is exploiting the labor of these folks in rural Alabama, they are not coming to the bargaining table with anything meaningful. They are not bargaining in good faith. And as you mentioned earlier on in the report, there is actual, you know, active hostility and violence that is happening as a result of the company’s hostile approach towards these workers.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And also, given the climate today in the United States with so much racial strife and racial division across the country, this strike is an example of interracial unity, isn’t it? Could you talk about the workforce itself and its composition?

KIM KELLY: Yes. So, the UMWA has been established in the state of Alabama since 1890. And throughout its tenure there, it has been one of, historically, the most interracial, you know, racially integrated locals in the country. The UMWA as a whole, actually going back to its founding, has been much more integrated than some of the other major unions in this country. And in Brookwood, in the Warrior Met mines, I think the workforce is about 20% Black. And obviously there are women; there are multiple genders involved. It’s not just a bunch of white guys in hard hats, which is sort of the general media image of coal miners. But that’s not who they are. That’s not what they look like. And these folks are working together.

And the fact that this is happening just a few miles outside of Bessemer, where we saw this other incredible organizing campaign, I think, is very significant, because that part of Alabama, the labor movement has very deep roots, and it intertwines very closely with the civil rights movement and the struggle for Black liberation. So this is a much bigger story than just a few people that are upset about a contract. There’s a lot of history here, too.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip of Shane Olmstead, a striking mine worker in Alabama.

SHANE OLMSTEAD: They have done cut our pay, cut our insurance, cut all the things out, and then they made millions, you know, over the next five years, because the coal market went from $86 a ton when we was asked to take pay cuts, to $230, $240 a ton. And now they don’t want to give anything back to their workers.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Shane Olmstead, a striking mine worker in Alabama. This is James Blankenship, a mine worker union representative, explaining the lingering effects of black lung.

JAMES BLANKENSHIP: I had an uncle that died from black lung. He couldn’t — he could not, literally, chew a bite of food without having to stop, take oxygen. That’s how bad his lungs were.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you could, Kim Kelly, talk about these people that you interviewed, this issue of black lung? And then, how can supporters of the coal workers, supporting the fight for better wages, for better working conditions, also talk about a transition to a greener and, overall, safer economy, more sustainable for the world?

KIM KELLY: Right. So, obviously, a lot has changed since back in the day, you know, the sort of stereotypical image of the coal miner with their pickax and their little headlight going down in these tiny tunnels. But a lot of the same risks are still there. You know, these folks are dealing with massive machinery underground. There’s ventilation issues. You know, this age-old terror of black lung is actually on the rise again in this country. A lot of that has to do with the fact that some of the mines in West Virginia and Kentucky, they’re not union, and so the safety regulations are — you know, there’s no one keeping an eye on that. And the silica and quartz in that rock makes it much more difficult to get out of there without getting black lung. I think, at this point, about 10% of veteran coal miners are dealing with this affliction. So, it hasn’t disappeared. There are still people struggling with this. And, you know, when I was down there, I met this young man named Dalton, who is 22 years old. A couple weeks into his just starting at Warrior Met, he was crushed underground by two massive pieces of machinery, and now he’s paralyzed from the waist down. Like, these are the stories that I’m hearing. These are the horrible dangers and risks that people are dealing with just to go down there and to make their money and to take care of their families.

It’s a job that a lot of folks are very proud of and feel very deeply about. I’ve met third- and fourth-generation miners down there. But I also have found that people are cognizant of the fact that, you know, coal and fossil fuels, in general, are not exactly great for the environment. I don’t think there’s any illusions there. And I think that folks would like to see a greener, cleaner, healthier environment for everyone, but the thing that speaks to these folks who are in these small, rural, coal mining communities is this fear that they’ll be left behind. I think that was a big feature in the statement that recently came out from UMWA President Cecil Roberts. He was talking about how the union would be willing to support Biden’s green energy initiatives as long as there’s actually funding and training set aside to create good-paying union jobs for these folks, so that there is an actual transition and that they’re not just being left to fend for themselves, I think.

You know, I also — there is this kind of — this little wrinkle in this particular story, because even if we went to green energy, a fully green economy tomorrow, these folks would still be down there digging out this coal, because they dig out metallurgical coal, which is used to make coke, which is used to make steel. And the vast majority, if not all, of their product that they create is sent overseas to industrializing nations, who are hungry for coal. And so, they’re in kind of a [inaudible] of all of this. And I think —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, Kim, we only have about 30 seconds left, but I just wanted to ask you: The role of the police and the state troopers during the strike? I understand that the mines are isolated, the entrances, and they’re not the traditional picket lines that are occurring.

KIM KELLY: Yes. They’re isolated. There’s 12 smaller groups that are kind of scattered around this massive area. And there is a police presence. The company has hired private armed security. And unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like anybody is really that concerned with the safety of these miners, as we’ve seen with these vehicular attacks. So, they really need all the help and support they can get from those outside of that situation, which people can do by donating to their strike fund and their strike pantry, which the Women’s Auxiliary has been building up over the past couple months.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, 10 seconds, what they’re demanding of BlackRock today?

KIM KELLY: They want them to listen, to pay attention and to see them. They want them to see the people that they’re exploiting and come to the bargaining table with a decent contract, to do the right thing and to treat them with respect.

AMY GOODMAN: Kim Kelly, independent labor journalist for More Perfect Union, Means TV and The Real News, where her series is titled “Battleground Brookwood.” We’ll link to it.

That does it for our show. Democracy Now! produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff. Special thanks to Julie Crosby. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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