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Alabama Coal Workers Strike For Better Wages, Fair Treatment

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Eleven hundred coal miners are striking in Alabama. This is a rare labor action in the anti-union South, but the miners from Warrior Met Coal have been taking shifts on the picket line for more than two months now. Stephan Bisaha of Gulf States Newsroom reports.

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: Yes, the coal miners rallying at a state park about halfway between Tuscaloosa and Birmingham want better pay. But United Mine Workers Treasurer Levi Allen says bigger checks aren't their only or even most important demand.

LEVI ALLEN: We want our pay, and we want fair treatment. We want good insurance. But more than anything, we want to spend more breaths of that God-given air with our family.

BISAHA: Miners say they're only guaranteed off Thanksgiving, Christmas and Christmas Eve. Of course, higher pay is pretty important, too. Miner Courtney Finklea says high wages made coal mining the premier job in the state when he started 11 years ago. But today...

COURTNEY FINKLEA: It's mediocre now.

BISAHA: The change happened in 2016. Sinking coal prices led the mine's former owner to declare bankruptcy. Warrior Met Coal took over, and workers agreed to cut their wages and benefits to keep the mines open. Employees say the company promised to restore some benefits after five years. Warrior's currently offering about a 10% increase in pay, but Finklea says that does not cover what they lost.

FINKLEA: Oh, it's a slap in the face. I mean, you don't want nothing. All we wanted was a piece of the pie, and I guess the pie was never given to us.

BISAHA: Bankruptcies at coal companies in the United States have spiked since 2015, caused by the shift to renewable energy, new environmental regulations pegged to climate change and cheap natural gas. Often, miners accept smaller paychecks, hoping it'll help the company and their jobs survive. Lee Adler teaches at Cornell University and used to legally represent miners. He says even with those deals, coal mines still often close.

LEE ADLER: Sometimes, those mines don't even have a buyer like Warrior, and they just shut down. And that's that.

BISAHA: While many coal mines continue to struggle, Warrior Met Coal is an exception. That's because it mines coal not used for energy but making steel. The company reported net income of roughly half a billion dollars a year since 2017. It did have a small loss last year because of the pandemic.

ADLER: But I think right around the corner is a very, very nice payday for the company because they have very high-quality coal.

BISAHA: Miners say their sacrifice paid off for Warrior, so it's time for the company to get them back to where they were five years ago. Warrior declined an interview request, but in an emailed statement, the company said it offers some of Alabama's highest-paying jobs.

Back at the rally, miner Braxton Wright's grilling dozens of hot dogs. On the picnic bench in front of him are stacks of diapers and bags of groceries for workers struggling during the strike. Inside are ramen noodles, canned vegetables...

BRAXTON WRIGHT: Muffin mixes, cornbread mixes, pancake mix.

BISAHA: Because I imagine, two months in, pantries are getting a little dry.

WRIGHT: It is, man, and it's going to get worse.

BISAHA: Winning a labor fight is not easy in the anti-union South. Earlier this year, Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama voted against unionizing more than 2 to 1. While only a few Amazon workers appeared at union rallies, hundreds show up to this park each week. And so far, they're united about how long they're willing to strike.

WRIGHT: We're going to be there one day longer than they will.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We're going to do it one day longer than the company.

FINKLEA: One day longer, one day stronger.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: One day longer.

BISAHA: Warrior Met Coal and the United Mine Workers are negotiating, but the union does not see the strike ending anytime soon. For NPR News, I'm Stephan Bisaha in Birmingham.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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