(BROOKWOOD, Alabama) – Alabama coal miners have been on strike for months, and they are not backing down, fighting not only for their rights as workers, but for what some believe are workers’ rights to across the country.
More than 1,000 Warrior Met Coal workers have been on strike since April, refusing to work at the Brookwood metallurgical coal mine in Alabama until their contract is renegotiated to offer wages and health and benefits benefits. more equitable leave. The strike, the first in four decades, has fiercely divided the small community – while some picket, others continue to work.
“Once you cross a picket line, I have nothing to say to you,” said Haeden Wright, local assistant president of the United Mine Workers of America and wife of Braxton Wright, a striking miner.
While the miners maintain the picket line, Haeden Wright worked with the spouses of other miners to help support so-called striking families. She helped manage the pantry, which is supported by donations and includes everything from clothes to baby hygiene products.
“She holds the family together,” Braxton Wright told ABC News. “She holds the pantry together. She really supported me and strong throughout this strike and I couldn’t be more proud of her.
Braxton Wright has worked at the mine for 17 years, carrying on a family legacy. In some ways, his reasons for going on strike are personal: he said his grandfather died from injuries sustained in a coal mine.
“It was not difficult to strike because we knew we had to fight for what we deserved,” he said. “We wanted to regain dignity in our work.
The conditions the miners face date back to 2016, when Warrior Met Coal took over ownership of the mine after its former operator went bankrupt.
During this transition, miners suffered drastic cuts in hourly wages, holidays, paid time off and medical coverage. According to Phil Smith, director of government affairs for UMWA, incumbent and new employees have also lost their retirement.
Workers believed these benefits would be reinstated in further contract negotiations in 2021.
“We have to bring these people up to standard,” said Larry Spencer, the UMWA district representative, adding that the miners were disappointed with the new contract “and people turned it down.”
Chris Lowery, another striking miner, believes workers deserve fairer benefits given everything they’ve been through over the years.
“I give you my youth, I will give you my time,” he said, adding that he had worked there six days a week for 17 years. “You bought an underground coal mine. You knew what the salary was when you bought it. We saved this coal mine. … We saved him from fires, we saved him from explosions, we saved him from many things.
Problems like these are just a few of the reasons why mining is one of the most dangerous occupations in the country. In 2001, mine No. 5 at the complex exploded, killing 13 people.
“These are the gas mines in North America. … You have gas, you have water. Many work areas are knee deep in water, ”said Braxton Wright. “It’s hard work, not to mention the dust.”
The percentage of coal miners with the most severe type of progressive black lung disease has steadily increased over the past 20 years, and in recent years, severe black lungs have been found in miners in their 30s and 40s, according to the Centers for Disease Control. and Prevention. When severe, the disease can lead to lung failure, disability and premature death.
Miners who spoke to ABC News said their medical coverage dropped from 100% of covered medical expenses before Warrior Met Coal took over to just 80%. They also said their time off was now severely limited and that they could be sacked for taking too much time off, even though they have a doctor’s recommendation.
“They only make about twenty dollars an hour, and they spend six weeks – sometimes seven – underground, 12 hours a day. Their bodies are broken, their lungs are all messed up, ”said Kim Kelly, a freelance reporter who covered the strike.
Warrior Met Coal declined an ABC News interview request due to ongoing contract negotiations, but said in part that it “remains committed to making a deal with United Mine Workers of America, which is evident in our contract offer which included increases in key contract areas – salaries, benefits and work / life balance. We have and will continue to work with UMWA to achieve a fair and reasonable contract that provides our employees a competitive package while protecting jobs and ensuring the sustainability of the company.
As UMWA scrambled to negotiate the contract with Warrior Met Coal, some striking miners traveled to New York City to send a message directly to the company’s largest shareholder, Blackrock, who owns 14% of the company, according to documents filed with the Securities and the Foreign Exchange Commission.
“We are here to bring the picket line, to bring the strike, to their front door, because it affects our lives, our families, our communities,” Haeden Wright said of the group, which has walked over 1,000 miles for the July 28 protest. .
Having not worked for months, many strikers are under enormous financial pressure. UMWA pays them $ 700 every two weeks to hold the line, but that’s not enough.
“Everyone works other jobs,” Lowery said. “Some guys cut the grass. Some guys do different things. Some of them have already got good jobs – electrical jobs, factories and all that – and we’re trying to hold on because we’ve been spending so much time here.
Some, Haeden Wright said, have even returned to the mine – betrayal, she says, is unforgivable.
“You cannot be in a union. You can’t say that you are UMWA and that they are your siblings… and now you are crossing a picket line, ”she said.
“We have to watch each other underground. If they cross that picket line and betray you, that is, if you get hurt, they won’t go and leave you underground, ”added Braxton Wright.
The problems that UMWA sees in Brookwood highlight a larger problem for unions in the United States. By 2020, only 12.1% of workers were represented by a union – about half 40 years ago – according to the Economic Policy Institute. On average, unionized workers earn about 11% more than non-unionized workers.
“The reason we have seen such a great decline in unionization, despite workers’ interest in being unionized, has everything to do with the massively increased aggressiveness of employers against unions,” said Heidi Shierholz, Director politician at EPI and former chief economist for the US Department of Labor. “It’s not that workers don’t want to be unionized. It is because the playing field has been so unequal that it has really violated the fundamental rights of workers.
Braxton Wright said the fight at Brookwood goes beyond fairer wages and benefits.
“Once a business is allowed to do one thing to a group, all of your other businesses [are] will follow suit, ”he said. “This is not our fight here at Warrior Met Coal with UMWA. This is America’s fight for workers around the world.
Amid a sea of camouflaged picketers – whose motto is “one more day” – Haeden Wright said they will not go anywhere until a deal is reached.
“We will be here one more day than the company will,” she said. “I don’t think we are giving up. We are already planning a toy drive for Christmas.
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