Michael Argo has spent 13 years working underground at a coal mine in Brookwood, Alabama, just outside Tuscaloosa. It’s the same mine his father worked at, raising Argo on good union wages and excellent health care coverage. When Argo followed in his father’s footsteps, he believed the job would get better with time and seniority. Instead, he said the job has only gotten worse.
“I’m working more than I ever have, and I’m making less money,” said Argo, a 33-year-old longwall miner who logs 10- to 12-hour days, 20 miles deep in the mine.
Argo estimates that he now earns $20,000 less per year than he did six years ago, before the mine emerged from bankruptcy under the ownership of a new company called Warrior Met Coal.
In 2016, Argo and other members of the United Mine Workers of America agreed to a series of concessions to put Warrior Met on sound financial footing. They lost premium pay for Sundays and long shifts. They went from 11 paid company holidays per year to three: Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas. And they consented to a significantly higher share of health care costs than under previous contracts.
According to Argo and other miners, those sacrifices were meant to be temporary. But they said the company has insisted on keeping lower standards in a new five-year contract, leading them into a 1,100-worker strike that began April 1 and has lasted four months. It is a massive work stoppage that harkens back to the days of a more robust coal industry.
Large-scale strikes like the one at Warrior Met are rare in the United States, and not just in the coal industry. Only eight work stoppages involving a thousand workers or more took place last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, though that figure may have been unusually low due to the coronavirus pandemic. In 2019, there were 25 work stoppages of that size. Most strikes, however, last a matter of days or weeks, not months.
“I’m working more than I ever have, and I’m making less money.”
Many of the striking workers bussed from Alabama to Manhattan this week to hold a rally Wednesday outside the offices of the investment firm BlackRock. It was an attempt to pressure Warrior Met’s largest shareholder into supporting a contract proposal that would put an end to the strike and get the miners back to work. BlackRock has said it believes in “sustainable investing,” which the firm defines as “investing in progress.”
UMWA President Cecil Roberts said in a statement that the miners were “simply following the money, and demanding that those who created that wealth, the miners, get their fair share of it.”
Unlike the thermal coal used for power, Warrior Met produces coking or metallurgical coal (sometimes just called met coal), which is used to make steel. The company calls itself “the leading producer and exporter of metallurgical coal for the global steel industry,” sending coal to Europe, Asia and South America.
Among those who made the journey north was Argo’s friend Chris Burke, who’d never been to New York City before. He started working at Warrior Met four years ago. He said the contract that came out of bankruptcy is “one of the worst ones around” for mines in the area. The company’s new offer was so subpar, he said, that the decision to strike was an easy one.
“They’re taking advantage of us,” said Burke, who has two kids. “It’s the same coal as the neighbor mine up the road. … It’s all met coal. But it’s the lowest paid. We just want to make it equal.”
A Warrior Met spokesperson said the company was “committed” to reaching a deal with the union and had offered some increases in pay and benefits during negotiations.
“We have and will continue to work with the UMWA to reach a fair and reasonable contract that provides our employees with a competitive package while protecting jobs and ensuring the longevity of the Company,” the spokesperson said in an email to HuffPost.
Phil Smith, a spokesperson for the union, said the company and union officials were back at the bargaining table this week but remained far apart on most of the key issues. Union members overwhelmingly voted down a contract offer made in April.
Union members said they used to pay almost nothing for health care coverage, but after the bankruptcy they started paying a $1,500 deductible and a 20% copay. The low insurance costs they enjoyed under previous contracts may seem unusually generous, but not for unionized coal mines. Mining comes with so many safety hazards and long-term health risks that members have poured much of their leverage into negotiating low health costs.
Many workers said the loss of premium pay has been a greater financial hit. Under the law, they are still eligible for time-and-a-half pay after working 40 hours in a week, but the extra pay used to kick in after eight hours each day under the old contract, Smith said.
Emanuel Barnfield, a 13-year veteran at the mine and father of three, said many workers could previously top $100,000 a year by working long hours. They may still work the same bruising schedules, he said, but now they bring home $20,000 or $30,000 less. While the pay might still seem high to outsiders, Barnfield said the job takes a harsh toll on one’s body and family life.
“We’re nothing but money to these guys,” he said of the company and its shareholders.
Warrior Met said its offer to the union includes a 10% to 12% pay bump for workers, along with additional time off and a “relaxed” attendance policy, although the company did not provide details. Several workers in interviews criticized what they called the company’s “four strikes” attendance policy that could lead to termination, saying it didn’t allow leniency for absences due to health problems or emergencies.
Tefere Gebre, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO labor federation, said he sees the Warrior Met strike as a continuation of the walkouts that began with West Virginia teachers in 2018.
“Billionaires are shooting themselves into space while mine workers are saying, ‘How am I going to feed my kids?’” Gebre said. “These are people who can least afford to be out on strike for more than 100 days.”
The strike affects two separate mines as well as a preparation plant and a mechanical shop at Warrior Met. The union said roughly 60 members of the bargaining unit have crossed the picket line to continue working, while the company has also brought in outside contractors as replacements.
“We’re nothing but money to these guys.”
The union has maintained picket lines at a series of sites outside mine property. Warrior Met obtained an injunction limiting how many strikers and supporters can be at each site, so that workers can still easily get on company property. The picket lines can be tense and downright dangerous. The union said it’s counted at least four instances in which drivers heading onto mine property struck picketers. It has released video showing two of those incidents, calling them “company-inspired violence.”
Amy Pilkteron, whose husband, Greg, works at the mine, said she was struck by a car and spun around while on a picket line July 8, leaving her right side bruised. She said her back is still “out of whack” and she’s been visiting a chiropractor.
“I’m just thankful I wasn’t a couple of steps back, because then he would have hit me full force,” Pilkteron said.
The company spokesperson said that “Warrior Met Coal does not condone any acts of violence.”
Strikers have been receiving $700 every two weeks from the union’s strike fund. The drop in income has left many people relying on an auxiliary powered by miners’ wives. They’ve been bringing in donations and putting together free grocery bags and back-to-school supplies for families.
Haeden Wright, a schoolteacher serving as the auxiliary’s president, said it takes an enormous amount of effort to sustain a strike for four months. Her husband, Braxton, is a Warrior Met miner, and her father worked at the mine under its previous ownership.
“What people don’t understand is to have a successful strike that can last this long, it’s a whole lot more than just picket lines,” Wright said. “You have to have people who support you. It’s mutual aid.”
A lot of strikers have taken on second jobs to support their families during the strike, working on days they aren’t picketing. Barnfield has been driving a tow truck for one of his friends to make ends meet. Argo has been cutting grass on the side.
Burke said he assumed the strike would last a couple of months, not as long as it has. Still, he hasn’t taken on any new work.
“I live on the picket line,” he said.