Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
On April 1st, 1,100 workers from the Warrior Met Coal Mine in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama went on strike. Now, 258 days later, those workers are still on strike in hopes of forcing the company to address what it calls unfair labor practices. At the beginning of November, these Alabama-based workers headed up to the big apple taking their strike to the streets of New York and demonstrating in front of the Manhattan offices of BlackRock.
Brian Samson: I want you to know something, ain't nobody going to turn us around. Ain't no BlackRock going to turn us around.
Melissa Harris-Perry: BlackRock is an investment management corporation and the largest shareholder in Warrior Met Coal. Here's Brian Samson, United Mine Workers of America international secretary-treasurer at the protest.
Brian Samson: We're going to picket these investors, we're going to picket these coal mines, and we're going to do it every day until we get a fair and just contract for the workers of Warrior Met.
Melissa Harris-Perry: These striking workers have faced significant resistance from their employer and even experienced direct violence on the picket lines. In late November, a county judge ordered a temporary restraining order barring picketing outside the mines or offices owned by Warrior Met. Here's Larry Spencer, he's the vice president for District 20 of the United Mine Workers of America which represents the 1,100 miners on strike.
Larry Spencer: They've pulled us away from the picket lines for a short time where they got a judge that put an injunction against us that told us we had to stay 300 yards away from the picket line. Put out videos on us that said we was being violent. They don't put out the part where the cars, their cars have been hitting our people, and all we've done was said stop it. Now they've pulled us away from the picket line for a little bit of time, but we're fixing to be back out there.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now I just want to note for you that the official statement from Warrior Met Coal in response to accusations that they've been responsible for violence on the picket line can be found on our website at thetakeaway.org. While the warrior met coal mine strike has not been the subject of significant national media attention, the mine is located less than 30 miles away from the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, which did receive substantial media attention for their union election that took place this past spring. On November 29th, National Labor Relations Board officials found that the company improperly pressured workers to vote against the union and called for a new union election.
Kim Kelly, an independent journalist and author of the forthcoming book, Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor updated us on what's happening with these Alabama union issues. Kim's been covering the Warrior Met Coal strike since April.
Kim Kelly: Obviously, nobody likes going on strike. It's very difficult, it's a hard decision to make, and being on strike isn't a walk in the park. These folks have been doing it for so long. They have been dealing with the usual pressures like the economic pressures and social pressures and financial pressures that come with being on strike, and they've also been having to deal with a recalcitrate company that has not been coming to the table with any decent offers, that has basically been trying to starve them out and has also been actively trying to break the strike in a way that is it's not unprecedented, but it's definitely concerning.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, remind listeners why they're on strike. What is it that they're asking for?
Kim Kelly: They're not asking for that much is the thing, that's the heart of it. They're just asking for what they previously had. The too long; didn't read version is that, five years ago, the mine where they work was owned by a different company that had different policies, a different contract. That company went bankrupt, Warrior Met swept in, they rehired the people who had been laid off in that bankruptcy, but they said, "Oh, we need some time to get on our feet, can you accept this pretty crappy union contract while we work on that?" So the workers took those cuts, they took $6 an hour cut to their pay, they took cuts to their time off, their healthcare.
They figured, okay, in five years when the company is back in the black, then we'll get what we're due, but five years later, they got to their bargaining table and the company didn't offer them anything. It offered them peanuts, and so they've gone out on unfair labor practices strike because they feel that the company is operating in bad faith. That they're not being fair, that they're not actively trying to reach a real resolution. They feel like the company is trying to break the union and to break them. Nine months later, 1,100 people in rural Alabama are still holding the line on this strike as members of the United Mine Workers of America.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Listen, I feel like there are so many folks who may not even be blue-collar or unionized workers but who may be in this post-2020 COVID moment feel that in their gut, that moment of your employer looks at you and says, "We're in this crisis and you don't want us to shut down, so if you take a little less now, we'll stand by you as workers going forward." Workers operate in good faith, and then as things seem to be improving, somehow that improvement doesn't move down to the very folks who made it all possible.
Kim Kelly: Yes, the trickle-down myth is still alive and well in America. The thing about Warrior Met, and of course, a lot of companies, but these specific companies, they have a huge advantage over the workers and they're backed by Wall Street Capital. BlackRock owns, I think, about 14% of the company, and so their pockets run real deep and they're squaring off against folks. Some of them have been making $22 an hour to work six days a week, 12 hours a day, 2,000 feet underground. It is not a fair fight.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, there's actual violence and hostility being directed, not just in a break the union general sense, but can you talk about the violence and hostility directed physically at these workers?
Kim Kelly: Yes, ma'am. It has been pretty nightmarish honestly. There hasn't been a ton of media attention on the strike for a variety of reasons I've been marinating over for the past nine months, but it's been shocking. There have been at least six documented and I'm sure more undocumented instances of company employees and scabs driving their vehicles into people on the picket lines. Folks have been sent to the hospital. One woman, she doesn't work there, her husband is on strike; she showed up to support, she got hit by a car. I talked to her a couple of months later, she was still feeling it.
This is something that the company has turned a blind eye to, it's something that local police have turned a blind eye to. It's terrifying because Warrior Met Coal Mine, it's a big geographical area, and there's 12 different entrances. Some of them are down bad country roads with no lights and no cell phone service. You don't know what's going on out there. It's dangerous to go out there and when you know that there's been this precedent set that folks can just ram you with a truck and not get in trouble, that's even harder to go out on the line.
One of the most unfortunate developments in the past couple of months that we've seen is that the company has gotten into the habit of working with the course to issue injunctions, limiting the number of people in the picket line because they've been saying that the strikers are violent. I'm sure some folks have gotten heated and maybe someone's banged on a truck door or something, but they're not hitting people with their cars.
Yes, the company has been sending out press releases to local press and compiling videos for the courts to convince them that, oh, these folks are dangerous, and so these injunctions have been whittling down the number of people on the line which makes the conditions even more dangerous because there's less people there now. Now, the pièce de résistance, I think it was last month, they secured a temporary restraining order that made it so that nobody was allowed on the picket line. They made it so that it was, I think, 300 yards from the mine entrance, nobody could be and so they basically used the courts to their advantage to try and crush this strike.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Speaking of crushing strikes in Alabama, can we shift for just a second from Warrior Met Coal to Amazon? Can you talk a little bit about the NLRB, the National Labor Relations Board's decision on the Amazon union election that occurred in Bessemer?
Kim Kelly: This is kind of some better news because this has been a long process since the initial election was run earlier this year or last year? It's been a hundred years earlier on, but the National Relations Board found that Amazon had engaged in intimidation and interference, and basically, just really brutal union-busting, and you can get away with a lot of that in this country still, but there are limits. On November 29th, it came out that the NLRB had directed essentially that they run a new election, so there's going to be a new union election at this Bessemer warehouse, and the workers are going to get another shot.
I tend to be a little bit of a Pollyanna about these things, and of course, I hope they win, but it is a stark fact that second elections tend to not go so great. I was there to cover it from the beginning and I remember hearing about the tax that continue, some of the criticisms, and the ways that the union was approaching it. I think that the workers there have had an opportunity to learn more about unions and to learn more about Amazon and to just process what was happening and what's at stake. There are more tactics available in the union toolkit too because the pandemic, it's not over, but it's not at the same point it was back in February 2020, so they have a few more options when it comes to meetings and visits.
It's still early, we're still going to have to see what happens, but at the very least, I'm crossing fingers because Amazon workers need a union as we've seen. We've known that, right? Folks have been trying for years and in light of the recent tragedy at that warehouse, these folks need to be protected and Amazon clearly isn't up to the task.
Warrior Met Coal Mine: One last thing here. Obviously, at nine months, we're also less than two weeks from Christmas, and just to keep this as human as we can, I'm just wondering, as you've talked with workers, what challenges they may be facing at this particular moment of the year.
Kim Kelly: Yes, Christmas is coming up and I think about 80% of the workers are parents, so there's a lot of kids who have been on strike right alongside their parents for this whole time and that's tough on a kid. Something that has been really beautiful about this strike is the work that the women's auxiliary has done and that's a group made up of spouses and retirees and it's not just women, but it's a group of ancillary folks who are not on strike, but they're connected. They've built a really incredible mutual aid network. They've been delivering groceries to people every week, they've been really keeping the strike going.
Their Christmas project, which has been incredible, is they have basically put out a registry. Here's like 300 kids who asked for presents for Christmas and stances on strike, so we need a little help. The labor community and just folks online came together and bought every single one of those toys. Now, on the 19th, they're having a big Christmas party and they're going to hand out the kids and there's going to be a union Santa there. Actually, I'm going to be there, I'm going down there this weekend to do some more reporting for more perfect union, so I'm excited to see Santa on strike, but [crosstalk].
Melissa Harris-Perry: There's so many questions I have about union Santa. Does union Santa bring you coal in your sock if he is a Warrior Met union Santa and is that a bad thing if you get some coal? It might be a good thing.
Kim Kelly: I think it depends on where coal prices are at that week.
Oh, man. These folks, just talking about humanizing people. It's easy, I think, on the left and just in general, people that support you and needs to think of this heroic striking worker out there night and day standing up against the boss. Yes, that's part of it, but these are moms and dads and just people who are just trying to live. If it takes union Santa to keep them going for another week, then that's worth it. If it keeps them out on the line, it keeps them going up against the boss, it keeps them holding on to hope, then every Christmas party we can do, every donation that comes their way, every tweet, every hearing, everything counts because these folks need it and they deserve it and every worker deserves that kind of love, especially at Christmas.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Absolutely, I'm about to get me a union Santa. I'm excited. Things I haven't thought about before.
Kim Kelly: Yes, I don't know how breaks and overtime work, but I'm sure it's in his contract.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Kim Kelly is an independent journalist, an author of the forthcoming book,
Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor. Thanks for being here.
Kim Kelly: Thank you so much for having me.
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