By Michael Corkery
March 4, 2023 - Hundreds of coal miners in Alabama have been told by their union that they can start returning to work before a contract deal has been reached, bringing an unceremonious end to one of the longest mining strikes in U.S. history.
The move by the United Mine Workers of America to conclude its nearly two-year work stoppage is a blow to the union, a storied and powerful labor organization, which has been pushing for higher pay and improved working conditions at the Warrior Met Coal mine, near Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Negotiating sessions became more infrequent in recent months, and “it didn’t seem like the strike was going in the direction it needed to be,” said Larry Spencer, a vice president of the United Mine Workers of America, who helped lead the Alabama strike.
He added: “We didn’t get the exact outcome we wanted. But it showed people there is a lot of solidarity here and these guys have stuck together, and that is a positive thing.”
Roughly 900 miners went out on strike on April 1, 2021, and most were able to start the process of returning to the mine this week. Some unionized workers had crossed the picket line and returned to work already, while others took jobs at other companies, including an Amazon warehouse less than 30 miles away that was the site of a failed union drive last year.
The Amazon union drive drew a flurry of national attention, with even President Biden weighing in at one point. But the miners’ strike, which received much less notice, was seen as a show of old-line labor solidarity amid new organizing efforts across modern industries like tech.
The strike was heated, with both sides accusing the other of violence and vandalism. The miners were also upset that, after they accepted pay cuts when the company emerged from a 2015 bankruptcy, their previous wages had not been restored to match what other mines paid. Warrior Met said on its website during the strike that it had never promised it would do so, and that it had given workers multiple raises in recent years.
In a statement, a spokesman for Warrior Met said the company was working to ensure “a seamless return to work for our striking miners.” He added that “we strongly believe that partnering with the U.M.W.A. is critical to achieving our shared goal of maintaining a constructive and mutually beneficial relationship.”
Labor unions across the world voiced support for the miners, but the group failed to muster broad political support. Coal mining in the deeply red state of Alabama was not a popular cause for many prominent Democrats, who are trying to encourage less carbon-intensive industries. Most national Republicans, despite promises by former President Donald J. Trump to save the coal industry, did not publicly back the Alabama strike.
Probably the biggest factor undermining the strike was the price of coal, which soared over the course of the walkout. The Warrior Met mine produces metallurgical coal, which is used in steel-making and is in high demand.
Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, said the company was able to profitably operate the mine with relatively few nonunion replacement workers because of high coal prices.
Mr. Roberts said he expected coal prices to stay high for the foreseeable future, which could have forced the strike to drag on for several more years.
In 2022, the strike’s first full year, Warrior Met’s profits rose to $641 million from $150 million in 2021; its stock price soared 143 percent during the 23-month strike.
Larry Cohen, a former president of the Communications Workers of America and chairman of Our Revolution, an advocacy group started by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, said the protracted strike showed how companies had the upper hand because they could bring in replacement workers.
The striking miners were an eclectic group, a mix of Trump supporters and Biden voters. Some were Black residents of Birmingham, Ala., and others were white and from rural towns near the mine. During the work stoppage, they often supported one another through food donations.
“There is not a better union in the world in terms of solidarity,” Mr. Cohen said. “If this can happen at Warrior Met, it can happen anywhere.”
To attract the nonunion workers, Warrior Met has been paying large bonuses of $1,900 and annual salaries of $132,000. It’s highly lucrative pay for blue-collar work in Alabama and something that would not have happened without the strike, Mr. Roberts said.
“Ironically, the replacement workers became some of the highest-paid coal miners in the country because of us,” Mr. Roberts said, adding that he expects his union members to start receiving the same high pay when they return underground.
The union expects contract negotiations to resume in the coming weeks, after the process of returning the miners to work is complete.