'Worn down by the stress': An update on the Warrior Met Coal strikers

Larry Spencer stands in front of a UMWA logo backdrop

Facing South recently spoke with Larry Spencer, a former coal miner and vice president of the United Mine Workers district that represents the over 1,000 miners who unsuccessfully struck against Warrior Met Coal in Alabama for almost two years. (Photo by Frances Madeson.)

It can't be easy for a union to end a strike when there have been no gains for the strikers. But United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts did so on Feb. 16 when he sent a letter containing an "unconditional offer to return to work” to Warrior Met Coal CEO Walter Scheller.

Since April 2021, about 1,000 members of the UMWA District 20 had been striking against the Alabama company, which mines coal for making steel, after the two sides failed to agree on a new labor contract. Shortly after Roberts sent his letter of surrender, Warrior Met announced that its 2022 adjusted net income was up almost 193% over 2021's at $666.1 million, and that it would make a special dividend payout to stockholders of 88 cents a share.

The unproductive negotiations that led to the strike failed to return the miners to the compensation package they enjoyed under the contract with the company's former owner, Walter Energy, which went into bankruptcy in 2015 after the often volatile steel market tanked. Warrior Met Coal LLC was formed from among Walter Energy's first lien creditors, and the new owners exploited the advantage of a blank slate to draw up a new five-year contract. That 2016 agreement was tremendously disadvantageous to the workers, slashing their pay by $6 an hour and stripping crucial benefits, but they agreed to it with the understanding that it was provisional while the company rebuilt. It locked them into the lowest wages paid in any Alabama mine and failed to guarantee periodic adjustments if the company's fortunes rose — which they did the very next year, and the next, and the one after that.

"Our members are the reason Warrior Met even exists today,” Roberts said in issuing the 2021 strike notice. "They made the sacrifices to bring this company out of the bankruptcy of Walter Energy in 2016.”

The strike that ensued was the longest in the history of Alabama and modern U.S. coal mining. At first strikers and their families attended weekly solidarity rallies and took turns on a robust picket line, or volunteered in the UMWA Auxiliary's food pantry. But their numbers dwindled as people took jobs to supplement the $400 weekly strike assistance. Meanwhile, the company recruited out-of-work miners from across coal country to replace the strikers; the scabs were there from day one and kept arriving. By that June, prices for the kind of coal Warrior Met produces began to soar; even with reduced production the company was profitable enough to increase Scheller's compensation from $4.3 million in 2020 to $5.6 million in 2021.

The strike occasionally turned violent. There were two recorded incidents and another report of trucks being driven into strikers and a miner's wife on the picket line, and scabs' vehicles damaged by strikers. The National Labor Relations Board fined the union over $13 million dollars for loss, damages, and costs associated with increased security measures, a move Roberts called "ridiculous.” The company eventually won a court injunction barring strikers from blocking the mine as well as a temporary restraining order that moved the picket line 300 yards away from the company's property line — among the factors the union blames for the strike's failure.

Two years later, strikers who want to return to their old jobs have begun the process, beginning with drug tests, but Warrior Met has blacklisted 41 former workers because of unspecified "allegations of wrongdoing during the often turbulent times on the picket lines,” as local TV station WTVM reported. The UMWA argues that strikes by their nature are contentious and is awaiting determination from the Department of Labor as to the whether the mass firing is justified. The union is now focused on pressuring hedge funds with significant investments in Warrior Met to prioritize a new contract with the workers. Those funds include BlackRock, the world largest asset manager, whose Manhattan headquarters were the target of a July 2021 UMWA protest against Warrior Met's use of scabs.

But some of the union's attention must now be diverted to defending itself against a decertification challenge filed with the NLRB by a Warrior Met miner on April 6. If 30% of the workers sign a petition to decertify, a vote to proceed with stripping UMWA of its representative status can go forward. Under NLRB rules, the union will be decertified unless a majority of the votes cast in the election are in favor of ongoing union representation.

Last month I met with Larry Spencer, a former coal miner who now serves as vice president for UMWA District 20 at his office in McCalla, Alabama, to talk about what's currently happening with the union members at Warrior Met Coal. We spoke in the foyer because the ceiling over his desk had collapsed in heavy rains.

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I know this is a delicate moment and 41 livelihoods hang in the balance, and there are things you cannot discuss. Within those parameters, I'd be interested in anything you can say about how it all ended, and how it came to be that Warrior Met has singled out 41 workers for exclusion.

We've been on strike for 23 months against Warrior Met Coal trying to get a contract and things kind of, you know — we couldn't get the coal production slowed down. President Roberts decided that we were not making enough headway out here, so let's take our jobs back from the scabs that have took our jobs. 

The strikers went for a pretty good little while, and tried to stay on the picket lines strong. Then we had a judge down in Tuscaloosa that put an injunction on us. That really tied our hands, and we had to pull the people off the picket line for a while.

That was in June 2021, when you were ordered to keep the entrances to the mines clear.

After that, a lot of them got part-time jobs and with what we paid the strikers, they was getting by. But then as time went on, people were about to lose cars and homes and stuff, so they found full-time jobs. And still some of them tried to walk the picket line. But you know, it just got harder and harder and harder, and the longer we was going the harder it was. And so we made a move to take our jobs back. 

The "unconditional offer”?

Yes, under the labor law, it says that if we're on an unfair labor practice strike, we can take our jobs back at any time and go back to those positions. So that's what we're doing.

But not everybody got the go-ahead?

About a year ago, the company started saying that there was around 40 people, they actually had a bigger number, 50 or 60, they weren't gonna let come back. And we asked them why, and they said violence on the picket line.

Were those claims legitimate?

We honestly don't think that they've got a lot on them. A big majority of them are union officials. We've already filed challenges for the 41 people, and they're in the process of investigating those right now. So I guess until the Labor Department makes a decision, those people cannot go back to work yet. 

With Labor Secretary Marty Walsh leaving, how does that affect your prospects to find champions in the administration?

Well, to be honest, he hasn't done anything to help us. It might be it's gonna be better when they get someone else in. [On March 13, Julie Su — who has a history of labor advocacy — became the acting labor secretary.] It's been pretty disappointing. The federal government has got into some other strikes, but they didn't get into this one. And we had almost 1,000 people on strike.

Have you been surprised that politicians haven't gotten more involved?

I've been real surprised that the politicians didn't get involved — not from the federal level or from the state level. 

There's a few of them that haven't come out and been on the picket lines, but they've been checking in, seeing what they could do to help. So those people, we appreciate what they've done behind the scenes. They could have come out and stood on picket line with us, but they didn't. 

We did have some candidates running for office that actually came, and that's the difference between running for office versus holding office. It's pretty sad that people didn't take more of an interest.

How about the press?

You know, the press has not been around at all until we started the process of going back, and now they want to know everything. You don't expect people who aren't from here to be down here all the time, but the local news has not even been interested until we started back. Now, they're there. They've got a camera in a lot more people's faces. I feel like if they had here been here and actually helped raise awareness, which would have brought pressure, we might not have had the same outcome.

What's the reentry process for the returning miners? 

They've started taking their drug tests. They test for meth, and a lot of different substances. The hair sample takes a little while, and there's a lot of them went down to take their drug test. When they get that back, if it's clean, the company will call them and they have to take a physical, and it's pretty stringent.

How are they doing overall?

Some of them are kind of worn down by the stress. We are a little worried about that. Then again, after two years out, this is the normal thing, to take a physical to return to work, so you have to do it. We're gonna get the physicals done and then they will do a retraining. Coal miners have to be retrained every year. 

Has anything changed significantly that you're aware of in the mine?

We haven't been down there to see; we're concerned about how the safety is. We're gonna get a chance to go in and do an inspection. 

You and President Roberts personally?

No, we'll send a safety crew to look around. We've got people, experts, that's what they do for us. So they will go down and do an inspection, and then we'll get the people back to work.

Will you resume pursuit of a contract after that?

Hopefully, at some point, we're gonna stay in negotiations and try to get a good contract. You know these corporate people don't seem to feel like the working man is worth it. I don't know when we'll get a contract.

And what about the scabs?

Depending on how many jobs our people go back to, they might keep some of them. 

It's been reported that they've been getting $2,000 bonuses every month. Do you expect things to go smoothly? Isn't that a recipe for bitterness?

I expect it to be be a pretty tense workplace, and that's really unfortunate. Yeah, I'm very concerned. It was a tense workplace anyway before these men and women ever came out to strike. That workplace was different than we have seen in any of our coal mines. 

I actually worked in one of those mines for 25 years, and it's just changed so dramatically. I never saw a racial slur wrote down anywhere in that mine, and within just a matter of months of this company taking over we started seeing racial slurs written on the walls. We've seen a lot of racial tension since this company took over and a lot of tension against the women. They treated them with a lack of respect.

We tried to tell the company that they had a very disgruntled workforce, and they told us we didn't know what we was talking about. 

Have people developed serious illnesses from the stress? Have there been divorces? What kind of a toll has it taken? 

We've had some divorces, not sure how many, it's kind of hard to keep up with that. We've had a couple of people that's died from a car wreck, or something like that. We've had some natural death. But we've had a couple of suicides, too. The indication was that it wasn't just the strike, one was having a bad relationship. He took his life but, you know, if the strike wasn't going on maybe that relationship might not have been bad. If you're having money problems and problems paying bills, I guess you take all your frustrations out on the person closest to you. We've had a lot of people that they might not be divorced, but they've come real close.

How are the miners feeling about the union? Are they understanding, or are there recriminations? Do they blame you for not getting them a better contract? Do you think people will opt out of paying union dues as they can in a "right to work” state?

I don't really know. I mean, there could be. I think that, as a whole — I think the biggest majority of people feel like we've done everything that we could because they've been there. I mean, they're right in the middle of it. 

You've always got a group that's saying there are things you could've done better, and you've always got the naysayers no matter what you do. 

Hopefully, we get people back to work, and they get to make some decent money and get everything back, and we can get them a good contract.

What are the levers you're pushing to help make that happen?

We're trying to appeal to the company's big investors — BlackRock and Vanguard. Those investors could tell the company to negotiate a contract. They could tell them, "You don't treat people this way.”

You're probably approaching retirement age, Larry. What keeps you in the fight?

Mining coal is a very, very dangerous job and it's a very hard job, but people do it for their family. 

The main thing that I want to see, and that keeps me doing the things that I do, is I want to make sure that the miners that go into the mine in the morning come back out of the mine every night. We've got a monument down in Brookwood for 13 people that was killed in 2001 in an explosion. That's something I hope we never go through again.