Michael Argo has spent 13 years working underground at a coal mine in Brookwood, Alabama, simply exterior Tuscaloosa. It’s the identical mine his father labored at, elevating Argo on good union wages and wonderful well being care protection. When Argo adopted in his father’s footsteps, he believed the job would get higher with time and seniority. As a substitute, he stated the job has solely gotten worse.
“I’m working greater than I ever have, and I’m making much less cash,” stated Argo, a 33-year-old longwall miner who logs 10- to 12-hour days, 20 miles deep within the mine.
Argo estimates that he now earns $20,000 much less per yr than he did six years in the past, earlier than the mine emerged from chapter below the possession of a brand new firm referred to as Warrior Met Coal.
In 2016, Argo and different members of the United Mine Workers of America agreed to a sequence of concessions to place Warrior Met on sound monetary footing. They misplaced premium pay for Sundays and lengthy shifts. They went from 11 paid firm holidays per yr to 3: Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas. They usually consented to a considerably increased share of well being care prices than below earlier contracts.
In accordance with Argo and different miners, these sacrifices have been meant to be non permanent. However they stated the corporate has insisted on conserving decrease requirements in a brand new five-year contract, main them right into a 1,100-worker strike that started April 1 and has lasted 4 months. It’s a huge work stoppage that harkens again to the times of a extra strong coal business.
Giant-scale strikes just like the one at Warrior Met are uncommon in america, and never simply within the coal business. Solely eight work stoppages involving a thousand employees or extra passed off final yr, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, although that determine could have been unusually low because of the coronavirus pandemic. In 2019, there have been 25 work stoppages of that dimension. Most strikes, nevertheless, final a matter of days or perhaps weeks, not months.
I’m working greater than I ever have, and I’m making much less cash.
Michael Argo, Warrior Met miner
Lots of the placing employees bussed from Alabama to Manhattan this week to carry a rally Wednesday exterior the workplaces of the funding agency BlackRock. It was an try and strain Warrior Met’s largest shareholder into supporting a contract proposal that may put an finish to the strike and get the miners again to work. BlackRock has stated it believes in “sustainable investing,” which the agency defines as “investing in progress.”
UMWA President Cecil Roberts stated in an announcement that the miners have been “merely following the cash, and demanding that those that created that wealth, the miners, get their justifiable share of it.”
In contrast to the thermal coal used for energy, Warrior Met produces coking or metallurgical coal (typically simply referred to as met coal), which is used to make metal. The corporate calls itself “the main producer and exporter of metallurgical coal for the worldwide metal business,” sending coal to Europe, Asia and South America.
Amongst those that made the journey north was Argo’s pal Chris Burke, who’d by no means been to New York Metropolis earlier than. He began working at Warrior Met 4 years in the past. He stated the contract that got here out of chapter is “one of many worst ones round” for mines within the space. The corporate’s new provide was so subpar, he stated, that the choice to strike was a straightforward one.
“They’re benefiting from us,” stated Burke, who has two youngsters. “It’s the identical coal because the neighbor mine up the highway. … It’s all met coal. Nevertheless it’s the bottom paid. We simply need to make it equal.”
A Warrior Met spokesperson stated the corporate was “dedicated” to reaching a take care of the union and had supplied some will increase in pay and advantages throughout negotiations.
“We’ve got and can proceed to work with the UMWA to achieve a good and cheap contract that gives our workers with a aggressive package deal whereas defending jobs and guaranteeing the longevity of the Firm,” the spokesperson stated in an e mail to HuffPost.
Phil Smith, a spokesperson for the union, stated the corporate and union officers have been again on the bargaining desk this week however remained far aside on many of the key points. Union members overwhelmingly voted down a contract provide made in April.
Union members stated they used to pay virtually nothing for well being care protection, however after the chapter they began paying a $1,500 deductible and a 20% copay. The low insurance coverage prices they loved below earlier contracts could appear unusually beneficiant, however not for unionized coal mines. Mining comes with so many security hazards and long-term health risks that members have poured a lot of their leverage into negotiating low well being prices.
Many employees stated the lack of premium pay has been a larger monetary hit. Underneath the regulation, they’re nonetheless eligible for time-and-a-half pay after working 40 hours in per week, however the additional pay used to kick in after eight hours every day below the outdated contract, Smith stated.
Emanuel Barnfield, a 13-year veteran on the mine and father of three, stated many employees might beforehand prime $100,000 a yr by working lengthy hours. They might nonetheless work the identical bruising schedules, he stated, however now they carry house $20,000 or $30,000 much less. Whereas the pay would possibly nonetheless appear excessive to outsiders, Barnfield stated the job takes a harsh toll on one’s physique and household life.
“We’re nothing however cash to those guys,” he stated of the corporate and its shareholders.
Warrior Met stated its provide to the union features a 10% to 12% pay bump for employees, together with further day without work and a “relaxed” attendance coverage, though the corporate didn’t present particulars. A number of employees in interviews criticized what they referred to as the corporate’s “4 strikes” attendance coverage that might result in termination, saying it didn’t permit leniency for absences because of well being issues or emergencies.
Tefere Gebre, government vice chairman of the AFL-CIO labor federation, stated he sees the Warrior Met strike as a continuation of the walkouts that started with West Virginia lecturers in 2018.
“Billionaires are capturing themselves into house whereas mine employees are saying, ‘How am I going to feed my youngsters?’” Gebre stated. “These are individuals who can least afford to be out on strike for greater than 100 days.”
The strike impacts two separate mines in addition to a preparation plant and a mechanical store at Warrior Met. The union stated roughly 60 members of the bargaining unit have crossed the picket line to proceed working, whereas the corporate has additionally introduced in exterior contractors as replacements.
We’re nothing however cash to those guys.
Emanuel Barnfield, Warrior Met miner
The union has maintained picket traces at a sequence of web sites exterior mine property. Warrior Met obtained an injunction limiting what number of strikers and supporters will be at every web site, in order that employees can nonetheless simply get on firm property. The picket traces will be tense and downright harmful. The union stated it’s counted a minimum of 4 situations during which drivers heading onto mine property struck picketers. It has released video displaying two of these incidents, calling them “company-inspired violence.”
Amy Pilkteron, whose husband, Greg, works on the mine, stated she was struck by a automotive and spun round whereas on a picket line July 8, leaving her proper aspect bruised. She stated her again remains to be “out of whack” and she or he’s been visiting a chiropractor.
“I’m simply grateful I wasn’t a few steps again, as a result of then he would have hit me full drive,” Pilkteron stated.
The corporate spokesperson stated that “Warrior Met Coal doesn’t condone any acts of violence.”
Strikers have been receiving $700 each two weeks from the union’s strike fund. The drop in revenue has left many individuals counting on an auxiliary powered by miners’ wives. They’ve been bringing in donations and placing collectively free grocery baggage and back-to-school provides for households.
Haeden Wright, a schoolteacher serving because the auxiliary’s president, stated it takes an infinite quantity of effort to maintain a strike for 4 months. Her husband, Braxton, is a Warrior Met miner, and her father labored on the mine below its earlier possession.
“What folks don’t perceive is to have a profitable strike that may final this lengthy, it’s a complete lot extra than simply picket traces,” Wright stated. “You need to have individuals who assist you. It’s mutual help.”
Plenty of strikers have taken on second jobs to assist their households throughout the strike, engaged on days they aren’t picketing. Barnfield has been driving a tow truck for one in all his mates to make ends meet. Argo has been slicing grass on the aspect.
Burke stated he assumed the strike would final a few months, not so long as it has. Nonetheless, he hasn’t taken on any new work.
“I dwell on the picket line,” he stated.
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