One Day Longer: The Battle Cry of Alabama Miners
It is long past time for the industries in this country to respect and honor American workers.
by Susan E. Stutz
In 2015, Jim Walter Resources and its parent company, Walter Energy, was one of the largest private-sector employers in western Alabama. And, then it filed bankruptcy, and 1,100 of its Brookwood coal miners found themselves faced with a no-win situation: They could either negotiate (and that term is used loosely) major concessions with the new owner, Warrior Met Coal, to “keep the doors open” or find other employment. For many, leaving the mine was not an option. Their families had been working underground for generations. Men whose days were spent in the mines were the sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons of those who came before. They know no other way of life.
In an effort to keep the mine operating, the workers agreed to a $6 per hour reduction in wages. According to ZipRecruiter, in 2021, the average annual salary for coal miners in Alabama is $42,226 which is $7,000 less than the national average and down from $43,898 in 2016. While there are families who would be happy with that income, when you are expected to work 7 days a week, 16 hours a day, many of Brookwoods coal miners are earning an average of $7.25 an hour which is the minimum wage in that state. In addition to reduced wages, many long-term employees also lost their pensions.
The only holidays they now have—paid or otherwise—are Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Thanksgiving. The miners are expected to work all other holidays without being paid overtime. Furthermore, miners can lose their jobs altogether if they take too much time off. This includes if they are sick and advised to remain home by their doctor. The only acceptable excuse for multiple days off is for a funeral which is morbidly ironic considering the inherent dangers of coal mining.
Miners have lost the $12 copays for medical care that they had previously, replaced by a $1,500 deductible. And, whereas health costs were otherwise covered at 100% before the 2016 bankruptcy, those benefits have since been reduced. According to the CDC, black lung disease is now showing up in miners as young as 30 years of age. In addition to sacrificing their wallets, they have sacrificed their health.
The 2016 agreement was entered into with the expectation that the miners would be made whole when their contract was up for renegotiation in 2021. That expectation has been unrealized as Warrior, and the hedge funds who now own it, have failed to honor the sacrifices made by the miners. In the 5 years since the bankruptcy, the hedge funds have seen profits in the billions of dollars and many of their executives received lucrative bonuses in 2021. Despite those earnings, the latest offer on the table was an hourly wage increase of $1.50 over 5 years—$.30 a year. That barely covers the increase in the price of a loaf of bread from 2016 to the present, never mind all of life’s other necessities.
While this story is about Alabama’s coal miners, it is also the story of American workers and how the 1% increase their already staggering wealth at the expense of the 99% who make such earnings possible. It is the story of an Alabama industry that remained viable in the face of a global pandemic. It is a story about the ugly reality of business owners abandoning their workers in an effort to avoid having their billion-dollar profits reduced by fair wages and benefits.
In the last 18 months, many companies, Warrior Met Coal among them, have shown their employees and contractors that they are disposable in the face of a reduction in their profits. Amazon, who defeated an attempt to unionize its Alabama distribution center, earned $74 billion in 2020. These profits were fueled by families across the country who turned to the retail giant to obtain goods that they would otherwise have to go out to a brick-and-mortar location to buy. At the same time, they cut ties with over 1,200 delivery services across the country. These delivery services employed thousands of people and companies like them have been the backbone of the economy in the last 18 months. Amazon claims that those cuts were routine business decisions; however, in the face of the pandemic, and the increased buying on the part of isolated families, it is hard not to believe that such cuts were made to reduce costs and increase profits. It certainly does nothing to negate that perception when we see the man who led the company since its inception 27 years ago spending $2.5 billion on an 11-minute space ride. When you think about what that money could have achieved for Americans, it is hard not to be a smidge resentful. Amazon now faces an investigation by California’s attorney general into the treatment of its employees during what will surely be described as one of the darkest years in American history.
According to the AFL-CIO Executive Paywatch Report, while working-class Americans struggle to keep a roof over their heads and food on their tables, CEOs and other high-level executives earned 299 times more than the average employee in 2020. Whereas executive wages and bonuses increased by more than $700,000 in 2020. The average salary of a non-supervisory employee increased by less than $1,000 to the sum of approximately $43,000 per year.
If we did not know it before, from an economic standpoint, the pandemic has solidified the reality of how vulnerable American workers really are. Jobs we have held for decades have gone up in smoke when owners and shareholders were faced with the prospect of smaller dividends. And, some industries simply ignored those at the bottom altogether.
Over the last year and a half, we have applauded the essential and frontline workers. We have heralded their bravery in showing up for work each day and doing the work of keeping America running. But, the essential workers of today have always been essential to the lifeblood of our country. The people bearing the weight have always borne it. They are the people who have kept us healthy, fed, and educated. It is a job that they have always done. And, without them, we would be in far worse shape.
It is long past time for the industries in this country to respect American workers. They answered the call during one of this country’s most difficult periods, as they have done for centuries. And, they deserve a fair and livable wage no matter what minuscule impact it has on the billions being paid to top-level executives.
One of the ways forward is with the passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, passed by the House in March of this year, and currently pending in the Senate. Among other things, this legislation would prohibit companies from “requiring or coercing employees to attend employer meetings designed to discourage union membership and prohibits employers from entering into agreements with employees under which employees waive the right to pursue or join collective or class-action litigation.” This tactic was employed by Amazon as it fought the prospect of a unionized labor force at their Alabama distribution center.
Another is for Congress to enact a national minimum wage that actually pays the bills. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 which has not been increased for more than 10 years. And, believe it or not, Wyoming and Georgia’s minimum wage is lower still. Introduced by Senator Sanders, the Raise the Wage Act would increase the minimum wage rate to $15 per hour over the course of the next 4 years.
What You Can Do
Text congress to 50409 and lobby your official on the passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act and the Raise the Wage Act. Working families need and deserve livable wages and employment protections.
If you have the ability to make a monetary donation to the families of the striking workers, please do so. If you live in or near Brookwood, consider making a contribution to their pantry, which is stocked with goods for the miners' families.
Thank you to Elena and Chris E.