Recently, there has been attention on the unionization effort by the Retail Warehouse and Department Store Union AFL-CIO at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. Oddly, little attention has occurred on a major United Mine Workers of America AFL-CIO strike involving 1,100 coal miners 30 miles away in Brookwood, Alabama, involving Warrior Met Coal and a chain of events that relates to West Virginia.
Warrior Met was once known as Jim Walter Resources, known also as a builder of affordable stick-built homes across the southeast, including West Virginia. In Alabama, the firm had North America’s deepest coal mines at 2,000 feet that produced methane gas and high-quality metallurgical coal. On Sept. 23, 2001, a cave-in caused a release of methane gas that sparked two major explosions, killing 13 UMWA members.
Then U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, spouse of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., cited Jim Walter for 27 violations and $435,000 in fines. She then approved MSHA reducing the fine to an insulting $3,000, which was appealed by the UMWA. MSHA then increased the fine to $5,000.
In 2003, the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission awarded the Carnegie Medal to 12 UMWA members who tried to save those killed. Given to civilians who risk their lives for others, the medal is considered the nation’s highest honor for heroism.
In 2015, Jim Walter filed for bankruptcy and re-emerged as Warrior Met Coal, aided by temporary UMWA contract concessions. Due to UMWA cooperation, the sale of commercial methane gas, and metallurgical coal that was in high demand worldwide for steel production, Warrior Met became profitable and the miners went on strike for a new contract that would normalize the temporary concessions. The strike is ongoing and on International Labor Day (May 1, 2021), families of the miners held a fundraiser outside the UMWA hall selling $20 T-Shirts with the logo “No Contract, No Coal.” Chelsie Prestridge, spouse of a striking miner, told WVTM-13 and the Tuscaloosa News that key current issues were food and limited health insurance for the families. In response, UMWA District 17 locals in West Virginia have sent food and money to Brookwood. On social media, Jacob Morrison, secretary-treasurer of the North Alabama Labor Council, hosted a benefit concert for the striking mine workers.
Jim Walter also had a Division that operated Maple Coal and Seminole Mining in Fayette and Nicholas counties. Its bankruptcy resulted in those mines being obtained by Mission Coal, an upstart firm that upended Warrior Met’s interest in also purchasing them. Mission was formed in 2018 by the ERPEnvironmental Fund led by self-proclaimed environmentalist Tom Clarke of the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund and lasted only one year before being obtained by Murray Energy, which in 2019 also filed for bankruptcy.
According to the UMWA Journal, under the terms of these bankruptcies, voided were “liabilities associated with workers’ compensation and certain other obligations stemming from the Black Lung Act and a collective bargaining agreement with the company’s unionized workforce.”
In Fayette County, the West Virginia Record noted that prior to purchase by Murray Energy, the Seminole Mining Complex was sued by the Fayette County Commission over allegations the firm had caused the contamination of aquifer groundwater that was being used as the primary water source by the Page-Kincaid Public Service District, of which I was a member of its three-person board.
The suit, filed by former West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Callaghan, alleged that Seminole had caused iron, manganese and aluminum to pollute and contaminate the aquifer in violation of the county’s Public Nuisance Abatement Ordinance. The PSD obtained resources to fix the problem, but they were canceled by the West Virginia Public Service Commission, which ordered the PSD to instead be taken over by the private West Virginia American Water company and use contaminated water from the New River. The three PSD commissioners, including its founder, were then forced to resign, and the Murray bankruptcy killed the case.
What is clear about this sequence of interrelated events is the lack of consideration for the health, safety, public service and livelihoods of people, whether in Alabama, West Virginia, or elsewhere. The clamor to cut American Rescue Act benefits to save companies or to put people “back to work” fails to consider the need for a living wage, affordable housing, decent family life and healthy and safe working conditions. Examples abound, such as the Covid-19 outbreak in the meatpacking industry that was ordered to be ignored.
For coal miners, MSHA’s new Covid-19 guidance announced in May is only voluntary and provides no guarantee of healthy working conditions. According to Mike Tony in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the MSHA guidelines “suggest mine operators conduct hazard assessments of mine sites, identify measures that limit Covid-19 transmission, ensure that miners who are infected or potentially infected are separated and sent home from the mine, and protect miners who raise Covid-19-related concerns from retaliation.”
On West Virginia Day, the state requirement of those vaccinated to wear a face covering will be lifted without any clarity on how to detect those who still might be contagious or susceptible since less than half of the state’s population has been vaccinated.
Workers are justified in considering programs for economic recovery skeptically. Human beings have the right to jobs that will allow them to keep their families adequately fed, housed, clothed and healthy. Any policy that does not clearly address and provide assurances to everyone for those humane priorities is incomplete and insufficient.
Dr. John David is executive director of SALS, the Southern Appalachia Labor School, whose mission is to provide education, research, and linkages for working class and disenfranchised peoples in order to promote understanding, empowerment and change.