DW | The White House's involvement in the Amazon union drive was a big surprise. I mean, we know where it could have originated, the union talked to the White House; they have kind of an open door with Biden that they didn't have with Trump. We know that Faiz Shakir, Bernie Sanders’ campaign chairman, and his group, Perfect Union, got involved. So, there was public pressure.
The fact that the White House and the president released that video was a big deal to people. And, he made this decision to get involved very early on in his presidency. It was within his first 50 days. He decided to do what hadn't been done before and give a message in support of the union. It was a very careful message. The new labor secretary, Marty Walsh, when asked specifically about Amazon, responded in more general tones.
But, no matter what happens, if you are in for a penny, you are in for a pound.
A lot of previous presidents, including Barack Obama, said a lot less about these union drives and, in doing so, limited their own exposure. If the drive didn't work, people didn't say that the president supported something that didn't work. The fact that Biden made a statement, early on, when it wasn't clear how this was going to go, is a real political statement of what they thought was important.
frank | How do you think his background plays a role in this?
He's always leaned in really hard and identified with workers in the same way he's tried to identify with different civil rights movements. Joe Biden has always wanted to be seen as the kind of person who is coming from Scranton, who has lived through the sixties, and who wants to jump to the front of the march if there is a struggle happening.
He frames everything in terms of fairness. He's not as natural as other members of the party in talking about this. When Bernie Sanders talks about this, for example, he talks about greed, he names CEOs, he says nobody deserves that much money, he talks about a maximum wage and how there should be no billionaires at all. Biden doesn't go that far. Biden has never gone after Jeff Bezos. He's never gone after individual heads of companies the way that Sanders does. He does this sort of a "Hey man, these guys are under assault, somebody needs to stick up for them."
That is something that he has always wanted to be part of his brand. Even when he was voting for trade deals like NAFTA as a Senator, he was never really comfortable. He had the same ideological mindset as a lot of the Democrats in the eighties and the nineties. He did it because he saw that that was the way things were moving and he voted strategically. But, the stuff that fired him up was when he could side with workers. It is the same thing with the projects he took on under Obama when he was Vice President.
During the Democratic primary, he didn't get the same amount of labor support that Hillary Clinton did, but, Sanders didn't get it either. There wasn't the same sort of a landslide of labor to get in early and say, this is our candidate. Instead, they were demanding more of the candidates.
I would cover presidential primary events with the Teamsters in Cedar Rapids or the Building Trades in DC and you would kind of look to the level of applause as an indicator. The interesting thing is that at those events Sanders would lay out the things he did and what he wanted to pass. Biden would go on at length about non-compete clauses and about wage theft and things like that. It was less, "I have studied all of the papers on this and I've decided this is my policy," and more of "this seems unfair and I'm against this thing."
I think the Democratic Party is increasingly understanding what labor can mean for them strategically.
Republicans have gotten kind of tangled up on labor. They have done better with union households, but they are basically the party of deregulation still. They've never really moved on the labor part of their messaging. That makes it easier for Biden to compete for these workers. When it comes down to it, Republicans want “right-to-work." Josh Hawley, who branded himself as a working-class candidate, for example, supports a national right-to-work.
Biden was very concerned with winning back more union households. Union workers were saying, “Democrats had the presidency for 16 years. What do they do for us?” Biden didn't have all the answers that labor wanted, but he was making a lot of specific promises about how he was going to act. He talked about infrastructure spending and about how he was going to run the NLRB and how he was going to approach employers. It was less than Sanders did, but that's way more than Democrats had done in the past.
I mean, the McCain/Romney era Republicans had no appeal to the sort of voters who voted for Obama twice and then voted for Trump. Biden only peeled back maybe 10% of them depending on where you're talking about, but it has made life easier for Democrats.
This fight has in large part been framed in the context of continuing a battle for civil rights. Do you see Biden lean into that messaging?
Biden did not really lean to the racial justice aspect or the civil rights legacy aspect of this labor fight. When the congressional delegation here came down a couple of weeks before the vote, they were much more explicit. Someone like Jamal Bowman or Cori Bush is much more comfortable saying that than Biden. That is the thing about Biden. He basically sets boundaries. He says what his position is and backs off and lets the action happen without his constant commentary. It's very different than Trump in that way too. And that's different than the Sanders position. And it's different than what Warren said her position would be as president.
Can you give us context on how or why you started covering this story?
I started covering the Amazon drive because of the president and members of Congress intervening. I mean, labor decided to get involved months before, but the fact that Democrats were getting involved was new. It has been interesting to monitor their investment in this over other Democratic Party causes.
There's a little bit of intervention from the Democrats, but not, I'd say equal to what Amazon is doing. They are not the advertisements on TV. We all know the Democratic party is kind of involved, but it is not the same political project that I've seen in other places.
There are two stories that kind of were happening at the same time; they have merged, but not completely. One is this labor drive, which is smaller than most drives that have succeeded. It is not overwhelming. You don't see labor signs everywhere you go. But, on the other hand, the level of national involvement is kind of new.
Had Biden said nothing, there would have been a story, but it wouldn't involve the White House, it wouldn't involve the Democratic Party, and it might not involve the PRO Act.
And I think that's going to change because of this.
New interview w/ @daveweigel @PaydayReport— frank news (@FrankNewsUS) April 6, 2021
"The White House's involvement with the Amazon drive was a big surprise ... Previous presidents, Obama comes to mind, said a lot less. The fact that Biden did that early on is a political statement of what they thought was important." pic.twitter.com/MwYlmqE4xQ
That was a big decision Biden made to be a part of this.
Right. And that political story is interesting. The story here is much more independent. A lot of the people who've come in to help canvas are from smaller groups. You have Black Lives Matter and DSA groups from the area, but you don't have the Democratic Party getting involved in a huge way. I think that is something that people will revisit after the vote.
Should the Democratic Party, like most left parties in the world, be very involved with labor? Should they always take the side of labor?
Most social democratic parties are labor parties and they build up from there. Their coalition includes labor unions. In the British Labour Party, for example, labor has a role in electing the leadership. That is not the case here. That's the conversation I think they're going to start having when this votes over. For example, if there are, and the union says there are, hundreds of people around the country calling them saying, "Hey, I have some questions about what I can do at my fulfillment center in my town," that will be a question for Democrats.
And if Amazon wins, do you get spooked? Amazon has been very punchy in their PR. They might say that a bunch of elite Democrats stood with the union and the workers stood with Amazon. That is very comfortable turf for Amazon to be on, and that leaves a big question open for Democrats. If the union succeeds, throw all of that out the window. I think the lesson that everyone would take in that case would be that if it takes less than a three-minute video from the president to get momentum for something like this, then we should keep doing that. As we talk, I don't know the answer to that question. I think that is something that is going to be answered when the votes are in.
These interviews with Mike Wright, a striking coal miner at Warrior Met Inc, and Larry Spencer, the Vice President of United Mine Workers District 20, were conducted and condensed by franknews and Payday Report.
frank | Can you tell us about what's going on here?
Mike Wright | We are on an unfair labor practice strike with Warrior Met Coal Inc, which we work for. That's why we're here.
Basically, five years ago, the company went into bankruptcy. And we were presented with a contract five years ago in which a lot of things were subpar and below the standards that we were used to. But, that is what was offered to us and we had to take it in order to keep the union.
We basically worked for five years under that contract and brought this company out of bankruptcy. We brought them back into a competitive place in the coal market.
And now, we are out of that old contract and trying to get a new one. But, they are not offering what we want. Actually, we don't even have a contract right now. We are in negotiations right now. We basically just want the company to take care of us.
What do you want?
Me, personally, I want 100% insurance coverage. We had 100% insurance in the old contract back in 2011. When I went to the doctor, I only had to pay $20 for a copay. My youngest daughter, who is 13 years old, was born under that insurance, and all I paid was $12. I paid $5 for a prescription. I would go to CVS and that's all I paid.
Now, under our current insurance, I will go to the doctor and pay a deductible. I still get bills in the mail. Every time I go to the doctor, they draw blood, and I still have to pay for those. I'm still behind on that.
We need full coverage because when you go into the ground, you're inhaling all these diesel fumes. You're gonna get sick. It happens. Even though we wear personal protective equipment, you're still gonna get sick.
Another thing is that we are penalized for going to the doctor. AAt most companies, you can just bring in a doctor's note as an excuse. Here, they want to give us a strike or penalize us. A doctor's excuse is not enough. I think that's wrong. I mean, you got to you can't take the human element out of this.
We deserve time and a half after we work eight hours. We deserve holiday pay. When we work on holidays right now, we get paid straight time. And I think that's just absolutely ridiculous. I just think the company should understand that we're people and that we have families we want to spend time with.
We've done a great job by getting this company back to where they need to be. It's our time now, to be paid what we're supposed to be paid. And to have great health insurance. I just think it's time for that man. And that's why we're here today striking.
How do you feel?
I guess the exciting part of it is that you don't really know what's gonna happen. We are here to make a statement, and to let them know that we mean business. They know that we mean business now. I think they knew this day was going to come, but I don't think they knew just how big this gonna be. We got a lot of people that are on our team.
We just want to be treated like we're supposed to be and get what we deserve. I think we deserve the best. We're coal miners, It takes a special person to be a coal miner. We do something that nobody does. We go on the ground, we get resources for energy. I mean, this is our resource for energy today. I think that coal is always going to be here. I know, they are trying to go to another type of resource, but I think cold is always going to be around. I mean, God blessed us and put it here for us to go down there to get it to provide for our families. And so that's what we do. And I think we do a great job at it.
I have met some of the greatest people in my life here at this place. I've met some great friends. Especially the older guys that were here that have now retired. With those guys, you were basically laughing and enjoying your work all day long. We got a lot of pride in ourselves. I think everybody would go to bat for you at the end of the day. If something happens, we all gonna come together. That is just the type of people we are man.
It's a great place to work. I just think we just need to be treated and paid and compensated for what we've done. The people that are on the executive board and are in these higher-up positions are there because of what we've done. And they're getting paid and living the life that they're living because of us. If we don't go out and do what we do, they can't live the way they live. So that's just the way I feel about it.
What does it feel like to be a part of the union?
It's just a special bond. When you are part of this union, you can meet somebody in a totally different part of the country who is in the union, and there is an automatic bond. You feel that connection because this a brotherhood.
Coal miners are just a totally different breed of a person. Two coal miners could be having a conversation and it sounds like two engineers or two doctors sitting there talking. Nobody knows what you're talking about. You can't understand unless you've been there and done it. We have this bond because we know what it feels like when you go down there that you're breathing coal dust and all that stuff change here and changes when you go down.
But being a part of the union is a great thing. I love being a part of this thing. And I just believe in my heart that we're gonna get what we want. I believe God is going to bless us to have what we are supposed to have. That's it in a nutshell, man.
"Its like a family," says Warrior Met coal miner Mike Wright on unique 100-year old history of racially integrated coal miners union in hills of Northern Alabama.— Mike Elk (@MikeElk) April 13, 2021
1,100 of his fellow coal miners in Alabama have been on strike for nearly 2 weeks. https://t.co/r8hltzRuLa pic.twitter.com/llQAogAEJi
Larry | Unions always help out with the health and safety aspect of a job. With coal mining, we keep a watch on coal dust, we keep a watch on methane levels and we try to make sure that companies are following the law. Most companies, if they can cut corners, will cut corners. We try to make sure they don't cut that corner, and that they keep all the people safe — not just the union guys.
When you go down the hill, and you'll go across railroad tracks back up, you'll see a church. On the left-hand side, there's a monument. There was a coal mine there, but it blew up back in 2001 and it killed 13 people. It was devastating for the whole community. When we're fighting for our people's safety, we're fighting to make it safe for everybody.
Every year in September, we try to remember those coal miners and all coal miners who have lost their lives, by putting on a pretty large memorial service. It reaches beyond just our community. And it's just … it's something that you have to be there to understand.
But I am concerned about some of the people that we have working in this area right now. I'm just not too sure if they learned anything. I see things that are happening that scare me. I see some unsafe things going on. You know, this could happen again.
frank | Where do most of the folks that work here come from?
Some of them come from right around here and some come from other states. This company tends to go out to other states first. It's not that we don't want people from other states, but we would like them to hire from Alabama first. But people come in from all areas and they are good people. Off the top of my head, we've got some from West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois. The big majority are from Alabama. Yeah.
Does it feel like a learning curve or a struggle to get solidarity and to get interest in a union?
Yeah. There is. I don't think they know the importance of union, some of them. Some of them do. Some of them grew up in union families. Times have changed so much that it's hard to show as much solidarity.
But, when it comes right down to it, solidarity is there. You can go up that road and look at that picket line and you will see the solidarity. We are talking about 15 different locations. Some places have 15 to 20 people striking, some places have 30 to 40.
Why do you think more and more people, especially young people, are interested in unions?
Well, to put it bluntly, I think because the management treats them like crap. A lot of the management teams at these mines treat you like a substandard person. These young guys are realizing, I don't have to live like that, I can do better than that. People are starting to realize that there's something better. These supervisors don't talk to these young guys like men, they talk down to them. They treat you like a machine. They demand you to do things with no consideration to whether that thing is safe.
Some of this is similar to what I have heard from people at Amazon in terms of bullying and that sort of thing.
There's a point in your life where you realize you're not a teenager anymore, you're not a child anymore. You realize that you are a man and that you have to take your destiny into your own hands. I think that a lot of these guys are getting to that stage. When these young men come in here, they know that they have responsibility. They know that they have a family to take care of. When they go underground with a supervisor that screams and hollers at him, that is, first of all, dangerous. When you put someone in that type of position, it causes mistakes. It is never good for these supervisors to be harassing and intimidating their employees.
But, the supervisor gets away with being intimidating because these young guys are worried about going back home to their family and supplying them with a house and a car and food and clothes.
So what we do is try to get them with an older hand. We let them see how that guy handles himself when the supervisor is trying to intimidate him. Eventually, those guys start realizing, “Hey, he doesn't have to put up with that kind of treatment, so I don't have to either.”